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
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.
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 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.”
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.
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.