Charles Sobhraj is a French serial killer, swindler, and thief who is famous for executing his crimes on the hippie trail of South Asia during the 1970s. Several media portals and news organizations often refer to him as ‘The Bikini Killer,’ ‘The Splitting Killer,’ and ‘The Serpent.’ The Telegraph
After his parent’s separation, his mother got married to her boyfriend in French Indochina, which led him to grow up between Indochina and France. In France, he lived in Marseilles. His schooling took place at a French boarding school. In his school days, he was always missing from his class due to which he had low grades. However, when he came to school, he was a trouble for the school authorities. In his teens, he was baptized as a Catholic and was renamed ‘Charles Gurmukh Sobhraj’ in the church records. Crime Library Scroll.in
Height (approx.): 5′ 8″
Hair Color: Salt & Pepper
Eye Color: Brown
Family & Ethnicity
Parents & Siblings
His father, Sobhraj Hatchard Bavani, was an Indian tailor, moneylender, and owner of two tailoring shops. His mother, Tran Loang Phun (also Song in some sources) was a bar hostess and shop assistant. Both his parents were unmarried, and after the birth of Charles, his father abandoned Charles and his mother, and his mother blamed Charles for her separation from her lover. Her mother soon found a lover in Lieutenant Alphonse Darreau, an officer in the French army in French Indochina, and they both got married. Darreau adopted Charles and was a good father to him; Darreau did not give Charles his name. After his mother and adoptive father had children, Charles found that he was being neglected and began drifting away from his home. His younger half-brother, André, accompanied Charles in his crimes. After Charles received his first prison sentence, his parents thought that they couldn’t handle him and abandoned him.
Relationships, Wife & Children
In his teens, Charles met Chantal Desnoyers in Paris. In 1964, Charles and Desnoyers welcomed their son, Pranck. In 1969, Charles met a young Parisian woman named Chantal Compagnon, who came from a conservative background. Soon, Charles began pursuing Compagnon. When Desnoyers learned of Compagnon and Charles, she left Charles. Soon, Charles asked Compagnon to marriage, and eight months after his proposal, Charles and Compagnon got married.
On the day Charles and Compagnon married, Desnoyers became a mother to their second child, a girl named Muriel Anouk.
In 1970, Sobhraj left France with Compagnon, who was pregnant at that time. In Bombay, Compagnon and Charles welcomed their daughter, Usha Sobhraj. Soon Compagnon also left Charles, getting sick of his never-ending habit of committing crimes. After Compagnon, Charles continued to swindle travelers, and on the way, he met Marie-Andrée Leclerc in Kashmir, India. Charles acted as a tour guide and made Marie fall in love with him. After the journey, Marie became the biggest accomplice in his crimes.
During his prison days in Delhi, he was flirting with his lawyer Sneh Sengar. He was also engaged to two women at the same time, Jacqueline Kuster (German imprisoned on drug charges) and a Punjabi woman (who fell in love with Charles after reading a book on him).
He was also flirting with multiple women at the same time, including a Madrasi woman (whom Charles had sent a marriage proposal). In 2008, Charles announced his engagement to Nihita Biswas, daughter of the lawyer of Charles, Shakuntala Thapa. Nihita met Charles as a translator for her mother and him (Charles). On October 9, 2008, news outlets claimed that Nihita and Charles had married during the Bada Dashami. The Nepalese jail authorities on the next day dismissed the claims and stated that they performed a tika ceremony, a part of Bada Dashmi.
