This story begins with the search for two missing tourists. A complex investigation that will lead to the open a terrible Pandora’s box. The discovery of a bloodthirsty sadistic criminal who was wreaking a long trail of death across Asia. Delivering it to justice will be a very difficult undertaking.
An unidentified killer
February 6, 1976. It is bound to become a rather special day for Herman Knippenberg, a member of the Dutch embassy in Bangkok, when he receives a very alarming letter. It was written by a Dutch citizen, claiming to have lost contact from her sister-in-law and her boyfriend for weeks after they left for a trip to Asia.
This letter sets off an alarm bell in the diplomat’s mind; he remembers that some time earlier two bodies had been found near Ayutthaya, not very far from the capital. It was a couple. The woman was violently hit in the head and the man strangled, both burned alive afterwards. A horrible crime left without a culprit. Other than that, the victims had not been identified.
Knippenberg thus decides to commence an investigation, hiring a dentist to be able to compare the cast of the teeth of the disappeared couple to that of the corpses. The intuition turned out to be right. The victims were precisely the missing Dutch couple, namely Henk Bintanja and Cornelia Hemker.
At this point Herman recalls a strange story that a friend has shared with him. According to the rumor, Alain Gautier, a French jewelry seller residing in Bangkok, seemed to be in possession of a large number of passports in his apartment, all belonging to people who had left on their way and whose traces had been lost.
He thus decides to investigate the truthfulness of this story going to the location. Speaking with a neighbor, he receives confirmation of these circumstances. The woman also tells him that she saw the Dutch couple going to that house.
Knippenberg at this point is convinced that he is dealing with a serial killer. But stopping him won’t be easy at all.
Questioned by the police, the suspect manages to convince the officers of his innocence. A few days later, the man escapes to Malaysia. A subsequent inspection of his apartment reveals a large quantity of drugs and laxatives, as well as some items belonging to the Dutch victim.
This triggers an international manhunt. The fugitive is quite cunning though and knows how to hide, disguising himself through false identities and always managing to escape capture. For this ability, he’s nicknamed The Serpent.
Despite this challenge, Herman and his wife Angela Kane do not give up and continue their investigations, even tracing the real name of the fugitive, Charles Sobhraj.
The turning point takes place on July 5, 1976. In New Delhi a group of French students is approached by a man who proposes himself as a tour guide. He offers each of them pills, saying it is a medicine for dysentery. However, when some of the boys begin to lose consciousness, three of them realize they have been drugged; they manage to stop the subject, calling the police.
The poisoner is arrested. He is actually Charles Sobhraj.
Born in 1944 in Saigon to an Indian father and a Vietnamese mother. During his childhood after his parents divorce he moves to France together with his mother’s new boyfriend. Adolescence will be a rather turbulent period for Charles, as he often becomes the author of various thefts which will cost him prison in 1963.
There he meets and becomes friends with Felix d’Escogne, a wealthy prison volunteer. Once out of prison, he continues to hang out with Felix, even entering the circles of wealthy French society. At the same time he continues his criminal activity, amidst thefts and scams of various kinds.
After meeting Chantal, a girl with whom he will have a relationship, he is arrested again. When he is released from prison, he decides to leave France, in 1970, together with his girlfriend. They settle in Mumbai, where they have daughter. Nonetheless Charles’s passion for illegal activities is still strong, so much that in 1973 he ends up in jail for attempted robbery. Once released, he continues to travel between countries, first in Afghanistan, then in Iran. In the meantime, his partner and his daughter go to live in France, cutting off any tie with him.
Later Sobhraj moveds to Istanbul, where he begins a criminal career with his brother, between Turkey and Greece. They are arrested in Athens. Charles manages to escape from prison, but his brother is sentenced to 18 years.
Back in India, he meets a woman, Marie Andrèe Leclerc, who will become his trusted partner. During his interminable travels around the Asian continent, he becomes friends with a young Indian boy, Ajay Chowdhury, who will follow him in all his criminal activities.
At this point Sobhraj begins to push himself deeper and deeper into his perverse design of reality, to become a serial killer. It is 1975 when, together with Ajay, now his accomplice, he begins to attract tourists and backpackers that are crossing Asia, bringing them to his home and promising some refreshment. Thanks to his knowledge of languages and his demeanor, he wins their trust. Once the victims are comfortable, he poisons them secretly. He then steals their passports and belongings, kills them by stabbing, strangling, and sometimes setting their bodies on fire.
In the end, the confirmed murders are twelve.
Charles had built an insane and deadly trap, a bloody activity, carried on by exploiting his tales and social skills. No one has ever been able to find a reason, if not that of malice personified.
He would have probably never stopped if it hadn’t been for the commitment and dedication of Herman and Angela in connecting the various cases and changing the direction of the investigation.
Charles Sobhraj is sentenced to 12 years in prison in 1977, but he has also an arrest warrant from Thailand resulting in a death sentence once his first sentence is over. In order to escape this, in 1986 he organizes one of his traps, drugging the guards with sleeping pills and managing to escape.
He is once again arrested in India and sentenced to another 10 years.
In 1997 he is released from prison and emigrated to France, where he did not have an arrest warrant, becoming a celebrity. He also hires an advertising agent and gets paid to be interviewed, accumulating significant amounts. He spends several years as a wealthy person, until in 2003 he decides to visit Nepal, despite being one of the countries where he could be imprisoned.
During his stay he is recognized by a reporter from The Himalayan Times, who writes a report on him. At this point the local police intercept him and put him under arrest. He is definitively sentenced to life imprisonment on August 20, 2004.
Today he is 77 years old and continues to serve his sentence.
The story of Charles Sobhraj is that of a man with multiple criminal characteristics. Starting out as a robber, becoming a scammer over time to finally turn into a serial killer. Just like a snake shedding its skin.
The whole story is still discussed very much; recently BBC One and Netflix produced a tv series, called The Serpent, based on his true story.