Tuesday, December 4, 2018

A Prison Encounter With Charles Sobhraj, Asia’s Most Infamous Serial Killer: CriMemoir by Tom Vater

Tom Vater's latest book, The Monsoon Ghost Image is the third in his series featuring Detective Maier, the Asia-specialist for a German detective firm (after The Cambodian Book of the Dead and The Man With the Golden Mind), this time pitted against the CIA, corrupt international business interests and 'The Wicked Witch of the East' in Thailand.

The following is his first-person account of interviewing serial killer Charles Sobhraj in prison. Keep up with Tom at his website TomVater.com.

A Prison Encounter With Charles Sobhraj, Asia’s Most Infamous Serial Killer: 
CriMemoir by Tom Vater

Indian parents tell their children that Charles Sobhraj will come and eat them if they are naughty. That’s what crossed my mind as I walked with Canadian photographer and documentary film maker Steve Sandford through the gate of Kathmandu prison – which looks like a Spaghetti western film set, much like its watch towers and armed guards – into the visitors’ area, a long narrow room, split in half by a low wall and strong chicken wire that reached up to the ceiling. Visitors had to sit down on stone benches. To our left and right families were shouting across the low wall, through the chicken wire to their incarcerated relatives. This was Christmas 2003 and we were here to interview a man infamous and feared across a continent. Charles Sobhraj, one of the world’s most notorious serial killers, was awaiting trialin Nepal and had agreed to grant us an interview. So had the prison authorities. Charles Sobhraj spent more than twenty years on the road across Asia befriending backpackers, drugs-smugglers, diplomats and businessmen, then drugging, robbing and finally strangling or burning his acquaintances. He is said to have killed between twelve and twenty times.

The now seventy-four 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, growing up on the streets of Saigon and in juvenile prisons in France. Neglected by his family, the young 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 was known as the “Serpent’ for his mastery of disguise, his multiple identities and his ability to persuade people to assist him with his killings. With the help of several female assistants, Sobhraj 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. Sobhraj was convicted for two murders in Thailand in 1976, which earned him the name ‘Bikini Killer’, but he was never caught for these crimes. 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, the “Serpent” 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 eventually charged 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, who had been burned alive. With evidence provided by several embassies, the Thais also investigated 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.

The world was closing in on Charles Sobhraj. In 1976 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 violently sick. Some of his victims realized they were being drugged, wrestled Sobhraj to the ground and held on to him until he was arrested by Indian police. Sobhraj went to court in Delhi. By 1977, Thailand had issued a murder warrant for Sobhraj. Nepalese authorities wanted to interview him about two backpacker-killings (though he was not charged in Nepal until 1986). The Delhi court charged him with murder, for killing Jean-Luc Solomon, a backpacker he had allegedly poisoned. In 1977 Sobhraj was found 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. Sobhraj was sentenced to seven years for manslaughter and an additional five years for poisoning. He was sent to the notorious Tihar Jail, 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. Sobhraj was keen to avoid extradition to Thailand where he 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.

In September 2003, the Himalayan Times reported that Sobhraj was in Kathmandu. Shortly after, the police arrested Sobhraj at the Royal Casino. Old files were dusted off and the case of the two backpacker murders was reopened. “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.

So here we were, on one side of the chicken wire. And opposite us stood Charles Sobhraj, legs and arms shackled. We were flanked by two police officers, Sobhraj was surrounded by three officers. The walls were dirty yellow, the light beamed down from a neon strip above our heads, it was gritty. We were not allowed to take photographs, make recordings or take notes. Sobhraj was a charismatic man, even in his old anorak and woolly cap, (soon after the interview I watched The Silence of The Lambs and found it unbearably flat-footed and vulgar) and he was watching us like a hawk as we introduced ourselves and told him that we’d come to write a story about him. Through the wire, he looked perfectly reasonable, projecting the air of a French university professor, the assured spiel of an Indian gem stone seller and the rough skepticism of a Vietnamese soldier. His accent flitted between his personas, as if trying to evaluate which version of himself would work best with us, or on us. I guess he saw us as a prize catch, rotting away in his cell, waiting for something to happen, even if it was no more than the appearance of a couple of foreign freelance journalists.

The previous day, Deputy Superintendent of Police, Ganesh K.C., the man who’d arrested Sobhraj, had told us his rather incredible story.“I remember the day as if it was yesterday. I was playing near Kathmandu airport. In 1975 there were only fields and 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.”

As a ten year old, Ganesh had stumbled across the crime scene of one of Sobhraj’s two Nepali murders. In September 2003, he’d arrested the prime suspect in Nepal’s worst tourist murder. According to Kathmandu police, Sobhraj drugged twenty-six year old Canadian Laurent Carrière and twenty-nine year old American Connie Bronzich, then stabbed them and partially burned them, before dumping the bodies in two separate locations, one near Kathmandu airport and the other in a field near the UNESCO World Heritage Site Bhaktapur.

Of course Sobhraj professed his innocence. “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 out of date as the prison I am held in.

Then he asked me a series of personal questions with what seemed like remarkable empathy. I had my stock answers, that we were on assignment, to hear his side of the story. Having denied the murders he was accused off in Nepal, he started laying into the prison system. His minders never batted an eye lid. “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.”

It was somewhat laborious to direct him back to the subject we had come for, his recent arrest in Nepal. With the help of a personal organizer he launched into his life story, with minute facts and names, at times quoting the books that have been written about him, but without alluding to having killed anyone. It was a weird hour long pantomime in the crumbling, freezing-cold jail.

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.

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.

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.” Outside the jail, a few Sobhraj groupies had gathered to visit their idol. An American waiting for his idol with a bag of oranges, told me, “Asking why Charles Sobhraj kills, is like asking why the sky is blue.” Another told us he’d spring Sobhraj dinner upon his release.

That will have to wait.

In 2004, Sobhraj was convicted to twenty years in prison for the murder of Connie Bronzich. The verdict was upheld by Nepal’s Supreme Court in 2010. In 2014, Sobhraj was convicted to another fifteen years for the murder of Laurent Carrière.

A couple of weeks ago, I was back in Kathmandu. I happened to walk past the city jail. There’s a new gate, a big iron affair, a little more with the times. But above on the prison wall, guards still patrol with automatic weapons. Somewhere in the bowels of the jail. Charles Sobhraj lingers and I can’t help thinking of all things I have done, seen, felt, lived and survived, the books I have written, the people I have met, since I first walked through those gates fifteen years ago. I also thought about the many people I have met who have been incarcerated unjustly, or for too long.

Charles Sobhraj is not one of them.

As Sobhraj slips into old age, as his biographer Richard Neville, incidentally one of the founders of the UK’s legendary OZ Magazine, passed away in 2016, and as the big film about the drifting hippie killer was never made, his name, his crimes and his charisma will fade. Children in India will be scared by other popular culture bogeymen.

Tom Vater is an Asia-based writer and journalist. He is the author of numerous books, mostly on Asian subjects, including four crime fiction novels. His most recent novel, The Monsoon Ghost Image, is a detective mystery unfolding in Thailand, on the fringes of the US’ war on terror, published in October 2018 with Crime Wave Press.