Charles Sobhraj began committing small crimes in his teen years. One of his early crimes includes him convincing his half-brother (Andre) to rob a shopkeeper. In 1963, Sobhraj went to jail for the first time, charged with burglary at Poissy prison near Paris. As a prisoner in Poissy, he influenced prison officials into granting him special favors like keeping books in his cell. While in Poissy prison, he met a prison volunteer named Felix d’Escogne, a young man with connections to high society personnel in Paris. After getting paroled, Charles accompanied Felix to high society life while involving himself with the Parisian underworld (committing a series of burglaries and scams). During the same time, he met Chantel Compagnon. Charles proposed to Chantal Compagnon for marriage, and the day he proposed Chantal, he was sent to Poissy prison on charges of car theft. After his return from prison, Charles married Chantal, and they decided to leave France for Asia, fearing French authorities. Chantal and Charles used fake documents to escape France, robbing travelers in Eastern Europe. In 1970, Charles and Chantal arrived in Mumbai, where Charles decided to quit crime for his wife and children. However, Charles failed to leave the ways of crime and soon indulged in car thefts, gambling, and smuggling businesses. He even involved his family in gambling. In 1971, Charles and his family fled to Kabul, where he established contacts for illegal gun smuggling. Reportedly, he then fled to Rawalpindi, Pakistan, stealing a car by drugging its driver to death. It was around this time, he was considered to have a curio shop in Bangkok, where Charles lured his victims and stole their belonging by drugging; sometimes the victims died by drug overdose. In 1973, he returned with his family to India and was arrested and imprisoned at Tihar Jail, Delhi, for carrying out an unsuccessful armed robbery at a jewelry store at Hotel Ashoka, Delhi. After a fortnight, Charles faked appendicitis and managed to escape with the help of his wife.
He ran away from place to place with his family and ransacked travelers on the hippie trail between Europe and Eastern Asia. In Kabul, he was arrested and kept at a prison, where he faked illness again and escaped the prison. Only this time, he did not take his family with him. Charles’ next two years were spent running away from authorities; he used stolen passports and traveled to Eastern Europe and the Middle East. He was later joined by his brother, Andre, and together, they coordinated robberies in Greece and Turkey. In Athens, both the brother were arrested. To let Sobhraj escape, Andre posed as Sobhraj and Sobhraj as Andre. While Sobhraj fled Athens, his brother was handed over to Afgan authorities and he (Andre) served his 18-year prison sentence.
Known Murders by Charles
Teresa Knowlton (also Jennie Bollivar in some sources)
She was a Seattle-based woman and the first-known Sobhraj’s murder victim. In 1975, she was found drowned wearing a bikini (floral) in the tidal pool in the Gulf of Thailand. Months after her death, her autopsy proved that she was murdered. Before the autopsy, Teresa was believed to have accidentally drowned while swimming.
He was a nomadic Turkish Sephardic Jew and his burnt body was found on the road to a Pattaya resort.
A woman who was killed by strangling in Bangkok.
Henricus “Henk” Bintanja and Cornelia “Cocky” Hemker
They were the Dutch couple who were poisoned and cured by Charles. After Vitali Hakim’s girlfriend traveled to Thailand to investigate her boyfriend’s disappearance, the couple was taken out of Charles’ apartment. On December 16, 1975, the couple’s bodies were found strangled and burned.
She was Vitali Hakim’s French girlfriend and was murdered by Charles when she visited his apartment to investigate Vitali’s disappearance. Charmayne was found drowned in the same condition as Teresa; she also wore a floral bikini. Although there were no connections between their (Charmayne and Teresa) murders at that time, media reports dubbed their murderers ‘The Bikini Killer’ because of their similar murder style.
Laurent Ormond Carrière (also identified as Laddie DuParr in some sources)
He was a 26-year old Canadian and murdered in Nepal.
Connie Bronzich (also identified as Annabella Tremont in some sources)
She was a 29-year-old American murdered in Nepal.
He was an Israeli scholar and was killed by Charles in Calcutta, India.
He was a Frenchman. With an intention to steal from him, Charles drugged him and left him dying at a South Delhi Hotel.
Charles in Thailand, India & Nepal
In 1975, Charles moved to Thailand, where he embraced gem selling and drug dealing. In Thailand, he came with an idea to start his criminal family/clan. His first addition was Marie-Andrée Leclerc, who was spellbound by Charles and became his biggest accomplice in crimes.
To gain more followers in his clan, he devised a new con, which comprised of Charles selecting his victims, putting them in problem, and then solving their problems. The con was a success as foreign tourists were lured, converted to his followers, and later Charles stole from them. Charles had his base in an apartment complex called Kanit House in Bangkok, Thailand.
In one case, he helped the French policemen Yannick and Jacques recover their passports, which he had stolen earlier. Dominique Renelleau, another victim whose apparent dysentery was cured by Charles; according to Dominique, he fell sick after drinking a potion given by Marie-Andrée.
