It’s thought that for every one-hundred people, at least one of them will be a psychopath. That doesn’t mean one percent of people walking among us have a penchant for committing evil deeds, but it does mean we’ve probably all met someone that displays some unusual traits. Psychopaths are said to be endowed with “a constellation of traits”, but that doesn’t always mean they are psychotic, far from it.
You can get a better idea of what it means to be psychopathic by looking at the “Hare Psychopathy Checklist” or by reading the fascinating book by Jon Ronson called “The Psychopath Test”. What’s agreed about psychopaths is that they can be cunning, selfish, impulsive, charming, and deceitful, and they’re generally devoid of empathy. It’s also said they might secure great pleasure from committing crimes. Today we’ll look at just such a person, in this episode of the Infographics Show, The Complete Psychopathic Killer: Charles Sobhraj.
First of all, we should say that this man has been the subject of many books and documentaries. The press at times has called him the most evil man in the world, but perhaps that’s an exaggeration. He does, however, merit the public’s attention. There really has been no one in modern times as conniving and convincing as this career criminal.
Much of the information we will provide you with in this show is taken from a 1979 book called, “Serpentine”, written by American journalist and author Thomas Thompson. He interviewed hundreds of people for the book, including Sobhraj himself, and for over 600 pages, the reader is left dizzy, gob-smacked, appalled, amazed, and in spite of the wicked deeds, even with a sense of admiration for what this man got away with. Not for what he did, of course. We’ll tell you the abridged story, and you can tell us what you think of Charles Sobhraj at the end.
He was born on April 6 1944, to a young Vietnamese mother and an Indian father in the city of Saigon, Vietnam. His full name was Hatchand Bhaonani Gurumukh Charles Sobhraj. You could say he got a bad start in life, as his parents were not married and Sobhraj was therefore stateless, meaning officially he didn’t exist. His parents had a torrid relationship and soon his father, a man struggling with a small tailoring business, left the mother and child.
It’s said the young Sobhraj would routinely scream for his father, often running away to find him. The father didn’t want him, and so he would be delivered back. This was the start of a life of running away. His mother even had to tie him up at times, and later in life, she did that just to keep him out of trouble. She didn’t much want this difficult child, either, and you could say this sense of abandonment was the chrysalis of a criminal and killer to be.
His mother eventually met a French Army lieutenant and over some time they had 4 children of their own, shoving the naughty first child to the back of the line. The family moved around the world, with Charles, still a young boy, at times showing the utmost bravery and stowing away on ships so he could get back to Vietnam and try and reconcile a relationship with a father who verily didn’t want him. In fact, the father said the child had a darkness in his veins and would never be right. The mother couldn’t really disagree. In school he was exceptionally intelligent, but his bad behavior obscured his talents. Eventually the family would move back to France and Charles at last would have a passport and an identity.
At just 19, he was jailed for petty crimes in Paris, including burglary. He had already started mixing with some sketchy figures from the Paris underworld. While in prison, Charles began what would turn into a lifetime of manipulation. He could play the victim, he could feign illness, he could take advantage of prison system rules as he had read about them; he could get his way with guards, something he would do for years to come. Yes, the young Charles read avidly, studying Classics, History, Philosophy, Psychology, and of course Law – the discipline any budding criminal should study.
He was also a big fan of German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche and also Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung. The more he knew about the mind, the more he could manipulate it. He believed in the Nietzschean maxim of “will to power”, meaning that he could get anything he wanted with enough effort. As for people’s minds, he would become an expert in gems, being able to spot the tiniest flaws, and it’s said he could also do this with the human mind, and then he could exploit those flaws for his own gain.
He did this with a wealthy young man named Felix d’Escogne who had come to visit the young Sobhraj in prison. Sobhraj played up to d’Escogne’s kind nature – he was only in prison to help inmates out who needed help – and he helped Charles get a quick release. d’Escogne’s flaw was of course kindness…humanitarianism. On the outside he moved in with d’Escogne, and this handsome young man could charm anyone he came into contact with, especially when he started to attend high-society parties. Only as he waxed philosophy and literature and politics, he was sizing his interlocutors up, and he would start a campaign of burglaries at the houses of the Parisian wealthy.
