Charles Sobhraj: The Story Of The Infamous Bikini Killer
My first introduction to Charles Sobhraj was a couple of summers ago, when I walked into Goa’s O’Coqueiro Restaurant.
It was there in 1986 that the alleged killer had been waiting for a call when he was ambushed by Inspector Madhukar Zende.
He’d escaped from Delhi’s Tihar Jail, a maximum security prison, only two weeks before.
But it was by no stroke of luck that the Bikini Killer had been caught.
In 1976, he’d been arrested after a botched mass burglary attempt and received a 12-year sentence.
By 1985, his jail term in India was at its end, and he was due to be extradited to Thailand where he faced the death penalty for several murders.
He was well-versed in Thai law, however, and knew that the charges against him would be automatically dropped if he was not brought to trial within 20 years of the crime.
He knew he could elude his fate if his prison term was somehow extended, and the only way to do that was staring at him in the face: Escape.
He was a quite a pro at it too, having made several successful escapes from high-security prisons before.
In 1971, he jumped from a window of a Rhodes police station and faked an appendicitis attack to flee from captivity in Bombay.
In 1972, he drugged the prison guard and left behind his young wife in a dirty cell in Kabul.
Arrested on a crime spree in Greece and Turkey, Sobhraj once again managed to escape, this time leaving his younger brother André to serve his sentence.
It was this talent for disguise, slipping out of prisons and evading justice that earned him the sobriquet – ‘The Serpent’.
In the weeks that led up to his escape from Delhi, Sobhraj made sure there was a steady incoming supply of presents for the Tihar guards, so they weren’t the least bit suspicious when his accomplice arrived with trays of grapes and barfi on 16th March 1986, the anniversary of his tenth year in prison.
Unbeknownst to them, however, the food had been laced with a sleeping drug, and 30 minutes later, Sobhraj was speeding towards the Rajasthan desert.
When he allowed himself to be caught shortly after, his term was duly lengthened enough for him to avoid extradition, and he went right back to his leisurely prison life – bribing, threatening and blackmailing officials to get his way.
After his release in 1997, he returned to Paris and enjoyed the life of a celebrity.
Charles Sobhraj was born in troubled times to an Indian father and a Vietnamese mother in Saigon. He went to live in France after his mother married a French officer, but his heart beat for the rough streets of the home he knew.
Charismatic and charming to a fault, Sobhraj had always been a handsome man with big, alluring eyes and lips that begged for a kiss.
And he knew how to use them to his advantage.
Encouraged by the attention he received, his already delusional mind began thinking of ways to make money off his prison memoirs.
When journalist Andrew Anthony interviewed him for the Observer, he even boasted of his romantic exploits in Tihar.
He preferred intelligent women, he said, and slept with many of them, including his lawyer, Sneh Senger.
After his first wife, Chantal Compagnon, was released and moved with their daughter to America, she was eventually replaced by a French-Canadian woman named Marie-Andrée Leclerc.
Quiet and emotionally needy, she soon became his mistress and accomplice.
In 1975, Sobhraj and Leclerc were staying at a resort in Pattaya, when Sobhraj met Ajay Chowdhury. He moved in with them and what followed was a killing spree.
Fluent in several languages, the conman had the perfect plan.
Befriending young (probably stoned) trusting backpackers he found along the hippie trail through Thailand, Nepal and India, he would pose as their knight in shining armour.
He’d advise them on where to eat and how to buy gemstones, and sometimes even put them up at his Bangkok apartment.
His victims, at least 10 of them, probably thought of Charles Sobhraj as the kindest man in the world before he drugged them, drove them to the countryside and killed them, disfiguring their corpses after.
Pocketing their belongings and identities, he would then travel the world using their passports and money.
The first known victim was Teresa Knowlton, whose body was found burned on Pattaya Beach.
Jennie Bollivar was found drowned in a tidal pool in the Gulf of Thailand wearing a flower-patterned bikini.
Vitali Hakim’s body was found burned on the road to the Pattaya resort.
Soon after his girlfriend, Charmayne Carrou, came looking for him, she was found drowned wearing a flower-patterned bikini similar to Bollivar’s.
When the investigators connected the two crimes, Sobhraj became known as ‘The Bikini Killer’.
The bodies of two Dutch students, Henk Bintanja and his fiancée Cornelia Hemker, were found strangled and burned on 16th December 1975.
In late December 1975, he and Leclerc travelled to Nepal, where they met two travellers, Laurent Ormond Carriere, and Connie Bronzich, whom they befriended. Their burned bodies found on 22nd December 1975.
In India, Sobhraj murdered an Israeli student called Avoni Jacob, for his passport. That same year, 1976, he befriended Jean-Luc Solomon in Delhi and fatally poisoned him.
The killings only ended when he was arrested for manslaughter, and for drugging 22 French students in an attempt to rob them that backfired.
“I can justify the murders to myself,” he once said. “I never killed good people.”
Bidden by his beguiling smile, you almost want to believe him.
Even now, Sobhraj shows little remorse for the lives he’s ruined. The storm raging inside him carefully concealed.
In 2004, he was arrested in Nepal and found guilty for the 1975 murder of Connie Jo Bronzich. In 2014, he received a second life-sentence for the murder of her friend Laurent Carrière.
Sobhraj’s lawyer, Shakuntala Thapa, whose daughter Nihita he married in 2008 says, “He was in Nepal to complete a research project on water. Very conveniently, the police put him in prison.”
But in a 2014 interview with Andrew Anthony, Sobhraj himself revealed that he was there “for a meeting with a major Chinese criminal.”
“I was looking to set up a heroin deal on behalf of the Taliban”, he said.
Now 72 and weary, he’s asking to be released as per the new guidelines of Nepal’s Jail Manual.
“I did not commit any murders, I am being convicted on the basis of some strange suspicion,” said Sobhraj, in complete contradiction of the confession he made in Richard Neville’s book, The Life And Crimes Of Charles Sobhraj.
He’s got away with so much for so long, it’s almost possible that he thinks he is invincible.
“Always remember that their desire to keep me locked up is no match to my will to be free,” he once said.
I wouldn’t be surprised if he were to pull a Houdini and disappear again.
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