Killing Time in Kathmandu – A Meeting with Charles Sobhraj
Charles Sobhraj, one of the world’s most notorious serial killer celebrities, also known as the “Bikini Killer’ and the ‘Serpent’ was convicted for murder in 2004 in Kathmandu, Nepal.
Prior to his conviction I spoke with one of the allegedly scariest men alive, as well as his captor, police officer Ganesh K.C. who had no doubt about Sobhraj’s guilt in the country’s worst tourist murder.
“I remember the day as if it was yesterday. I was playing near the airport. In 1975 there were only fields in that area. The morning fog was dense. It was quiet as a grave. I was running and suddenly, I saw the police in front of me, gathered around a body – the naked, burned corpse of a young white woman. The body was completely charred, except for the head. That moment has stayed with me all my life.”
Deputy Superintendent of Police, Ganesh K.C. sipped his first cup of tea and looked out over the morning bustle of Durbar Square, the heart of Kathmandu. He had reason to be pleased. In September 2003 he arrested the prime suspect in Nepal’s worst, and to this day, unsolved, tourist murder.
According to Kathmandu police, Charles Sobhraj drugged his two victims, then stabbed them and partially burned them, before dumping the bodies in two seperate locations, one near Kathmandu airport and the other in a field near the UNESCO World Heritage Site Bakhtapur.
Charles Sobhraj is a household name on the Indian subcontinent. Parents warn their children that Sobhraj will eat them if they are unruly. His reputation is deservedly brutal, if even a fraction of the stories attached to this man are true.
Charles Sobhraj spent more than twenty years on the road across Asia befriending backpackers, drugs-smugglers, diplomats and businessmen, then allegedly drugging, robbing and finally strangling or burning his new acquaintances. The sixt-year old has been on the run from police in Hong Kong, Thailand, Nepal, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Turkey, Greece and France.
Sobhraj, son of an Indian textile merchant and a Vietnamese woman, had a tumultuous childhood. The stateless adolescent grew up on the streets of Saigon and in juvenile prisons in France. Neglected by his family, Sobhraj moved effortlessly from petty crime to armed robbery and finally to murder. By the mid-1970s, a career that included jewelry theft, luxury-car smuggling and massive gem stone fraud was interspersed with kidnappings and torture of drugged foreigners.
In South Asia, Sobhraj has long been known as the “Serpent’ for his mastery of disguise, his multiple identities and his ability to persuade people to assist him with his alleged killings. With the help of several female assistants, Sobhraj allegedly poisoned his victims and then pretended to help them recuperate, while administering more poison.
But by the late 1970s Interpol and numerous police forces across Asia were on the look-out. French woman Stephanie Parry and American Teresa Knowlton had been found in shallow graves on beaches near Pattaya, Thailand’s notorious red-light beach resort. The police took months to connect the decomposed bodies to a mysterious gemstone dealer in Bangkok. By the time the local authorities were alerted by a number of suspicious embassies in Bangkok that Sobhraj was using false papers, Sobhraj had allegedly paid off the Thai police and fled the country. He admitted these and other murders to a journalist Richard Neville in 1977, which were published in the bestseller ‘The Life and Crimes of Charles Sobhraj.’
The Thais charged Charles Sobhraj with five murders. Autopsies after exhumation revealed one of the girls in Pattaya had been drowned, the other strangled. Charles Sobhraj was also charged with the murder of a Turkish man, the boyfriend of one of the girls, who had been burned alive. With evidence provided by several embassies, the Thais also investigated Charles Sobhraj for the murder of two Dutch tourists – Sobhraj had used the Dutch man’s passport to escape to Nepal. The Dutch couple, who had been staying in Sobhraj’s apartment in Central Bangkok, had been kept prisoner, drugged, beaten, strangled and burned to death. They were found in a ditch near the capital. Charles Sobhraj was eventually convicted for two murders in Thailand in 1976, which earned him the name ‘Bikini Killer’, but by that time he had long left the country.
The world closed in on Charles Sobhraj in 1976, when he poisoned a group of French students, as part of an elaborate gem scam at the Vikram Hotel in Delhi. For once, Sobhraj got it wrong and miscalculated the dose for the students who became immediately and violently sick. Some of his victims realised they were being drugged, wrestled Mr Sobhraj to the ground and held on to him until he was arrested by Indian police. This time there was no getting away. Charles Sobhraj went to court in Delhi.
By 1977, Thailand had issued a murder warrant for Sobhraj. Nepalese authorities also wanted to interview him about the two backpacker-killings (though he was not charged in Nepal until 1986). The French wanted nothing to do with him, as he had been exiled many years before.
The Indians charged him with murder, for killing Jean-Luc Solomon, a backpacker he had allegedly poisoned. In 1977 a court in Delhi found Charles Sobhraj guilty of administering drugs with intent to rob, causing hurt to commit robbery and the Indian equivalent to manslaughter — culpable homicide not amounting to murder.
Charles Sobhraj was sentenced to seven years for the manslaughter and an additional five years for poisoning. He was sent to the notorious Tihar Jail in Delhi, which he soon ran like a company, controlling business within the prison walls, paying off guards and enjoying freedoms no other prisoner could hope to attain. In 1986, just prior to his release, he escaped by drugging guards and prisoners alike at his birthday party. A few weeks later he was recaptured in Goa with a weapon. Charles Sobhraj was keen to avoid extradition to Thailand where he would have faced the death penalty.
In 1997, after numerous hunger-strikes, escapes and recaptures and twenty years behind bars in India, Sobhraj was released and returned to France where he embarked on an apparently profitable career as a killer celebrity, signing film deals on his life.