At the same time, he was joined by a young Indian man named Ajay Chowdhury, who was a fellow criminal and became his right-hand man.
His first known murders in Thailand took place in 1975 and are believed to be motivated by victims’ threat to expose Charles. While Charles claims that all of them were cases of accidental overdose. Charles is known to have killed more than 20 people in his lifetime and only a few of them are known. On December 18, 1975, Charles and Marie-Andrée entered Nepal on the passports of Hemker and Bintaja, and the same day, their bodies were identified by investigators.
In Nepal, after murdering Laurent and Connie between December 21 and 22, 1975, they (Charles and Marie) went to Thailand on the formers passports. Upon his return to Thailand, Charles’ followers (Yannick, Jacques, and Rennelleau) grew suspicious of him after they discovered Pattaya victims’ documents at Charles’ apartment; they reported Charles to the police. Charles returned to Bangkok in 1976, before fleeing to India (where he murdered Avoni), Singapore, and back to India. Upon his entry into Bangkok, he was interrogated by the Thai police, but no charges were pressed against him as Thai authorities feared that it would bring negative light on Thailand’s tourism. Meanwhile, Dutch diplomats Herman Knippenberg and Angela Kane (his then-wife) were investigating the Pattaya murders and began building a case against Charles. After a month-long investigation, they found full evidence of murder and drugging against Charles.
The trio (Charles, Ajay, and Marie) next made a move to Malaysia, where Charles sent Ajay to collect gemstones. Aja delivered the gems to Charles, which was the last sight of Ajay. Ajay’s remains were never found but it is claimed that Charles murdered Ajay to continue his journey to Geneva. Back in Bombay, Sobhraj wished to create a new criminal group and began by adding Barbara Smith and Mary Ellen Eather in his gang.
In July 1976, Sobhraj and his three-women gang drugged a group of French postgraduate students. Three of them grew suspicious of Charles, overpowered him, and reported them (Charles and the gang) to the police. Smith and Eather confessed everything during police interrogation, and the four criminals were sent to Tihar Jail in Delhi, awaiting trial.
Conviction & Prison Time
Charles Sobhraj’s trial was a sight-worth-watching with Charles hiring and firing lawyers at will, bringing his paroled brother (Andre) to assist him, and putting on a hunger strike. For the murders of the people in India, Avoni Jacob and Jean-Luc Solomon, Charles received a twelve-year prison sentence. Marie-Andree also received a twelve-year prison sentence after she was found guilty of drugging French students and murdering Jacob. After Marie was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 1983, she was sent back to Canada for treatment; she died in Canada in April 1984. Smith and Eather attempted suicide in prison two years before their trial. Charles lived a luxurious prison life in India; he had a television, a room, and gourmet food, something that can only be imagined in Tihar. According to some reports, he had gems concealed in his body when he entered the prison, which he used to bribe the prison guards. Charles befriended prisoners and gave interviews to western authors and journalists. In prison, he even indulged in sexual activities with Marie, and female lawyers and visitors. According to Julie Clarke, Charles had his story sold to a businessman in Hong Kong, who sold it to Random House publications, which sent Julie and Richard Neville (Julie’s husband) to interview Charles. According to Clarke, Charles’ emissaries (who arranged the interview with Charles in prison) always kept them under surveillance. In prison, Charles discussed his murders with Clark and Neville and said,
If I have ever killed, or have ordered killings, then it was purely for reasons of business, just a job, like a general in the army.”
While Charles was convicted in India, Thailand issued a 20-year arrest warrant on Charles. By the time, his sentence was about to end in India, the Thai arrest warrant was still valid. To tackle this, in March 1986, Charles planned a prison escape by throwing a party (for prison inmates and authorities) and drugging the food. Charles escaped the prison and came to Goa. In Goa, he was arrested again by Inspector Madhukar Zende of the Mumbai Police at O Coqueiro restaurant. According to a source, Zende approached Charles, grabbed his arm, and said,
Hello Charles, how are you?”
Just as Charles wanted, his prison sentence was extended to ten years. On February 17, 1997, at the age of 52, Charles was released from prison. By the time he was released, most of the warrants, evidence, and witnesses against him were lost. Since no country wanted to take him in, Indian authorities decided to return Charles to France.
