THE SERPENT killer in Jenna Coleman’s new TV drama will leave viewers trembling in their seats – but the true story of the notorious French-Vietnamese murderer is even more harrowing.
Charles Sobhraj‘s killing spree of up to 24 people – mainly bikini-clad backpackers – is the focus of a new TV series, starting on BBC1 tonight.
Jenna Coleman is killer’s brainwashed accomplice Marie-Andrée LeclercCredit: BBC
Over eight episodes, viewers will learn of his deadly charm – and habit of making outrageous claims to dupe the authorities.
But police have not dismissed his most incredible boasts — because, as a proven serial killer they know he is capable of anything.
“When it gets hot, I go to the kitchen” – Charles ‘Serpent Killer’ Sobhraj
Although Sobhraj’s crimes reached a deadly peak in the 1970s, it was just the tip of an iceberg that saw him rob, swindle, drug and seduce his way around the world, all in a desperate search for danger. He once admitted: “When it gets hot, I go to the kitchen.”
Yet whenever things reached boiling point Sobhraj, now 76, slithered away from authorities so much he was branded The Serpent, a nickname used as the title for the BBC1 drama, which chronicles his worst offences.
Rahim, 39, stars as the killer while Billy Howle, 31, plays Dutch diplomat Herman Knippenberg, who eventually helped jail him.
Tahar Rahim plays Sobhraj, who duped Jenna Coleman’s character, Marie-Andrée LeclercCredit: BBC
Between 1975 and 1976, Sobhraj and Leclerc carried out a string of murders — mostly tourists who refused to take part in their scams — in Nepal, India and Thailand.
Sobhraj’s unscrupulousness saw Leclerc jailed before she returned to Canada to die of cancer in 1984, aged just 38. Yet Sobhraj felt little guilt.
He once glibly remarked on his gift for coercing women: “If you use it to make people do wrong it’s an abuse. However, if you use that power to make people do right, it’s OK. Who’s to say what’s right and wrong?”
Coerced: Jenna’s character Leclerc died of cancer in 1984Credit: BBC
Sick morality after rejected as a kid
The Serpent’s sick morality has been traced back to when his father, Indian tailor Hatchand Sobhraj, abandoned him as a child in Vietnam.
Knippenberg believed being shunned by his father was the root of Sobhraj’s rebelliousness, and why he felt the need to kill anyone who didn’t help him.
He said: “In resisting Sobhraj’s overtures, they triggered his childhood preoccupation with being rejected.”
After his father left, Sobhraj’s mother Tran Loan Phung, a shop assistant, married a French soldier and moved the family from Saigon to Paris. Once in the French capital, Sobhraj stole cars, carried out muggings and robbed housewives at gunpoint.
He was in and out of young offenders’ institutions and prisons. But France was also where he met his first “love”, young Parisian Chantal Compagnon, who, like Marie, he made complicit in his offending.
From 1970 onwards the newly-married couple went on a long crime spree across Europe and the middle East. Sobhraj used any means necessary to stay ahead of the law — once swapping his identity with his younger brother when he got into trouble in Greece.
Crime spree: couple toured world looking for victims
Their luck ran out in Afghanistan, where he and Chantal were jailed. After their daughter Usha was born behind bars, Chantal was allowed to send her back to Paris, hoping she would escape her evil father
But after drugging a guard and escaping jail — leaving Chantal behind — Sobharj went back to France to kidnap his own child.
When Chantal eventually got out and won back custody, she took Usha to the US to ensure he could never taint either of their lives again.
Furious Sobhraj moved further east to carry out even greater crimes. He became an outlaw in India after he held a flamenco dancer hostage in a New Delhi hotel for three days as he used her room to drill down into a gem store below.
He was caught by police after stealing thousands of pounds worth of jewellery but feigned appendicitis and escaped from a hospital.
It was in India that he first met Marie. He instantly set about seducing the 30-year-old French Canadian.
She later wrote: “I swore to myself to try to make him love me, but little by little I became his slave.”
Schemer: Rahim as SobhrajCredit: BBC
Spiked carefree tourists with poison
Together they targeted tourists on the hippy trail around south east Asia because they carried cash and their disappearence would cause little or no suspicion.
