Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Charles Sobhraj

Hatchand Bhaonani Gurumukh Charles Sobhraj (born April 6, 1944), better known as Charles Sobhraj, is a serial killer of Indian and Vietnamese origin, who preyed on Western tourists throughout Southeast Asia during the 1970s. Nicknamed "the Serpent" and "the Bikini killer" for his skill at deception and evasion, he allegedly committed at least 12 murders. He was convicted and jailed in India from 1976 to 1997, but managed to live a life of leisure even in prison. After his release, he retired as a celebrity in Paris; he unexpectedly returned to Nepal, where he was arrested, tried and sentenced to life imprisonment on August 12, 2004. The Supreme Court of Nepal has finally convicted him and ordered the life imprisonment, this decision was made on 30 July 2010.
While Sobhraj is widely believed to be a psychopath, his motives for killing differed from those of most serial killers. Sobhraj was not driven to murder by deep-seated, violent impulses, but as a means to sustain his lifestyle of adventure. That, as well as his cunning and cultured personality, made him a celebrity long before his release from prison. Sobhraj enjoyed the attention, charging large amounts of money for interviews and film rights; he has been the subject of four books and three documentaries. His search for attention and his overconfidence in his own intelligence are believed responsible for his return to a country where authorities were still eager to arrest him.

Early years
Sobhraj was born as Gurmukh Sobhraj to an unwed Vietnamese mother and an Indian father in Saigon. The father soon deserted the family. Stateless at first, he was adopted by his mother's new boyfriend, a French army lieutenant stationed in Indochina. However, he was neglected in favour of the couple's later children. Sobhraj continued to move back and forth between France and Indochina with the family, not feeling at home in either place. As a teenager he developed personality problems and turned to petty crime.
Sobhraj received his first jail sentence (for burglary) in 1963, serving at Poissy prison near Paris  However, not only did he weather the harsh conditions of jail, he managed to manipulate the prison official into granting him special favours like being allowed to keep books in his cell, etc. At around the same time he met and endeared himself to Felix d'Escogne, a wealthy young man and prison volunteer.
After being paroled, Sobhraj moved in with d'Escogne and shared his time between moving in the high society of Paris and the criminal underworld. He soon started accumulating riches through a series of scams and burglaries. During this time, he met and began a relationship with Chantal Compagnon who was from a conservative Parisian family. On the night he proposed to her, Sobhraj was arrested for evading police while driving a stolen car. He was sentenced back to prison time in Poissy for eight months. Chantal remained supportive during his prison time. Sobhraj and Chantal were married upon his release.
Soon after, facing mounting suspicions by French authorities, he and a now pregnant Chantal left France for Asia to escape arrest. After travelling through Eastern Europe on fake documents and robbing people who befriended them, they arrived in Bombay in 1970. Here Chantal gave birth to a baby girl. While in Bombay, the couple made a good impression on the expatriate community there. In the meantime, Sobhraj resumed his criminal lifestyle by running a car theft and smuggling operation. The profits from this operation of which were used towards his growing gambling addiction.
In 1970, Sobhraj was arrested and imprisoned after an unsuccessful armed robbery attempt on a jewellery store in Hotel Ashoka. Sobhraj did manage to escape with Chantal's help and faking illness, but they were re-captured shortly afterwards. He borrowed money for bail from his father in Saigon and soon after fled to Kabul in Afghanistan.
In Kabul, the couple continued robbing tourists on the "hippie trail" only to be arrested once again. But Sobhraj escaped, the same way he had in India, feigning illness and drugging the hospital guard. This time Sobhraj fled to Iran leaving his family behind. Chantal, although still loyal to him, wishing to leave their criminal past behind, returned to France and vowed never to see him again.
Sobhraj spent the next two years on the run, using as many as 10 stolen passports and visiting several countries in Eastern Europe and the Middle East. He was joined in Istanbul by André, his younger brother. Sobhraj and André quickly became partners in many crimes in both Turkey and Greece. Both were eventually arrested in Athens. After an identity-switch plan gone wrong, Sobhraj escaped in his usual manner, but his brother was left behind. André was turned over to the Turkish police by Greek authorities. He had to serve an 18-year sentence.

