Charles Sobhraj was born in Saigon to an unwed teenage Vietnamese mother and an Indian (Sindhi) father. Soon after his birth, Sobhraj’s father left the family and his mother remarried a French army lieutenant. The family moved to what was then known as Indochina. As a teenager, Sobhraj moved back and forth between France and Indochina. By the time he reached the age of 20, he’d already served time for burglary. By 30, he had married and had a young daughter but served more time for auto theft, smuggling, armed robbery, and evading police. He moved his family from Paris to Bombay to Kabul then across to Greece. Soon, he began crisscrossing Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and Asia to lead his life of crime. Wherever he went, he used his charm and ability to persuade people to do things for him, picking up lovers, accomplices, and followers with ease, escaping prison by tricking wardens, and making enough money to live the high life.
But by the mid-‘70s, Sobhraj’s hijinxes had turned deadly. His victims were young American and European, mostly women. He killed his victims by whatever means necessary, be it burning, drowning, poisoning. He’s allegedly responsible for at least 30 murders over a decade and along a trail that includes Pattaya, Bangkok, Bombay, Hong Kong, Calcutta, Kathmandu, and Kuala Lumpur. He gained the nickname the bikini killer because his first known victim was found floating in a tidal pool wearing a flowery bikini.
It’s incredible that Sobhraj got away with bold crimes for so long, in so many places, with so many fake identities and stolen gems and money, and leaving behind ample evidence for the authorities. And yet what makes his story even more fascinating is how far sheer charisma got him and with relatively minor consequences. Nearly everything about this case is hard to believe, more the stuff you’d expect from a Bond film than the evening news. Flamboyant is a good word to describe Sobhraj’s life.
For instance, in most of these places, Sobhraj stole money and gems to finance his comfortable lifestyle. He didn’t kill his victims for money so much, it seems, as for the adventure of it, just because he could. For much of the past few decades, his loyal “crime family,” including his brother and ex-lovers (the ones who’ve lived), have refused to squeal on him (earning him the comparison to Charles Manson). It’s been reported that he still has thousands of followers, including a few on a Facebook page. In 1986, Sobhraj threw a party in a Thai prison where he drugged prisoners and guards alike. Once they fell asleep, Sobhraj walked out without anyone stopping him. He’s managed to escape not one prison but several and in various countries. On one occasion, despite being a fugitive in Paris, he hired a celebrity publicist and charged high fees for media interviews. (One report claims he received $15 million from a film studio that optioned rights to make a movie about his life. Not sure which studio, but rumor has it, Bollywood has a biopic in the works.)
For years, a Dutch diplomat, Herman Knippenberg, focused his efforts on collecting evidence against Sobhraj with little or no help from international authorities. Sobhraj would still be a free man today if he hadn’t visited Nepal in 2003 and been spotted by a journalist who happened to recognize him. So far, his seven years in a Nepali prison have been good to him. Sobhraj boasts about eating gourmet meals and having a private TV and email access in his cell. Back in Europe, his French wife lodged a case with the European Court of Human Rights, claiming he hadn’t received a trial. He finally did have a trial and is now serving out only a 20-year sentence. His charm and good luck continue to serve him well. I’m not sure what happened to the first wife, but in 2008, the 67-year-old prisoner married his beautiful 20-year-old Nepali fiancée who, along with her attorney mother, are lobbying hard to prove his innocence and have his sentence commuted.
How does he do it? A lot of people are asking that question.