Who Is Charles Sobhraj?
Charles Gurumukh Sobhraj Hotchand Bhawnani is a French serial killer, fraudster, and robber, who preyed on Western travellers journeying on the hippie trail of South Asia during the 1970s.
Charles Sobhraj Age
Charles Sobhraj is currently 79 years old (as of 2024).
Charles Sobhraj Early Years
Sobhraj was born on 6 April 1944 in Saigon to an Indian father and a Vietnamese mother. His parents were never married and his father denied paternity. Stateless at first, Sobhraj was taken in by his mother’s new husband, a French Army lieutenant posted in French Indochina.
There he felt ignored in favour of the couple’s later children. Sobhraj proceeded to move back and forth between Southeast Asia and France with the family.
As a teenager, he started to commit minor crimes; he received his first custodial sentence for burglary in 1963, serving his sentence at Poissy prison near Paris.
While imprisoned, Sobhraj exploited prison officials into granting him special favours, such as being allowed to keep books in his cell. Around the same time, he came across and endeared himself to Felix d’Escogne, a rich young man and prison volunteer.
After being paroled, Sobhraj moved in with d’Escogne and spent his time moving between the high society of Paris and the criminal underworld. He started acquiring riches through a series of burglaries and frauds.
During this time, Sobhraj met and started up a romantic relationship with Chantal Compagnon, a young Parisian woman from a prudent family. Sobhraj proposed marriage to Compagnon but was arrested later the same day for making an attempt to bypass police while driving a stolen vehicle.
He was sentenced to eight months in prison, yet Chantal stayed supportive throughout the whole of his sentence. Sobhraj and Compagnon were wedded upon his release.
Sobhraj, along with a pregnant Compagnon, left France in 1970 for Asia to escape arrest. After travelling through Eastern Europe with fake documents, stealing from tourists whom they assisted along the way, Sobhraj arrived in Bombay (Mumbai) later the same year. Chantal gave birth to a baby girl, Usha, in the city. In the meantime, Sobhraj returned to his criminal life, running a car theft and smuggling operation. Sobhraj’s growing revenues went towards his sprouting gambling addiction.
In 1973, Sobhraj was arrested and imprisoned after an unsuccessful armed robbery attempt on jewellers at Hotel Ashoka. Sobhraj was able to escape, with Compagnon’s help, by faking illness, but was arrested shortly thereafter. Sobhraj borrowed money for bail from his father and soon afterwards fled to Kabul.
There, the partners started to rob travellers on the hippie trail and were arrested again. Sobhraj escaped in the same way he had in India, feigning illness and drugging the hospital guard. Sobhraj departed to Iran, leaving his family behind. Compagnon, though still loyal to Sobhraj, wanted to leave their criminal past and returned to France, swearing never to see him again.
Sobhraj spent the next two years on the run, using as many as 10 stolen passports. He passed through various countries in Eastern Europe and the Middle East. Sobhraj was joined by his younger half-brother, André, in Istanbul. Sobhraj and André became partners in crime, partaking in numerous criminal activities in north way and Greece.
Charles Sobhraj Murders
On the run, Sobhraj sponsored his lifestyle by impersonating either a gem salesman or drug dealer to impress and befriend travellers, whom he defrauded. In India, Sobhraj met Marie-Andrée Leclerc from Lévis, Quebec, a tourist looking for adventure. Dominated by Sobhraj, Leclerc became his most loyal follower, turning a blind eye to his crimes and his philandering with local women.
Sobhraj gathered followers by gaining their commitment; a typical scam was to help his target out of difficult circumstances. In one case, he helped two retired French policemen, Yannick and Jacques, recover missing passports that Sobhraj himself had actually stolen. In another scenario, Sobhraj gave shelter to a Frenchman, Dominique Renelleau, who appeared to be suffering from dysentery; Sobhraj had actually poisoned him. He was joined by a young Indian man, Ajay Chowdhury, a fellow criminal who became Sobhraj’s second-in-command.
