Who were the real life victims of Charles 'The Serpent' Sobhraj?

The Editors
·4-min read
Photo credit: BBC iPlayer - BBC
Photo credit: BBC iPlayer - BBC

From Cosmopolitan

Many of us have been gripped by the new BBC drama, The Serpent, a dramatised version of the true killings carried out by Charles Sobhraj (born Hotchand Bhawnani Gurmukh Sobhraj, and who later styled himself as a gem seller named Alain Gautier). The multiple murders took place during the 1970s along the Hippie Trail in Southeast Asia, earning Sobhraj the nickname The Serpent, due to his cunning ways of evading of the authorities..

While carrying out his crimes, The Serpent received assistance from his girlfriend 'Monique' (real name Marie-Andrée Leclerc) and their fellow accomplice, an Indian man named Ajay Chowdery – both of whom helped to lure young Westerners to Sobhraj's apartment in Bangkok. Sobhraj and Leclerc were eventually caught by police in 1976 after their attempt to drug and rob a group of French tourists in New Delhi went wrong.

The decidedly evil couple were eventually apprehended and both put on trial for the drugging, as well as for the murder of Frenchman Jean-Luc Solomon, however only Sobhraj was convicted of the latter. Although nine of his murder victims are known for certain, it's thought that there could be many others out there too – possibly up to 30, given that Sobhraj's crime spree spans an estimated thirteen year period.

Plenty of others were victims of lesser crimes at the hands of The Serpent too, who was first convicted of burglary in 1963, which he served in Poissy, just outside Paris. In Asia, it's believed Sobhraj would often poison people he intended to steal from, then nurse them back to health in order to gain their trust.

Photo credit: PRAKASH MATHEMA - Getty Images
Photo credit: PRAKASH MATHEMA - Getty Images

Depending on which source you cite, Sobhraj served either eleven or twelve years in Tihar, New Delhi, for the culpable homicide of Solomon, poisoning the French tourists, passport forgery and theft. Other reports say he later manipulated guards and other prison staff while in jail in order to enjoy additional perks, such as a TV in his cell, better quality food and even drugs.

Close to his release date in 1986, he drugged a group of guards and escaped in order to deliberately be caught and re-incarcerated in India (as opposed to in Thailand, where a search warrant for his extradition and arrest was still out and his execution was likely if caught).

Following his release in 1997, he spent time in France where he courted the media and appeared to relish his infamous status, openly discussing the murders without admitting to them. Sobhraj then travelled to Nepal in 2003 and it was during this trip that he was arrested for the killing of backpacker Connie Bronzich in 1975.

A further conviction was handed to him on 18 September 2014, when Bhaktapur district court found him guilty of the murder of Canadian tourist Laurent Carrière. Sobhraj was subsequently sentenced to life and is currently still in jail, aged 76, where he is suffering from poor health.

Who are the known victims of Charles Sobhraj, The Serpent?

  • Teresa Knowlton, 21, an American from Seattle who was on her way to joining a Buddhist monastery when she met Sobhraj. She's believed to be Sobhraj's first female victim, after he drugged and drowned her in a tidal pool in 1975.

  • Sobhraj's second known victim was Vitali Hakim, a young Sephardic Jewish boy whose body was found charred near Pattaya, where The Serpent was staying, on the east coast of the Gulf of Thailand.

  • Dutch couple Henk Bintanja, 29, and Cornelia Hemker, 25 (portrayed as Willem and Lena in The Serpent drama series) were drugged, strangled and burned by Sobhraj and his accomplices. Their bodies were discovered two days later on 18 December 1975.

  • Charmayne Carrou, the girlfriend of Hakim, was drowned after she came looking for her missing partner at Sobhraj's resort.

  • Laurent Ormond Carrière, 26, from Canada, was murdered in Nepal, along with American woman Connie Bronzich, 29. Sobhraj and Leclerc then used their passports to fly back to Thailand.

  • Avoni Jacob, an Israeli scholar, was murdered by Sobhraj who wanted to use his passport. He first used it to fly to Singapore, then to India, followed by a return to Bangkok in the March of 1976, knowing that the authorities were there waiting for him. After Sobhraj, Leclerc and their righthand man, Ajay Chowdhury, were interrogated by Thai police, they were released.

  • Jean-Luc Solomon was poisoned when Sobhraj's (and his new 'family', comprising of two western women, Barbara Smith and Mary Ellen Eather) attempt to rob him went awry.

  • While unconfirmed, Ajay Chowdhury is suspected to have died after being sent on an errand running trip for Sobhraj around Malaysia in 1976 and was never seen again. There was one rumoured sighting of him in Germany in late 1976, but this claim has never been proven.

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