We can’t go into all the details, but we will tell you Charles met a young Parisian woman who fell madly in love with him, and who would suffer greatly as his lover for her devotion. In fact, on the night he proposed to her, Sobhraj was arrested for stealing a car and sent to prison again. Because of his high-profile crimes of robbing the rich, he was given a psychological evaluation in prison. These are some of the actual things said about him in that report:
“A fascinating case” a man of “paradoxical qualities” an “Intuitive intelligence” a “tormented nature”, “exploits one hundred percent the weakness of those around him”, “hungry for money and success”, a “small conscience”, “possess the sentimentality and sexuality of Don Juan”, “impulsive and aggressive”, a “brilliant actor”, a “poseur extraordinaire”.
Once Charles was out of prison he quickly stole d’Escogne’s MG Sports Car and took his now pregnant wife through Europe, the Middle East, and into Asia, where the most damage could be done because corruption was rife, and systems of law were still archaic.
Hell followed them both, especially his poor, beautiful lover. The two used fake documents all the way, and it’s known Charles used confidence scams to rob people. He would find his prey, whether in the beach towns of Greece or on the hippy trail of Afghanistan, by listening to them from a distance. If you were a travelling academic, he would study your field; if you were prospecting oil, he’d read up on that; and later, he would find you and strike up a conversation about your field and gain your trust. Only you’d wake up two days later with all your money, traveler’s checks, and valuables gone. He sold stolen cars and drugs, and he dealt in precious stones; the number of scams are too many to recount, however.
Most of the time he left his lover at home as he traveled through countries on fake passports, scamming and gambling. At times, he would prey on young travelers who had run out of money and put them in his employment by telling them to look out for victims; or if they were pretty girls, to flirt with possible victims. It’s said Sobhraj, having studied Jung’s books, broke people down into personality types, so he almost always knew how to manipulate the people he stole from or wanted working for him. It seems he was universally liked by those people he met, who he would later drug and steal from.
All the time he was amassing passports from his many victims, many of which he would use himself for travel under a false identity. By this time, his child was born. Only Charles would be jailed at times, sometimes leaving his lover and child with no money on the streets of a strange town. It almost always happened, however, that a stranger in Charles’ employ would turn up and hand the girl jewels that would provide room and shelter as he thought of ways to escape prison. And that he did, almost better than the famed prisoner Papillon. He would dig holes with spoons and penetrate the walls, or even feign illness and escape via the hospital. He drugged guards, and for some reason, he always had drugs, or plans of prisons, on the inside.
This young man had learned that money can buy anything in certain parts of the world. It’s said he escaped from supposedly impenetrable prisons in India, Afghanistan, and Greece. We must point out here that he hadn’t used his real name in years, and when jailed, it was always under one of his false identities. It is for this reason that all these crimes committed throughout many countries in Europe and Asia were not recognized as being the same man’s work. The pieces would be put together at some point, and he would become the most wanted man in the world, but this would take many years.
His lover had enough of being left on the streets and being part of Charles’ underworld. We must remember that she was from a well-to-do conservative family, and Charles had led her into a life of crime. She managed to borrow enough money from her family and fly back to France, leaving the life behind forever. Charles then got in touch with his younger brother, Andre, who had always looked up to him. Convinced to come to Istanbul, Charles told Andre how he’d been making money from drugging and robbing and dealing in gems.
Andre soon joined Charles, but both were arrested when working in Athens. As they looked alike, on the way to the jail, Charles told Andre to pretend to be him, and that the authorities wouldn’t know the difference. Charles eventually escaped by setting fire to a prison van he’d planned to be inside and fleeing in the melee, leaving his young brother behind to serve an 18-year sentence. The plan, apparently, was when authorities found out Andre wasn’t Charles, they’d let him go. They didn’t. Charles went off to Turkey, even though one of his identities was wanted there for a robbery at the Istanbul Hilton hotel.
