Man who interviewed The Serpent in 2003 recalls how ‘consistently upbeat’ serial killer Charles Sobhraj spoke of his prison experience like a ‘rustic holiday’ and boasted about ‘privileges’ – including a TV and room to himself
- Charles Sobhraj murdered at least a dozen Westerners on the 1970s hippie trail
- Would drug victims to rob them and trick them into trusting him with scams
- Gained nickname The Serpent because of his skills at deception and evasion
- Writer Tim Vater has recalled meeting serial killer in prison in December 2003
- Sobhraj described himself as victim of dark forces conspiring to take freedom
A writer who interviewed serial killer Charles Sobhraj while he was behind bars has recalled how he spoke of his prison experience as if he were ‘enjoying a rustic holiday.’
BBC’s eight-part series The Serpent revisits the crimes of serial killer Charles Sobhraj, played by French actor Tahar Rahim, who preyed on young backpackers along South-East Asia’s hippie trail and gained the nickname The Serpent because of his skills at deception and evasion.
It details his killing spree in 1975, and how his accomplice Marie-Andrée Leclerc, played by Jenna Coleman, stood by him despite full knowledge of his crimes and promiscuity.
Speaking to The Telegraph about his first-person account of interviewing the serial killer in prison, Tom Vater explained: ‘Consistently upbeat, he sold me his prison experience as if he were enjoying a rustic holiday.
‘They hold a hundred people in each barrack here. More than two thousand inmates in all. Prison life in Nepal is as archaic as the court system.’
Sobraj, pictured with Leclerc in 1986, was known as The Serpent because of his skills at deception and evasion, he drugged and killed at least a dozen Westerners on the Hippie Trail in Asia in the 1970s
Jenna Coleman has revealed her discomfort at playing the partner of bikini killer Charles Sobhraj, who had ‘no empathy’ as he carried out his horrific crime spree. Pictured, Coleman and Tahar Rahim as Marie-Andrée Leclerc and Sobraj
He added: ‘Luckily, I have privileges – a room to myself and a TV. Through my lawyer, I check my email every day.’
Charles Sobhraj picked off his victims in the heady world of 1970s Thailand, India and Nepal – drugging, poisoning and dumping their bodies with casual ease.
He is known to have killed at least 12 people, but the true tally is believed to be at least double that number.
Tom told how he first encountered the gem stone smuggler in December 2003, when he was shackled and taken into the cell by two guards.
At the time, Sobraj was accused of having killed two backpackers on Freak Street, south of the city’s historic Durbar Square, where holiday-goers gathered in the 1970s.
‘He offered a bright smile,’ recalled Tom. ‘Sobhraj, entirely unruffled, launched into a convoluted monologue, crammed with erudition, describing himself as a victim of dark forces conspiring to take his freedom.’
Charles Sobhraj, top, is pictured above being led to prison in Delhi in 1977
The writer went on to say that the serial killer, then 58, was awaiting trial and concerned about saying anything that could incriminate him – but asked to see Tom again once he had spoken with his lawyer.
By the time Tom saw Sobhraj for a second time, the serial killer had still refused to admit a single murder – but had long been a name that everyone had heard of.
‘The man in front of me thrived on his myth, proclaiming innocence and hinting at terror in the same breath,’ recalled the writer.
‘He appeared to juggle several identities at once and clearly enjoyed himself…his persistently engaging demeanor coupled with the false modesty of a veteran of the Asian highways must have dazzled youngsters on the Seventies hippie trail.
‘But on a cold December day in 2003, two days before Christmas, his ingratiating self-aggrandizement was as disturbing as his outrage.’
He went on to claim how Sobhraj told him that while he was in the news, he didn’t receive any visits from the police at his hotel, nor was he questioned.
However, three days before he was set to leave Nepal, he brazenly recalled being arrested while eating dinner at the casino – yet boasted about still not being charged due to lack of evidence.
Ellie Bamber and Billy Howle as Angela and Herman Knippenberg are pictured in the hit BBC series The Serpent
Following his interaction with the serial killer, Tom compared several of Sobhraj’s characteristics to successful politicians – including his communication skills and ‘boundless energy to sell his brand.’
A Nepali court sentenced the notorious criminal to life imprisonment in connection with the killing of an American backpacker in 1975.
Sobhraj, who is now aged 76 and serving his sentence in Nepal, had already spent 20 years in prison for a string of crimes, including murder and robbery.
‘I am shocked,’ said Sobhraj as he walked out of the courtroom in handcuffs.
‘I have been found guilty without witnesses and evidence. Not a single witness was called,’ said Sobhraj. ‘We are going to appeal.’
His fame rose once again inside prison and he has since married 24-year-old Nihita Biswas, the daughter of his Nepali lawyer famous for his appearance on India’s equivalent to Big Brother.
Marie-Andrée Leclerc was accused of complicity in the murders, namely those of Jean-Luc Salomon and Avoni Jacob.
In 1980, she and Sobhraj were convicted of the murder of Avoni Jacob, though she has always denied involvement in the killings and was later released on the condition she remained in India. She returned to Canada to die of cancer in 1984.
WHO IS CHARLES SOBRAJ?
Born to an Indian father, Hatchand Sobhraj and Vietnamese mother Tran Loan Phung, Sobhraj grew up in Saigon before his parents divorced and his father cut of all contact with the family.
He was later adopted by his mother’s new boyfriend, a French Army lieutenant stationed in French Indochina, who is thought to have neglected him in favour of his own children with Sobhraj’s mother.