One of their first victims was Teresa Knowlton, a 21-year-old American drowned in October 1975 by Sobhraj and his henchman Ajay Chowdhury. They incapacitated her by spiking her drink with drugs.
After her body was found floating in the sea days later, Marie willingly posed as the dead woman to cash in the thousands of dollars worth of travellers cheques their victim was carrying.
Their next victims were students Henk Bintanja, 29, and his fiancée Cornelia Hemker, 25. After the Dutch couple refused to help with one of Sobharj’s scams, they were strangled, bludgeoned and burned alive.
It was these murders which put Knippenberg, of the Dutch Embassy in Thailand, on Sobharj’s trail. The diplomat would not catch up with him until the murderer had gone on to kill around 20 more people in the region, usually through poisoning.
Murdered: Sunday Times report on Henk Bintanja and Cornelia Hemker
But Sobharj’s arrogance was his downfall. In July 1976 he wanted to start a new life in South America so decided to drug a group of 60 French students on holiday in New Delhi, India, with the aim of stealing their passports and cash.
The plan was to give them sleeping pills disguised as antibiotics in the hostel dining room. But instead of going to their bedrooms and passing out, they had a severe reaction.
In The Life And Crimes Of Charles Sobhraj, authors Richard Neville and Julie Clarke write: “He had severely misjudged the dosage. Charles looked on at the chaos in the foyer. Twenty students were laid out on the floor or the furniture, moaning, vomiting or unconscious. He couldn’t stop smiling to himself.”
The smile was only briefly wiped off his face when the police were called and Sobhraj was arrested, questioned and jailed.
Banged up: Sobhraj’s life in jail was far from grimCredit: Rex
Despite being given a 12-year jail term — for the murder of Frenchman Jean-Luc Solomon in India — he lived a life of luxury thanks to using his fortune to bribe fellow prisoners and staff.
He also became a sick celebrity, with author Neville and others travelling to interview him about his crimes — admissions which he would later completely deny.
Jail didn’t stop his sex life
Sobhraj claimed to Richard his high profile also enabled him to enjoy a sex life behind bars.
He said: “I had a lot of female visitors, mainly journalists and MA students. Only intellectuals.”
Among the visitors he seduced were his lawyer Sneh Senger, and he became engaged to two others, including a fellow inmate
His notoriety only intensified in 1986 when he was threatened with being deported to Thailand to face justice for his many other murders.
Fearing the death penalty, he threw a party in jail, then drugged the guards before walking out of his cell. That saw him recaptured and put back inside for another ten years.
Lookalikes: Jenna Coleman and Tahar Rahim recreate killer couple’s snap Credit: BBC
But it was a deliberate move, because by the time he was released from prison in 1997, the 20-year arrest warrant issued by the Thai authorities had elapsed — so he returned to Paris and tried to cash in on his fame. Unfortunately, Sobhraj was now just an ageing ex-con whose appeal had faded.
So in 2004 he took the bizarre decision to travel to Nepal, where he was arrested and jailed for the murders of Canadian Laurent Carrière, 26, and American Connie Bronzich, 29, in December 1975. Much of the evidence had been supplied by Knippenberg almost two decades earlier
Bizarre: Sobhraj escorted by cops outside court in NepalCredit: AP
Once inside prison again, his fame rose and he married 24-year-old Nihita Biswas, the daughter of his Nepali lawyer who had also shot to fame on reality TV show Bigg Boss — India’s equivalent of Big Brother.
Richard Neville visited him again and claims Sobharj initially told him: “I came here to make a TV documentary on local handicrafts and to see if I can do some humanitarian work.” But later he told the author he had been involved in criminal activities including acting as a go-between for the Chinese triads and the Taliban to trade arms and heroin
He even claimed to have been helping the Iraqi regime find chemicals to create nuclear weapons — and had tried to sell the story to future UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, then editor of The Spectator. Mr Johnson said he “clearly remembers making a clear decision not to proceed.
It was a wise move, because Sobhraj will never confess which of his claims are true
As the murderer languishes in a prison cell, he knows the mystery still fuels the legend of The Serpent.
*The Serpent starts on BBC1 on New Year’s Day at 9pm