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From Bangkok to Bombay, Charles Sobhraj left a trail of destruction wherever he dared. Before the BBC drama The Serpent, which airs on BBC One on New Year’s Day, Nige Tassell reveals the story of the brazen professional criminal who went from petty theft to has passed over to cold-blooded murder

Charles Sobhraj was once asked what makes someone a murderer. “Either you have too much emotion and cannot control yourself,” he replied, “or you have no feelings

Sobhraj definitely falls into the latter camp born in 1944 in Saigon to an Indian father and a Vietnamese mother (and raised at a young age by his mother and her future partner, a sergeant of the French army stationed in French Indochina), He gained notoriety for a series of murders during the mid-1970s along the well-trodden hippie trail that led western backpackers across South Asia

The dozen murders attributed to Sobhraj (it is estimated that the number of his victims was more than double) were not the result of a runaway bloodlust.His worldview was that murder was a way of maintaining his transcontinental lifestyle Both good-looking and indescribable charm, Sobhraj befriended those he met on his travels before disposing of them, usually after drugging them, and would then steal the identities of his victims and with their passports travel to move from country to country undiscovered

Sobhraj does not seem to have particularly enjoyed the act of murder. There also did not appear to be any internal moral conflict. To use his earlier words, he “had no feelings”

Sobhraj’s early life, which he lived between Indochina and France, was marked by petty crime and was first imprisoned in 1963 after being convicted of burglary. During his incarceration, he met a wealthy prison volunteer named Felix the Elder ‘Knowing Escogne, where he moved in after his release Just as he had moved between continents, Sobhraj was able to move effortlessly between the street-wise criminal brotherhood of Paris and the city’s high society to become such a chameleon of social class , formed the foundation of his criminal success. He could charm anyone and everyone

In 1970 Sobhraj married Chantal Compagnon, a young Parisian from a devoutly conservative family. He and a pregnant Compagnon traveled to Asia and indulged in petty crime to smear their way Robbing tourists and traveling with the stolen passports there, his criminal activity increased and encompassed everything from smuggling cars to armed robbery.As a result, he was no stranger to inside a prison cell, but he was also familiar with developing plans to get out

On more than one occasion, whether he has appendicitis or vomits fake blood, he faked an illness to be rushed to hospital

In Kabul, Sobhraj once drugged the security guard by taking care of his room and simply walked out of the hospital.Sobhraj developed the ability to abuse the trust of those close to him after his last jailbreak, fled in Iran and left Compagnon, who was forced to return to her family in Paris.Then he was on the run through Eastern Europe and the Middle East for a few years, supported by his half-brother. But when the couple was arrested in Athens, Sobhraj changed identity His younger sibling was eventually sentenced to two years and ten months in prison

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When he committed his first murder, Sobhraj had teamed up with a young Indian, Ajay Chowdhury, and their first victim was Teresa Knowlton, a Seattle backpacker who was found drowned in a tidal pool in the Gulf of Thailand in 1975. Knowlton was wearing a bikini ; When a future victim was found wearing similar clothing, Sobhraj was given one of his nicknames: the bikini killer

In Thailand, where he passed himself off as a drug dealer and a jeweler, Sobhraj met a French-Canadian traveler named Marie-Andrée Leclerc, who became his most devoted accomplice. The next victim was a traveler named Vitali Hakim, whose cremated body was nearby of the resort where Sobhraj and Leclerc lived. Two Dutch students followed, their bodies strangled and burned again. Then came the discovery of the body of Charmayne Carrou, Hakim’s friend, who had traveled to Thailand to investigate his disappearance

Sobhraj and Leclerc then fled to Nepal, where they met and murdered two North American backpackers and traveled to India before returning to Thailand, all with their victims’ passports.Meanwhile, a handful of Sobhraj and Leclerc employees in Thailand suspected them of being the Having committed murders and notified the authorities before returning to France

Sobhraj, Leclerc and Chowdhury traveled together to Singapore and then to India, where they committed another murder, that of Israeli tourist Alan Aaron Jacobs, apparently for no reason other than to take his passport. They returned in the spring of 1976 Bangkok returned without knowing that Sobhraj was a wanted man by then but after being interrogated by the police he was released, with the Thai authorities apparently keen to avoid the negative effects of a murder trial on tourism. p>

A 1994 profile on The Independent identified Sobhraj’s strengths that helped him evade capture. He has been described as an “expert on gems and psychology.” Like a diamond cutter, he has a knack for recognizing a flaw in a person’s character and turning that person into a design of their own evil brilliance “

This is how Sobhraj recruited his accomplices: charming and flattering to the point where they seemingly dedicated themselves to him. He also did the same with those whose lives he shortened and those who were wide-eyed and hunted down the vulnerable “Young idealists who hunted backpackers familiar and stoners smoked, wanted to get lost, ”wrote Andrew Anthony,“ and Sobhraj made sure that some of them were never found ”

The trio left Thailand for Malaysia, where Chowdhury was never seen again It was believed that Sobhraj had sent him out of fear of his crimes being discovered. Sobhraj and Leclerc continued their travels – to Switzerland, to India – pretending to be a jeweler. After Sobhraj found another victim in Bombay, he stayed in New York. Delhi hang

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The audacity of that final stab was his downfall.After Sobhraj got a group of 60 French PhD students to take medication for dysentery (with the intent of robbing them all while they were unconscious), he miscalculated the doses as some Of the students who got sick quickly and violently, the group found their new friend had ulterior motives and overwhelmed him before calling the police

Sobhraj was detailed at Tihar Prison in New Delhi but went straight on the spell offensive. He had smuggled some gems into the prison and used them to bribe prison officials and make sure he lived relatively comfortably as he turned his trial also turned into a spectacle, went on hunger strike and hired and released his legal team at will. He was sentenced to 12 years imprisonment for attempted robbery

Sobhraj continued to live well in prison, having the luxury of his own TV and dining on good food. His ability to win the favor and trust of others was undiminished. However, after 10 years inside, Sobhraj faced a dilemma while in prison The murders he committed in Thailand had been thoroughly investigated, notably by a Dutch diplomat, Herman Knippenberg, who was originally accused of finding out what happened to these two Dutch students after Knippenberg searched Sobhraj’s house , he had found a pile of passports and driver’s licenses, suggesting that Sobhraj’s victims were much more than known

When Sobhraj realized that he was facing an almost certain conviction – and thus execution – in Thailand, he slipped into a plan. Two years before his sentence, he threw a party for officials and inmates in his prison in New Delhi who drugged all party goers with sleeping pills and just walked out of jail

Then he hid in clear view and was arrested shortly afterwards in a restaurant in Goa. During this escape, his prison sentence was extended for another 10 years – exactly as he intended at the time of his release in 1997 was that of 20-year arrest warrant issued by the Thai authorities has expired. He could not now be charged for all these murders in Thailand

After his release, Sobhraj returned to Paris, where he enjoyed some strange celebrity.But this life did not seem exciting enough for him, and he decided to return to the danger zone. In 2003 he traveled to Nepal where he was on the streets recognized and arrested by Kathmandu for the murders of the two North American backpackers in 1975. He was tried and sentenced to life in prison; he is still imprisoned there today

Even if it turned out that he was not the sacrosanct figure he believed himself to be, Charles Sobhraj never doubted himself or his motives “I can justify the murders for myself,” he once claimed, looking back the chaos and destruction he had left “I never killed good people”

Nige Tassell is a freelance journalist specializing in history. The eight-part series The Serpent starts on New Years Day at 9 p.m. on BBC One and BBC iPlayer

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