Recapture & Life Imprisonment
After Charles returned to France, he lived a comfortable life in suburban Paris. He hired a publicity agent to charge interviewers and photographers a large sum of money for his interviews and pictures. Charles reportedly sold the rights to a movie based on his life for US$15 million (equivalent to $20 million in 2020).
He then traveled to Nepal with an excuse to set up a mineral water business and make a documentary on Nepalese culture. On September 1, 2003, Charles was reported to be gambling at a casino in Kathmandu by a journalist for The Himalayan Times. For two weeks, the journalist followed Charles and wrote articles on him with photographs in The Himalayan Times. After reading the reports in The Himalayan Times, the Nepal police raided the casino, arresting Sobhraj (who was gambling there) and reopening the double murder case from 1975 against him. In an interview, Charles talked about his arrival and arrest in Nepal and quoted,
This is a huge miscarriage of justice. I came to Nepal to make a documentary. The judicial system is archaic and unjust. I arrived here with my own passport under my real name. That proves I have nothing to hide. Who else would dare to travel as Charles Sobhraj? The police have no evidence. They can’t prove I have been to Nepal before. I am innocent.”
Charles was arrested by Ganesh K.C., the Deputy Superintendent of Police who saw the sight of Sobhraj’s brutality as a 10-year old. In an interview, Ganesh said,
Charles Sobhraj drugged, killed, and partially burned 26-year-old Canadian Laurent Carrière and 29-year-old American Connie Bronzich in 1975. I was playing near Kathmandu airport. The morning fog was dense. It was quiet as a grave. Suddenly I saw the police gathered around a body – the naked, burned corpse of a young white woman. The body was charred, except for the head. That’s how police identified the victim as Connie Bronzich. When I joined the force, I told my wife and children that one day I would arrest Charles Sobhraj.”
On August 20, 2004, the Kathmandu District Court convicted Charles for the murders of Bronzich and Carrière and gave him a life imprisonment sentence. Sobhraj appealed against the judgment, claiming that he was convicted without a trial. Later, his lawyers announced that Chantal Compagnon was filing a case against the French government for not aiding her husband before the European Court of Human Rights. In 2005, the Patan Appellate Court confirmed Sobhraj’s sentence. In late 2007, Sobhraj’s lawyer reportedly pleaded to the then French president Nicolas Sarkozy for intervention with Nepal. In July 2010, Nepal’s Supreme Court postponed the verdict of appeal filed by Charles (on the district court’s conviction). On July 10, 2010, the Supreme Court upholding the verdict against Charles confirmed Charles’ life imprisonment sentence with an additional one year, a fine of Rs. 2000 for illegally entering Nepal, and seizure of all his property.
In September 2014, the Bhaktapur District Court gave its conviction on Charles in the murder of Canadian tourist Laurent Carrière. As of April 2021, Charles is in a Nepali prison in poor health condition.
- Food: Chicken Cafreal
- Actor: Charlie Chaplin
- Philosopher: Friedrich Nietzsche
- Book(s): ‘The Will to Power’ by Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil by Friedrich Nietzsche
- Charles loves reading and writing. He spent most of his prison time reading and writing. In prison, he made sure that he was provided with books. In Tihar Jail in Delhi, he had a library for himself.
- A student of psychology, Charles controlled people by methods invented by the philosopher and psychologist René Le Senne. Growing up, he read the book ‘The Will to Power’ by Friedrich Nietzsche, which helped him get into the mind of his victims and people in general. When the investigators searched his apartment in Thai, they reportedly found the book ‘Beyond Good and Evil’ by Friedrich Nietzsche in his possessions.
- Apart from the names that Charles used in his lifetime, most of the names were from the passports he stole. Two of his most popular names were Alain Gauthier and Robert Grainer. Crime Library In an account, he called himself Sob. GQ Magazine
- It is believed that ‘Charles’ took the name ‘Charles’ after baptism because he was a fan of English actor and filmmaker Charles Spencer Chaplin, widely popular as Charlie Chaplin. Charles took pleasure in mimicking Chaplin.
- Charles was a disobedient and unruly child, but smart and charismatic at the same time.
- While living in Marseilles, France, ships leaving Indochina were accessible to Charles, who wanted to leave Franch to be with his birth father. He was successful in getting out of Marseilles two times; he was found and returned to the port both times.