Charles Sobhraj and Ajay Chowdhury perpetrated their first known murders in 1975. Most of the victims had spent some time with the pair before their deaths and were, according to investigators, enrolled by Sobhraj and Chowdhury to join them in their crimes. Sobhraj asserted that most of his murders were accidental drug overdoses, but detectives state that the victims had threatened to expose Sobhraj, which was his motive for murder.
The first victim was a young woman from Seattle, Teresa Knowlton (named Jennie Bollivar in the book Serpentine), who was found drowned in a tidal pool in the Gulf of Thailand, wearing a flower-patterned bikini. It was months later that Knowlton’s post-mortem, as well as forensic evidence, substantiated that her drowning, initially assumed to be a swimming accident, was murder.
The next victim was a young nomadic Turkish Sephardic Jew, Vitali Hakim, whose burnt body was found on the road to the Pattaya resort, where Sobhraj and his growing clan were staying. Dutch students Henk Bintanja, 29, and his fiancée Cocky Hemker, 25, were invited to Thailand after meeting Sobhraj in Hong Kong.
They, like many others, were poisoned by Sobhraj, who nursed them back to health in order to gain their obedience. As they recovered, Sobhraj was visited by his former victim Hakim’s French girlfriend, Charmayne Carrou, who had come to investigate her boyfriend’s disappearance.
Fearing exposure, Sobhraj and Chowdhury quickly hustled Bintanja and Hemker out. Their bodies were found strangled and burned on 16 December 1975. Soon after, Carrou was found drowned and wearing a similar-styled swimsuit to that of Sobhraj’s earlier victim, Teresa Knowlton. Although the killings of the two women were not related by investigators at the time, they would later earn Sobhraj the nickname “The Bikini Killer”.
On 18 December, the day the corpses of Bintanja and Hemker were identified, Sobhraj and Leclerc entered Nepal using the departed couple’s passports. They met in Nepal and, between 21 and 22 December, assassinated Canadian Laurent Carrière, 26, and American Connie Jo Bronzich, 29; the two victims were mistakenly identified by some sources as Laddie DuParr and Annabella Tremont.
Sobhraj and Leclerc went back to Thailand, using their latest victims’ passports before their bodies could be identified. Upon his return to Thailand, Sobhraj discovered that his three French companions had begun to suspect him of serial murder, having found documents belonging to the murder casualties. Sobhraj’s former friends then ran off to Paris after notifying local authorities.
Sobhraj’s next destination was either Varanasi or Calcutta, where he murdered Israeli scholar Avoni Jacob to obtain Jacob’s passport. Sobhraj used the passport to travel with Leclerc and Chowdhury; first to Singapore, then to India, and, in March 1976, returning to Bangkok, despite realizing that the authorities there sought him. The clan were interviewed by Thai police in connection with the murders but was released.
Meanwhile, Dutch diplomat Herman Knippenberg and his then-wife Angela Kane were investigating the murders of Bintanja and Hemker. Knippenberg had some understanding of, and had possibly even met, Sobhraj, although the latter’s true identity was still not known to the diplomat, who proceeded to compile evidence.
With the help of Nadine and Remi Gires (Sobhraj’s neighbours), Knippenberg created a case against him. He was eventually given police permission to search Sobhraj’s flat a full month after the suspect had left the country.
Knippenberg found evidence, including victims’ documents and passports, as well as poisons and syringes.
The criminal trio’s next stop was Malaysia, where Chowdhury was sent to steal gems. Chowdhury was observed providing the gems to Sobhraj. This was the last time he was seen; neither Chowdhury nor his remains have been found. It is believed Sobhraj killed his former associate before leaving Malaysia in order to continue his and Leclerc’s roles as gem merchants in Geneva.
A source later claimed to have sighted Chowdhury in West Germany, but the claim seemed baseless, so the search for Chowdhury continued.