He then moved to Thailand, where he would meet his unwitting accomplice Marie-Andrée Leclerc, a French-Canadian girl who Charles would seduce, among many other women in Thailand he would have working for him in some way. There Charles would manipulate backpackers somewhat lost in the mystical East, encouraging them to stay with him. Back in those days, only very adventurous people traveled to such places, so someone speaking English, or French, or even not perfect Dutch, was a relief to meet.
Only he would drug them and have them think they were suffering from dysentery due to the exotic food. He was actually giving them strychnine. He did this to many young travelers and had them stay with him. What he intended to do with them isn’t clear, but their valuables and passports were in Charles’ safe. They weren’t all naïve young folks, either; two of his victims were French policemen who had decided to travel the East.
At the same time Charles and an Indian accomplice named Ajay Chowdhury had graduated to murdering tourists. These were mainly young, impressionable backpackers who were later found strangled, stabbed, and sometimes burned. One couple it’s said was burned alive. Their passports and valuables were always taken.
But some of those people sitting ill in Charles house had begun to smell a rat. They’d stopped taking the pills Charles was giving them for their stomach problems and miraculously they got better. At one point, some of the victims at the house had even seen passports of the missing people, further arousing their suspicions that their landlord might be a serial killer. It’s said one of the girls at the house even went to the British embassy to complain, but the hippy girl was ignored. This would later be an embarrassment for the British. The victims then left the house while Charles was on criminal business away, which would be a surprise to him when he returned. They all knew they had likely escaped being murdered.
He continued stealing and killing, even killing an Israeli scholar just for his passport when he was in India. Some reports suggest money wasn’t always the objective, with one media report stating, “Sobhraj had begun to think of himself as a Nietzschean character, a criminal Superman who soared above everyone else’s moral code.” He did it, because he could. Charles took a business trip to Malaysia with Ajay Chowdhury around this point. Chowdhury was never seen again. It seems Charles had had enough of his right-hand man. He had outlived his usefulness.
At the same time Dutch embassy diplomat Herman Knippenberg was investigating the case of the two Dutch tourists that were brutally murdered, and it led him to Sobhraj – only not that name, but an identity Sobhraj was working under – Alain Gautier. “It was all so easy for him. The murders, the deception, everything. He had got away with so much for so long that he believed he was invincible,” Knippenberg later told the press. The official put Thai police onto Sobhraj and told them to go to his apartment and check the safe, there they would find passports of murdered tourists. Only it seems Thai police just let Sobhraj go after capturing him.
What happened remains a mystery; some say they let him go so as not to scare future tourists away from Thailand, others say Sobhraj handed a Thai police chief $15,000. This was the reason Sobhraj liked to work in such countries, of course, because officials were always open to a bribe. To this day not much has changed in Thailand. The Dutchman was livid, learning that Sobhraj had just walked out of the police station and off he went under a different name. One month later Knippenberg received permission to check the safe and there he found strong drugs that could send a person to sleep, and indeed, passports of murdered travelers as well as many others. Knippenberg later said the former owners of the other passports could also have been murdered. Finally, Thailand said it was on the case, this was now a matter of saving the country’s face. A little too late, one thinks.
Back in India Sobhraj built a new family, consisting of two young attractive girls, British and American, called Barbara Smith and Mary Ellen Eather. His devoted French-Canadian girl was still at his side, too. We should say here that it’s thought none of this gang knew about the full extent of Sobhraj’s crimes. They would help him drug and rob tourists, though. Except this all came undone when one drugging went too far and a French man died. Soon after, Sobhraj’s temerity hit a high note when he decided he was going to drug and rob a whole busload of French students he had befriended, only the drugs started taking effect too quickly and they started dropping like flies in the Vikram Hotel in Delhi. They knew it was Sobhraj who had spiked their food and he was wrestled to the ground. Police soon arrived.
