BBC One's new show The Serpent is in fact based on a true story, and yes, that makes it all the more terrifying. The BBC retelling features eight episodes that explore the life of serial killer Charles Sobhraj, who was a pseudo-gems dealer in Bangkok when he met his partner in crime and Canadian girlfriend, Marie Andrée Leclerc, in Thailand. Exploring the countless investigations that took place, the show follows Herman Knippenberg, a junior diplomat turned detective, as he tries to piece together the slivers of evidence he finds.
Who Is Charles Sobhraj?
Charles Sobhraj was born in Vietnam in 1944 and is of both Vietnamese and Indian descent. His father, an Indian Sindhi businessman, left their family early on in Charles's life, which led to him moving between Indochina and France for most of his teenage years. During his teens, he committed a number of petty crimes and received his first prison sentence in 1963 for burglary near Paris, France. Following his release, he acquired most of his money through burglaries and scams. His second arrest came as a result of him driving a stolen vehicle and attempting to evade the police in the process. Over the years, he continued to run from the French and Nepalese police whilst robbing shops and running a car theft and smuggling operation.
What Murders Did Charles Sobhraj Commit?
Sobhraj preyed on Western tourists, known as "beatniks", a term associated with young people in the late 1950s and early '60s who followed the Beat Generation. His victims were primarily those who travelled along the Hippie Trail in Southeast Asia during the 1970s, a popular route amongst young tourists. Frequently, he'd befriend such tourists before robbing them and inevitably getting caught and arrested. He often drugged prison guards and feigned illness in order to escape his sentences, and it was this cunning nature that earned him the nickname "The Serpent".
In his older years, his crimes got more severe and resulted in many murders, due to fears that his victims would expose him. Again, he'd befriend tourists by helping them out of "difficult" situations — situations often orchestrated by Sobhraj himself — before stealing their money and passports, then disposing of them by any means necessary.
His first known victim was a young tourist from Seattle named Teresa Knowlton who was found drowned in the Gulf of Thailand, wearing a floral bikini. His second was a Jewish man named Vitali Hakim whose body Sobhraj had burned solely in order to obtain his passport. Sobhraj later drowned Hakim's girlfriend, Charmayne Carrou, also found in a floral bikini — a coincidence that led to Sobhraj being known as "The Bikini Killer". The next group of victims were two Dutch students whom Sobhraj met in Hong Kong and then strangled and burned due to fear of exposure. The list goes on, sadly, and by his final imprisonment in 2004, he was thought to have murdered between 12 and 24 people.
Who Was Charles Sobhraj's Wife?
Charles Sobhraj first married a young Parisian woman named Chantal Compagnon in the late 1960s. They were together for a number of years despite his various crimes, and they had a child together, a baby girl named Usha. Eventually, Compagnon saw the error of her ways and wanted to leave their life of crime behind. She left Sobhraj in 1973, vowing never to see him again, although it's been said that the pair remained friends for many years after their divorce. Sobhraj, somewhat unfazed, ended up dating his accomplice Marie Andrée Leclerc and later claimed he "did not love" Compagnon. After a number of years of committing crimes with Leclerc, Sobhraj was imprisoned, and by 2008, he'd become engaged to the woman who is now his current wife, Nihita Biswas.
Biswas was a mere 20 years old at the time that 64-year-old Sobhraj supposedly married her in prison, and she later appeared as a contestant on India's hit TV show Bigg Boss. In 2008, she told the Times of India that "I don't know what he was, what he is now is important. He is a good man, I have seen the way he cares for his family and we have a good relationship." The pair are still said to be together to this day.
Where Is Charles Sobhraj Now?
Sobhraj was sentenced to life imprisonment by the Kathmandu district in 2004. In 2006, he appealed against the court's verdict, accusing them of racism, however, the verdict was upheld by the Supreme Court of Nepal in 2010. At this point, he'd allegedly committed countless murders, and it was virtually impossible for him to be considered a guilt-free man. He was finally convicted in 2014. A few years later, he was reported to be in critical condition, and since his conviction, he's had multiple health issues and received an open-heart surgery in 2017. His current condition remains unknown, but thankfully, he is still very much in prison.
BBC One's The Serpent airs on New Year's Day at 9 p.m.