Back in Asia, Sobhraj began creating a new criminal group, starting with two Western women, Barbara Smith and Mary Ellen Eather in Bombay. Sobhraj’s next victim was a Frenchman, Jean-Luc Solomon who was poisoned during a robbery. The act was committed to injure Solomon, but it killed him.
In July 1976 in New Delhi, Sobhraj, joined by his three-woman criminal clan, fooled a tour group of French post-graduate students into accepting them as tour guides. Sobhraj drugged them by giving them poisoned pills, which he told them were anti-dysentery medicine. When the drugs took effect more quickly than Sobhraj had anticipated, the students began to fall unconscious.
Three of the students, realizing what Sobhraj had done, subdued him and called the police, leading to his capture. Sobhraj’s accomplices, Smith and Eather, confessed during interrogation. Sobhraj was charged with the murder of Solomon and all four were sent to Tihar Jail in New Delhi.
Imprisonment In India
Smith and Eather attempted suicide in prison during the two years before their prosecution. Sobhraj, who had entered with precious gems concealed in his body and was experienced in paying off captors, was living comfortably in jail. He turned his trial into a spectacle, hiring and firing lawyers at will, bringing in his recently paroled brother André to support, and eventually going on a hunger strike. He was sentenced to 12 years in prison. Leclerc was found guilty of drugging the French students but was later paroled and returned to Canada when she developed ovarian cancer.
She was still claiming her innocence and was reportedly still loyal to Sobhraj when she died at her home in April 1984. She was 38.
Sobhraj’s logical bribery of prison guards at Tihar reached horrible levels.
He led a life of luxury inside the prison, with television and gourmet food, having befriended both guards and prisoners. He gave interviews to Western authors and journalists, such as Oz magazine’s Richard Neville in 1977 and Alan Dawson in 1984. Neville was escorted by his future wife, Julie Clarke, who has often written about the subject. Clarke has said that Sobhraj sold the rights to his life story to a Bangkok businessman, who then sold them to Random House.
Because of Neville’s hippie trail connections, Random House offered him a contract to go to Delhi to research the case, even though he and Clarke, both journalists in New York City, had no experience in crime reporting. They were out of their depth, having to deal with Sobhraj’s ‘creepy emissaries’ who kept them under the supervision and arranged for them to visit him in prison, where he illustrated the murders in detail. Clarke was very relieved when they departed from Delhi.
Although Sobhraj had voluntarily discussed with Neville and Clarke about his murders, he later denied everything he had told them and pretended his actions were in retaliation against “Western imperialism” in Asia.
Sobhraj’s jail sentence in India was due to end before the 20-year Thai statute of limitations expired, ensuring his extradition and almost certain execution for murder in Thailand. So in March 1986, in his tenth year in prison, Sobhraj threw a big party for his guards and fellow inmates, drugged them with sleeping drugs and walked out of the prison.
Inspector Madhukar Zende of the Mumbai police apprehended Sobhraj in O’Coqueiro Restaurant in Goa; his prison sentence was extended by ten years, just as he had expected. On 17 February 1997, 52-year-old Sobhraj was released with most warrants, evidence, and even witnesses against him long lost. Without any country to extradite him to, Indian authorities let him return to France.
Imprisonment In Nepal
Sobhraj retired to a prosperous life in suburban Paris. He charged large sums of money for interviews and photographs. The rights to a film based on his life were sold for over US$15 million.
In 2003, Sobhraj returned to Nepal, one of the few countries where he could still be arrested and where he was still eagerly pursued by authorities.
According to The Himalayan Times, Sobhraj had returned to Kathmandu to start a mineral water business. His return is thought to have been the outcome of his yearning for attention and overconfidence in his own intellect.
On 1 September 2003, Sobhraj was sighted by a journalist for The Himalayan Times in a casino in Kathmandu. The journalist followed him for two weeks and wrote a news report in The Himalayan Times with photographs. The Nepalese police saw the document, invaded the casino and arrested an unaware Sobhraj, who was still betting there.