India’s best police investigator was put on the case and the investigation was a long one. He said Sobhaj was impervious to questioning, never mind how long it went on for. He was eventually charged in 1977 of culpable homicide not amounting to murder and charges of drugging and robbing. He was to serve 12 years. It’s said inside he lived a life of luxury, bribing guards to receive 5-star treatment. It’s said officials and convicts treated with him respect and fear. He gave interviews with journalists around the world and was paid large amounts of money for it. In India he had become known as a kind of boogeyman, a guy that had almost superpowers. He had many female admirers in jail, who would do their work for him on the outside. In fact, throughout his time in many prisons, women all over the world would fall for him.
Only after serving ten years in Delhi, and soon to be released, his 20-year Thai arrest warrant still meant he could be tried for murder and executed in Thailand. So, on Sunday March 16 1986 he threw a huge party in the prison with lots of tasty food he had ordered in. Only it was laced with 820 sleeping pills. When Sobhraj walked out of the jail, it’s said the guards were sleeping against their rifles. He was soon recaptured in India and his sentence was extended for 10 years, which was exactly what he had hoped for.
Thailand was a death sentence. He was released in 1997 and he returned to France a celebrity. The statute of limitations meant he was no longer wanted in Thailand. In France, he was offered $15 million for his story so it might be turned into a movie. He was a rich man, even though an incorrigible thief and serial killer. His luck came to an end, though, when he visited Nepal in 2003. The authorities arrested him, and he was later charged with the murder of two backpackers in the 70s. He denied this and said the evidence was flimsy, but he was sentenced anyway.
He told journalist Tom Vater while in the Nepali jail, “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 archaic as the prison I am held in.” It didn’t matter. He was convicted of another murder as well in 2014. He married in jail and it’s thought still lived well, but it looks like he is staying there.
“What makes a man a murderer?’ he once pondered after being asked that question. “Either they have too much feeling and cannot control themselves, or they have no feelings. It is one of the two,” he replied. Perhaps he was the latter. He also said, “I can justify the murders to myself. I never killed good people.” In another interview he said, “If I have ever killed, or have ordered killings, then it was purely for reasons of business, just a job, like a general in the army.” In yet another interview he told a writer, “I have already taken from the past what is best for me, what helps me live in the present and prepare for the future. If I play back a murder, it will be to see what I have learned from the method. I won’t even notice the body.”
In a 1983 interview with journalist Richard S Ehrlich, Sobhraj’s former French-Canadian lover Ms. Leclerc, then months away from dying of cancer, said, “I stayed with Sobhraj because I had no passport, no money, and did not speak English then. I consider Sobhraj a man who is sick.” During our research for this show, we spoke to Ehrlich online. He told us when he interviewed Sobhraj during his incarceration in Delhi’s Tihar jail, he found the man to be, “strangely likeable but totally terrifying.” He added, “Sobhraj also gave me copies of his letters to then-prime minister Indira Gandhi, and his signature is a strangled, tightly coiled whirlpool.”
It’s generally thought Charles killed between 12 and 20 people, but who knows how many mysterious deaths he could have been behind during his decades long crime spree across the world.
There’s another side of him, too. It’s said in jail he would trick heavy-handed guards and somehow get them fired. It’s also said prisoners and wardens obeyed him. On the other hand, some media reports said he gives money to the children of poor inmates and even guards that are underpaid. To this day he’s not allowed any unsupervised visits and under no circumstances can he be sent to the prison hospital – doctors must go to his cell.
Authorities still believe that even as an ageing man he has almost magical ways about him, and so they risk nothing. It’s a pity there hasn’t been a Hollywood movie about Sobhraj, but perhaps him being half-Indian Half-Vietnamese and fluent in seven languages – that he needed to perform his scams – as well as pretty much committing crimes all over Southern Asia, the Middle east and Europe, might pose some problems for filmmakers.
So, tell us what you think about Charles Sobhraj? Is there anything that impresses you, given his numerous prison breaks, and how he deceived people for decades, his devotion to study and understanding the human mind? Or is he just another cold-blooded, calculated murderer like most of the rest of those serial killers? Let us know in the comments! Also, be sure to check out our full playlist about Serial Killers. Thanks for watching, and as always, don’t forget to like, share and subscribe. See you next time!