In late September last year, the Himalayan Times, a Nepali daily, reported that Sobhraj was in Kathmandu. Shortly after, Deputy Superintendent Ganesh K.C. arrested Sobhraj at the Royal Casino. Old files were dusted off and the case of the backpacker murders was reopened.
In an exclusive interview amidst tight security at Kathmandu Central Jail, Sobhraj denied the murders in Nepal. The softly spoken French national, struggling against the winter cold in an old anorak and woolly hat, insisted, “I have never been to Nepal before. This is a huge miscarriage of justice. I am unlucky to have been arrested in a country where the law is as archaic as the prison I am held in.”
But Ganesh K.C. believed this to be nothing but lies. “We got the right man. I am 500% certain that Charles Sobhraj is guilty of the murders of US citizen Connie Jo Bronzich and Canadian Laurent Ormond Carriere in 1975. It is my hope he will receive the maximum penalty – twenty years – for the crimes he committed in Nepal.”
Panchar Kumar Chhetri, a 73-year old retired policeman who investigated the original murder case in 1975, was less hopeful, “Charles Sobhraj is clever and he will try and twist any case. We suspected him in 1975, after he had entered the country with the passport of a man he had murdered in Thailand, but the police then made a huge mistake. We asked Mr Sobhraj for an interview after gathering evidence. Hours later several officers broke into his hotel room. Sobhraj had gone. I think it is almost impossible to prove he was here in 1975 and that he committed those crimes.”
Ganesh K.C. had long been thinking about Sobhraj, but never expected to meet the alleged serial killer in the flesh, “There is a proverb going round amongst Nepali police officers – ‘If you are a serious criminal you are like Charles Sobhraj’. I read every book on this man. I knew who he was when I joined the police force in 1979. Every single policeman in Nepal is familiar with Sobhraj. This man is a brilliant criminal. He has cheated and killed so many people. He has escaped from jail so many times.”
After just six years of freedom, Charles Sobhraj was back inside. In the derelict and noisy visitor’s cell of the Central Jail, Charles Sobhraj presented his case with quiet intense enthusiasm. With the help of a personal organizer he embellished his story with minute facts and names, at times quoting from the books that have been written about him.
A social animal to the last, Sobhraj was just as eager to talk about his case, as he was to convey his impressions of life in the crumbling, freezing-cold jail.
“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. Luckily I have certain privileges – a room to myself, TV, and, through my lawyer, I can check my email every day.”
Sobhraj, a deadly relic of the swinging 60s and the roaring 70s, wanted to be remembered. He enjoyed daily encounters with sycophantic fans, he was amused by the press coverage and he narrated glimpses of his extraordinary life with the profound authority of the jaded expert.
Even Ganesh K.C. was charmed by the man he put behind bars. “He is quiet, clean and charming, not like a criminal. We got to know each other quite well. During the first interview I asked him, ‘As a friend, please tell me, did you kill two foreigners?’ He denied everything of course.”
Sobhraj joked about his arrest, “First the police did not believe who I was. My passport states I am Charles Sobhraj. I don’t think there is anyone else in the world who would use that name voluntarily.”
Indeed. And the very comfort Mr Sobhraj took in this fact made him the creepiest celebrity in town.
Given Sobhraj’s track record, Ganesh K.C. was remarkably calm about his dangerous prisoner, “He is kept under special security arrangements because he escaped from Tihar in India so many times. But he will not elude custody here. Charles Sobhraj made a huge mistake returning to Nepal.”
Indeed, security was tight. During interviews no less than five security officers watched over their prized inmate.
The Deputy Superintendent believed the recent arrest was no coincidence. “I think Charles Sobhraj returned to Nepal because he wanted publicity. But he failed. It was his pride that got him – that makes me feel good.”
Sobhraj denied this, “The French Government informed the authorities in Nepal of my release in India in 1997 and requested to be told about any outstanding charges against me. I never heard anything back.”
This statement appeared to be in direct contradiction to his assertion, a few minutes earlier, that he had never been to Nepal. Sobhraj claimed the police only bowed to pressure from the media after reports of his presence had been repeatedly published. “While I was in the news, the police never came to my hotel, never questioned me. Three days before I was due to leave Nepal, they arrested me while I was having dinner at the casino. I was not even charged then. They have no case, no evidence, nothing.”
Ganesh K.C. told an entirely different story, “We have a strong case. We have police statements from India, matching signatures from 1975 from India and Nepal, travel documents from airlines. Interpol is providing extra evidence. No one wants this man back. He is a killer.”
Looking over the original files, Ganesh K.C. mused, “Charles Sobhraj thinks he is a criminal super hero. I think he is a psycho. He does not kill for money, but to get satisfaction. He wants to show his talent to the whole world. He has not changed.”
The cop and the serial killer shared a life long connection, but Ganesh K.C. was eager to play down any hint of destiny, “I am trained to catch and investigate guys like Sobhraj. It’s part of my job. Still, my wife and children are very proud of me.”
Charles Sobhraj has served his time in India, is no longer wanted in Thailand, but has now been convicted for murder in Nepal. He received a twenty year sentence. His appeal in 2005 failed. But the illustrious career of Charles Sobhraj may not have come to an end yet. While he is not currently wanted anywhere else, the Dutch embassy in Malaysia has mentioned his name in connection with the disappearance of a Dutch citizen in early 2003. Escape seems to be the serial killer’s only hope to taste freedom again.
Postscript: In 2009, Charles Sobhraj was still in jail in Kathmandu and had just gotten married to a young Nepali woman.
Photographs by Steve Sandford. Published in Penthouse, Bizarre Magazine, Vimen and The Nation.