The police reopened the double murder case in 1975. On 20 August 2004, Sobhraj was sentenced to life imprisonment by the Kathmandu district court for the 1975 murder of Connie Jo Bronzich.
Most of the photocopy evidence used against him, in this case, had been collected by Knippenberg, the Dutch diplomat, his then-wife Angela Kane and Interpol. Sobhraj appealed against the conviction, claiming he had been sentenced without trial.
His lawyer announced that Chantal Compagnon, Sobhraj’s wife in France, was documenting a case before the European Court of Human Rights against the French government for refusing to provide him with any assistance.
In late 2007, Sobhraj’s lawyer petitioned to then-French president Nicolas Sarkozy for intervention with Nepal. In 2008, Sobhraj declared his engagement to a Nepali woman, Nihita Biswas, who later joined in the reality show Bigg Boss.
The genuineness of the couple’s relationship was substantiated in an open letter from American conductor David Woodard to The Himalayan Times. On 7 July 2008, handing out a press release through his fiancée Biswas, Sobhraj alleged he was never convicted of murder by any court and asked the media not to tag him as a serial killer.
It was claimed that Sobhraj married his fiancée on 9 October 2008 in prison during the Bada Dashami festival.
The following day, Nepalese authorities dismissed the claim of his wedding. They said that Biswas and her family had been authorized to conduct a tika ceremony, along with the relatives of hundreds of other prisoners. They further asserted that it was not a wedding but part of the ongoing Dashain festival when elders put the vermilion mark on the foreheads of those younger than them to signify their blessings.
In July 2010, the Supreme Court of Nepal postponed the decision on an appeal documented by Sobhraj against a district court’s verdict sentencing him to life imprisonment for the killing of American backpacker Connie Jo Bronzich in 1975.
Sobhraj had appealed against the Kathmandu district court’s verdict in 2006, labelling it unfair.
On 30 July 2010, the Supreme Court upheld the life sentence issued by the district court for the murder of Connie Jo Bronzich, plus another year and a Rs 2,000 fine for entering Nepal illegally.
The seizure of all Sobhraj’s properties was also ordered by the court. Sobhraj’s supposed wife Biswas and mother-in-law Shakuntala Thapa, a lawyer, expressed dissatisfaction with the verdict, with Thapa alleging that Sobhraj had been denied justice and that the “judiciary is corrupt”.
They were charged and sent to judicial custody for contempt of court because of these remarks.
On 18 September 2014, Sobhraj was convicted in the Bhaktapur district court of the 1975 murder of Canadian tourist Laurent Carrière, and sentenced to 20 years in prison. In 2018, Sobhraj was in critical condition and had received various open heart surgeries and was scheduled for more.
On 21 December 2022, the Supreme Court of Nepal ordered his release from prison because of his old age, after serving 19 years of his prison term.
He has been authorized to leave the country within 15 days. On 23 December 2022, he was released from prison on account of his age and good behaviour. He was deported to France and will not be able to return to Nepal for at least 10 years.
Charles Sobhraj Personal Life
In 2010, he wedded his Indian Nepali interpreter, Nihita Biswas, in prison. The daughter of his lawyer was 20 years old and 44 years his junior. One of the prison staff told Paris Match in 2021: “It’s a legend; there is no proof of their union”.
She told the media that his gaze and his eyes were fascinating and that his French elegance had done everything. In 2017, she donated blood to save him during an open heart surgery.
Charles Sobhraj Children
Usha Sobhra is Charles Sobhraj’s daughter.
Charles Sobhraj Net Worth 2024
Charles Sobhraj has an estimated net worth of about $10 million
In conclusion, Charles Gurumukh Sobhraj, also known as the “Bikini Killer,” was a notorious serial killer and criminal who terrorized Western travellers on the hippie trail of South Asia in the 1970s.
His long list of crimes includes murder, fraud, and robbery, and his ability to evade capture for so long made him a legend in the criminal underworld. While Sobhraj is currently serving a life sentence in prison, the fear and devastation he caused during his reign of terror will not be forgotten.
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