- Charles is a martial arts enthusiast and knew karate, a skill he often used to defend himself in prison.
- Charles Sobhraj is popular for his hold over women, both in and out of jail. Women found themselves bewitched by his piercing gaze, muscular build, confidence, and dangerous reputation.
- Charles is known for his provocative selection of lawyers. He was once advocated by Jacques Vergès, a Siamese-born French lawyer known for defending war criminals like Nazi Klaus Barbie, terrorist Carlos the Jackal, and Holocaust denier Roger Garaudy. He is also a client of Isabelle Coutant-Peyne, a French lawyer who is married to terrorist Carlos the Jackal.
- Nihita Biswas, Charles’ reported wife, has claimed Charles to have never been convicted of any murder; she called out to the media for addressing Charles as a serial killer. After the Supreme Court of Nepal’s judgment against Charles, Nihita and Shakuntala Thapa (Nihita’s mother) claimed that the judiciary was corrupt. For their remarks, charges were pressed against the mother and daughter and they were sent to judicial custody for contempt of court.
- Once, in the Nepal jail (where he was kept), his prison cell was visited by an assassin who reportedly came to kill Charles’ prison inmate on the orders of a bigwig. According to rumors, the assassin had met Charles before the incident and the assassination was plotted by Charles.
- Many books have been written on the life and crimes of Sobhraj; Serpentine (1979) by Thomas Thompson; The Life and Crimes of Charles Sobhraj (1980) by Richard Neville and Julie Clarke, reissued as On the Trail of the Serpent; The Bikini Murders by Noel Barber in the Reader’s Digest collection ‘Great Cases of Interpol’ (1982).
- A few months before her death in 1984, Marie-Andrée Leclerc wrote ‘Je Reviens,’ a book in which she explained her side of the story, claiming to be innocent and victim of Sobhraj’s conspiracy. She even claimed that she never loved Charles. The La Presse journalist Huguette Laprise, who was initially sympathetic towards Marie, came to India in search of answers about her and concluded,
You can not be in an apartment and there are people who are chained in your apartment without seeing them. After all these years, what I can say is that this girl had a very very sad, abominable destiny.”
- In 1989, the Australian TV film ‘Shadow of the Cobra’ was based on the book ‘The Life and Crimes of Charles Sobhraj’ (1980) by Richard Neville and Julie Clarke.
- In 2008, Farrukh Dhondy released his book ‘The Bikini Murders’ in which the lead character was based on Charles Sobhraj. During the promotions of the book, Farrukh confessed that he was associated with Charles Sobhraj, who was once (Sobhraj) friends with Masood Azhar (the founder of the Islamic terror outfit Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM)). According to Farrukh,
Sobhraj apparently rescued Masood from goons in jail, who had beaten him to a pulp, during their stint in Tihar jail. After that, Masood became very dependent on Sobhraj. In 2000, when the Indian Airlines aircraft with 400 passengers on board was hijacked to Kandhahar by militants who demanded Masood’s release in lieu of the hostages’ lives, Sobhraj offered to help India.”
Sobhraj was dissatisfied with the lead character’s resemblance [in the book] to him and said that Farrukh had no right to base his character on him and would file a case against him (the author). On the other hand, Farrukh said,
Sobhraj’s threat is an attempt at blackmail and extortion.”
- In 2012, the O Coqueiro restaurant in Goa revealed a statue of Charles Sobhraj, which is kept just 10 ft. away from where he was caught in 1986.
- A Bollywood crime film titled ‘Main Aur Charles’ starring Randeep Hooda (as Charles), Richa Chadda, Adil Hussain, Tisca Chopra, and Alexx O’Nell in lead roles was released in 2015. The film’s story follows the escape of Charles from Tihar jail.
- In 2018, Charles Sobhraj was in critical condition and was operated on multiple times; he has received several open-heart surgeries.
- In January 2021, BBC One and Netflix co-produced ‘The Serpent,’ a miniseries based on the crimes of Charles Sobhraj. The series stars Tahar Rahim (as Charles) and Jenna Coleman (as Marie-Andrée Leclerc) in the lead roles.
- At his apartment in Bangkok, he kept a monkey named Coco.