On the run again, Sobhraj financed his lifestyle by posing as a mysterious drug dealer to impress tourists and defrauding them when they let their guard down. In Thailand, he met Marie-Andrée Leclerc from Lévis, Quebec, one of many tourists looking for adventure in the East. Subjugated by Sobhraj's personality, Leclerc quickly became his most devoted follower, turning a blind eye to his crimes and his philandering with local women.
Sobhraj started gathering followers by helping them out of difficult situations, indebting them to him while he actually was the very cause of their misery. In one case, he helped two former French policemen, named Yannick and Jacques, to recover their passports that he himself had stolen; in another, he provided shelter and comfort to another Frenchman named Dominique Rennelleau, whose apparent dysentery illness was actually the results of poisoning by Sobhraj. He was also joined by a young Indian named Ajay Chowdhury, a fellow criminal who became his lieutenant. Sobhraj wanted to start a criminal "family" of sorts, in the style of Charles Manson's.
It was then that Sobhraj and Chowdhury committed their first (known) murders in 1975. Most of the victims had spent some time with the "clan" before their deaths and were, according to some investigators, potential recruits who had threatened to expose Sobhraj. The first victim was a young woman from Seattle, Teresa Knowlton, who was found burned like many of Sobhraj's other victims. Soon thereafter, a young American Jennie Bollivar, was found drowned in a tidal pool in the Gulf of Thailand, wearing a flowered bikini. It was only months later that the autopsy and forensic evidence revealed the drowning to be murder.
The next victim was a young, nomadic Sephardic Jew named Vitali Hakim, whose burned body was found on the road to the Pattaya resort where Sobhraj and his clan were staying.
Dutch students Henk Bintanja, 29, and his fiancée Cornelia Hemker, 25, were invited to Thailand after meeting Sobhraj in Hong Kong. Just as he had done to Dominique, Sobhraj poisoned them, and then nurtured them back to health to gain their obedience. As they recovered, Sobhraj was visited by his previous victim Hakim's French girlfriend, Charmayne Carrou, coming to investigate her boyfriend's disappearance. Fearing exposure, Sobhraj and Chowdhury quickly hustled the couple out; their bodies were found strangled and burned on December 16, 1975. Soon after, Carrou was found drowned in circumstances similar to Jennie's, and wearing a similar-styled swimsuit. Although the murders of both women were not connected by investigations at the time, they would later earn Sobhraj the nickname of "the bikini killer."
On December 18, the day the bodies of Bintanja and Hemker were identified, Sobhraj and Leclerc entered Nepal using the couple's passports. There they met and, on December 21–22, murdered Canadian Laurent Ormond Carrière, 26, and Californian Connie Bronzich, 29. (The two victims were incorrectly identified in some sources as Laddie DuParr and Annabella Tremont.) Sobhraj and Leclerc then returned to Thailand, once again using their latest victims' passports before their bodies could be identified.
Upon his return to Thailand, Sobhraj discovered that his three French companions had started to suspect him, found documents belonging to the murder victims, and fled to Paris after notifying local authorities.
Sobhraj then went to Calcutta, where he murdered Israeli scholar Avoni Jacob for his passport, and used it to move to Singapore with Leclerc and Chowdhury, then to India and - rather boldly - back to Bangkok in March 1976. There they were interrogated by Thai policemen in connection with the murders, but easily let off the hook because authorities feared that the negative publicity accompanying a murder trial would harm the country's tourist trade.
Not so easily silenced, however, was Dutch embassy diplomat Herman Knippenberg, who was investigating the murder of the two Dutch backpackers, and suspected Sobhraj even though he did not know his real name. Knippenberg started to build a case against him, partly with the help of Sobhraj's neighbour. Given police permission to conduct his own search of Sobhraj's apartment (a full month after the suspect had left the country), Knippenberg found a great deal of evidence, such as victims' documents and poison-laced medicines. He would from then on accumulate evidence against Sobhraj for decades, despite the lack of cooperation by law enforcement.
The trio's next stop was in Malaysia, where Chowdhury was sent on a gem-stealing errand, and disappeared after giving the jewels to Sobhraj. No trace of him was ever found, and it is widely believed that Sobhraj murdered his former accomplice before leaving with Leclerc to sell the jewels in Geneva. However, some sources say that Chowdhury was spotted in Germany much later and the hunt for him is still on.
Soon back in Asia, Sobhraj started rebuilding his clan, starting in Bombay with two lost Western women named Barbara Sheryl Smith and Mary Ellen Eather. His next victim was Frenchman Jean-Luc Solomon, who succumbed to the poison intended to incapacitate him during a robbery.
In July 1976 in New Delhi, Sobhraj and the three women tricked a tour group of post-graduate French students into accepting them as guides. He then drugged them with pills which he pretended were anti-dysentery medicine. However, when the drugs started acting too quickly and the students started dropping unconscious where they stood, three of them quickly realized what was happening and overcame Sobhraj, leading to his capture by police. During interrogation, Barbara and Mary Ellen quickly cracked and confessed everything. Sobhraj was charged with the murder of Solomon, and all four were sent to Tihar prison outside New Delhi while awaiting formal trial.