As a teenager he spit his time between Indochina and France, beginning to commit petty crimes such stealing cars and robbing housewives at gunpoint. He served his first prison sentence for burglary in Paris in 1963.
Jailed: Charles Sobhraj (pictured in 2014 with Nepalese police) preyed on Western tourists visiting Asia and was known as The Serpent and The Bikini Killer
In prison he met volunteer Felix d’Escogne, a wealthy young man who he would eventually move in with use to help accumulate riches through a series of burglaries and scams in high society Paris.
After his release from prison, Sobhraj met his first love, Chantal Compagnon, a young Parisian woman from a conservative family who he too would later make complicit in his crimes.
He proposed to Compagnon but was arrested later the same day for attempting to evade police while driving a stolen vehicle. He spent eight months in prison while pregnant Chantal remained loyal to him.
From 1970 the pair travelled the world with fake documents by robbing tourists they met on their travels and using their profits to feed Sobhraj’s gambling habit.
In 1973 he escaped prison after an unsuccessful armed robbery by fleeing to Kabul where he first started fleecing tourists on the Hippie Trail, but was soon arrested again and fled again to Iran.
Compagnon returned to Paris to escape a life of crime after being jailed in Afghanistan and giving birth to her daughter behind bars. Eventually being forced to move to the US to escape Sobhraj.
He spent the next two years on the run, using as many as ten stolen passports, committing crime with his half brother Andre across Eastern Europe and the Middle East, before his brother was arrested and he fled once again.
WHEN DID HE MEET MARIE-ANDREE LECLERC?
In the Spring of 1975, Sobhraj met Marie-Andrée Leclerc, a medical secretary travelling India when he acted as her guide of the country.
Sobhraj had been financing his lifestyle by posing as either a salesman or drug dealer to impress tourists, who he then drugged, robbed and often murdered.
At this point the killer was joined by Ajay Chowdhury, a young indian man who would help him scam tourists by helping them out of situations he had caused, for example providing shelter to victims he had poisoned.
While he claimed that murders were often accidental drug overdoses, it was later alleged by investigators that his motive for murder was silencing victims who threatened to expose him.
Sobhraj, who is now aged 76 and serving his life sentence in Nepal, had already spent 20 years in prison for a string of crimes, including murder and robbery
Three months later Leclerc flew to Bangkok to meet him after months of him seducing her with love letters – turning blind eye to his philandering with local women.
According to The Sun, He once remarked on his gift for coercing women: ‘If you use it to make people do wrong it’s an abuse.
‘However, if you use that power to make people do right, it’s OK. Who’s to say what’s right and wrong?’
Besotted, Leclerc became intwined in Sobhraj’s vicious crime spree, and would help him drug tourists to steal their passports and money
Jenna found it disturbing to portray Marie-Andrée Leclerc, the partner of Sobhraj (Tahar Rahim) who stood by him despite full knowledge of his crimes and promiscuity.
‘It was not an easy piece to play because how can you portray someone who has no empathy?’ Coleman told the Radio Times.
WHO DID HE MURDER?
According to Serpentine by Jennie Bollivar, the first murder took place in 1975, when he drowned a 21-year-old woman from Seattle called Teresa Knowlton.
Her body was found a tidal pool in the Gulf of Thailand a flowered bikini, inspiring the killers nickname ‘the bikini killer’.
Before her death was discovered, Marie willingly posed as Knowlton to cash in the travellers cheques she was carrying worth thousands of dollars.
His next victim was Vitali Hakim, whose burnt body was found on the road to the Pattaya resort, followed by Henk Bintanja and his fiancée Cornelia Hemker, who had been poisoned by Sobhraj and then nursed back to health.
While they were staying with him, a visit from Hakim’s French girlfriend, Charmayne Carrou threatened to expose him, and so he strangled the pair and burned their bodies.
He murdered at least two others in Thailand before fleeing to Kolkata, where he killed student Avoni Jacob simply to obtain his passport. He later murdered Jean-Luc Solomon by poisoning him.
HOW HE WAS CAUGHT?
In 1976, Sobhraj attempted to drug a group of 60 French students on holiday in New Delhi in an attempt to rob them of passports and cash by giving them sleeping pills disguised as antibiotics.
But this time it backfired when the poison began working a lot faster than he expected. When the first few students began falling where they stood, the others became alarmed and called the police.
Despite being given a 12-year jail term he lived a life of luxury thanks to bribing prisoners and guards, and has claimed he was able to have female guests to have sex while behind bars.
In The Life And Crimes Of Charles Sobhraj, authors Richard Neville and Julie Clarke claims he said: ‘I had a lot of female visitors, mainly journalists and MA students. Only intellectuals’.
He was released from prison in 1997, when the 20-year arrest warrant issued by the Thai authorities had elapsed.
Coleman undertook extensive research ahead of the role, reading Marie-Andrée’s diaries of the periods before and after the murders
Dutch diplomat Herman Knippenberg helped exposed Sobhraj as a multiple killer, after the initial attempts to bring him to justice.
His hunt for the killer started in 1975 with a brief to help Thai police investigate the deaths of the two Dutch students who had been invited to Thailand after meeting Sobhraj in Hong Kong.
He launched his own investigation and gained permission to enter Sobhraj’s home, after the suspect had left for Malaysia.
There he found victims’ blood-stained documents and passports, as well as poisons and syringes.
A sighting of Sobhraj in Kathmandu in 2003 led to his arrest for the murders of two Canadians there in 1975, and at his trial the prosecution relied on evidence accumulated by Knippenberg.
The former Dutch diplomat Herman Knippenberg who exposed Sobhraj will be played by British actor Billy Howell (pictured)
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