Prison time
This biographical section needs additional citations for verification. Please help by adding reliable sources. Contentious material about living persons that is unsourced or poorly sourced must be removed immediately, especially if potentially libelous or harmful. (December 2007)
Conditions inside the notorious prison were unbearable; b a and Mary Ellen attempted suicide during the two years before their trial. Sobhraj, however, had entered with precious gems concealed in his body and was experienced in bribing captors and living comfortably in jail.
Sobhraj turned his trial into a show, hiring and firing lawyers at whim, bringing in his recently-paroled and still-loyal brother André to help, and eventually going on a hunger strike. He was sentenced to 12 years in prison instead of the expected death penalty. Leclerc was found guilty of the drugging of the French students, then later paroled and returned to Canada when she developed ovarian cancer. She was still claiming her innocence, and reportedly still loyal to Sobhraj, when she died at home in April 1984.
Sobhraj's systematic bribery of prison guards at Tihar reached outrageous levels. He led a life of luxury inside the jail, with TV, and gourmet food, having befriended both the guards and the prisoners. He would walk in and out of jail whenever he wanted.[citation needed] Revelling in his notoriety, he gave interviews to Western authors and journalists, such as Oz magazine's Richard Neville in the late 1970s, and Alan Dawson in 1984. He freely talked about his murders, while never actually admitting to them, and pretended that his actions were in retaliation against Western imperialism in Asia.
He also needed to find a way to prolong his sentence, since the 20-year Thai arrest warrant against him would still be valid on his intending to his deportation and almost certain execution. So in March 1986, on his tenth year in prison, he threw a big party for his prisoner and guard friends and, having drugged them with sleeping pills, walked out of the jail.
Shobhraj was quickly tracked down and caught in O'Coquero Restaurant,Goa by Inspector Madhukar Zende of the Mumbai police and had his prison term prolonged by 10 years, just as he had hoped. On February 17, 1997, 52-year old Sobhraj was released, with most warrants, evidence and even witnesses against him long lost. Without any country to deport him to, Indian authorities let him return to France. Celebrity and re-capture

Sobhraj retired to a comfortable life in suburban Paris. He hired a publicity agent and charged large sums of money for interviews and photographs. He is said to have charged over $15 million (according to Advocate. Bishwa Lal Shrestha who is Ex. Inspector and investigated the case, framed the charge sheet and registered the case in court) for the rights to a movie based on his life.
On September 17, 2003 Sobhraj was unexpectedly spotted in a street of Kathmandu by a journalist. The journalist quickly reported this to the Nepalese authorities who arrested him two days later in the casino of the Yak and Yeti hotel. Sobhraj's motives for returning to Nepal remain unknown. He was sentenced to life imprisonment by the Kathmandu district court on August 20, 2004 for the 1975 murders of Bronzich and Carrière. Most of the photocopy evidence used against him in this case was drawn from that painstakingly gathered by Knippenberg (the original then gem dealer) and Interpol.
Sobhraj appealed against the conviction claiming that he was sentenced without trial. His lawyer also announced that Chantal, Sobhraj's wife in France, was filing a case before the European Court of Human Rights against the French government, for refusing to provide him with any assistance.
Sobhraj's conviction was confirmed by the Patan Court of Appeals in 2005.

Current status
In late 2007, news media reported that Sobhraj's lawyer had appealed to the current French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, for intervention with Nepal. In 2008, Sobhraj announced his engagement to an women Nihita Biswas from Nepal. On 7 July 2008, issuing a press release through his fiancée Nihita, he claimed that he was never convicted of murder by any court and asked the media not to refer to him as a serial killer. Later, it was claimed that he married his fiancée on October 9, 2008, on the occasion of Bada Dashami, a Nepalese festival, in a much famed, but not publicised, wedding that took place in the jail itself. On the following day, Nepalese jail authorities dismissed the claim of his marriage. They said that Nihita and her family had been allowed to conduct a tika ceremony, along with the relatives of hundreds of other prisoners. They further claimed that it was not a wedding but part of the ongoing Dashain festival, when elders put the vermilion mark on the foreheads of those younger to them to signify their blessings.
In July 2010, the Supreme Court of Nepal postponed the verdict on an appeal filed by Sobhraj against a district court's verdict sentencing him to life imprisonment for the murder of American backpacker Connie Jo Bronzich in 1975. Sobhraj had appealed against the district court's verdict in 2006, calling it unfair and accusing the judges of racism while handing out the sentence.
On July 30, 2010 the Nepalese Supreme Court upheld the verdict issued by the district court in Kathmandu of a 20-year life term for the murder of US citizen Connie Jo Bronzich and another year plus a Rs 2,000 fine for using a fake passport to travel. The seizure of all his properties was also ordered by the court. His mother-in-law/lawyer Shakuntala Thapa and his 'wife', Nihita, expressed that they were dissatisfied with the verdict and Thapa claimed that Sobhraj had been "denied" justice and "judiciary is corrupt". They were charged and sent to juidicial custody  for contempt of court against these remarks.
Sobhraj currently has another case pending against him in the Bhaktapur district court for the murder of Laurent Armand Carrière, a Canadian-born tourist.

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