Accused 'bikini killer' resurfaces
Charles Sobhraj had become almost a footnote in the annals of the freewheeling, backpacking '70s, but his arrest in Nepal on Friday could see yet another chapter written of his gruesome exploits.
RICHARD S. EHRLICH
An alleged serial murderer known as "the bikini killer" who preyed on American, French, Australian and other backpackers in Asia may be protected by a statute of limitations despite being arrested last week in the Nepalese capital of Kathmandu.
Thailand, meanwhile, may also be barred under a statute of limitations from demanding the extradition of Mr Sobhraj, 59, to stand trial for at least five sensational murders and two cases of attempted murder in 1975.
Here in Thailand, those murders include:
- Jennifer Bolliver, of Cabrillo beach, California, who was found washed ashore at Pattaya with sand and salt water in her lungs as if forcibly drowned, according to a Thai pathologist.
- A French woman, Charmayne Carrou, who was also found dead on Pattaya beach, after being strangled so hard her neck bones had broken.
Both women were clad in bathing suits, inspiring the Thai media at the time to dub the culprit, "the bikini killer".
- Ms Carrou's Turkish boyfriend, Vitali Hakim, whose body was discovered in Pattaya after he was apparently burned alive.
- A Dutch couple, Henricus Beintaja and his fiance Cornelia "Cocky" Hemker, whose bodies were found beaten, strangled and burned in a ditch 60km from Bangkok.
Interpol and Thai police suspected Sobhraj, using the alias Alain Guathier, lured his victims to their death by offering to sell them gems from his Bangkok apartment on soi Sala Daeng.
Mr Sobhraj was also wanted in Thailand on charges of attempting to murder Russell Lapthorne and his wife Vera in 1975, after repeatedly drugging the Melbourne couple and stealing more than $2,000 worth of belongings. They survived.
In 1976, when Thai police brought Sobhraj in for questioning, the experienced escape artist walked free when police looked the other way.
He fled to Malaysia with his Canadian lover, Marie-Andre Leclerc, of Quebec and their alleged partner, an Indian named Ajay Chowdhury.
Sobhraj and Leclerc were then arrested in India, where a court convicted them of killing Israeli tourist Avoni Jacob in 1976 in the Hindu holy city of Benares, also known as Varanasi, along the Ganges river.
Sobhraj was also found guilty of killing French tourist Jean-Luc Solomon in New Delhi the same year.
Both victims were found drugged to death.
Sobhraj was later acquitted of both murders.
But he was imprisoned in India for 10 years in 1977 for drugging a busload of French tourists in New Delhi's middle-class Vikram hotel while attempting to rob them.
In 1985, during jailhouse interviews in New Delhi, the muscular Sobhraj appeared suave yet excitable when he told me in French-accented English: "Officially I am denying I killed anyone. Of course I am denying."
He said his legal strategy was to block extradition from India to Thailand, where he feared execution.
"According to the Thai constitution, they can shoot anyone without trial. So I don't think you can get a fair trial there. There is no evidence to connect me with the crimes there."
The balding, grinning convict said: "If I go free from this jail, I will try to stay in India, get residence here and do my writing. I find pleasure in writing short stories. And I will try to get married. I don't know yet. I want to settle. Kids is what I want.
"There is no question of my going back into crime."
Wearing slacks, slip-on shoes, a shirt rolled up at the elbows and a gold watch, he resembled an urban, Vietnamese salesman giving a hard-sell to customers in a showroom instead of a prisoner in New Delhi's infamous Tihar prison.
For a while, he lorded over Tihar by blackmailing the prison's superintendent, after planting eavesdropping devices which recorded the superintendent's illegal rackets.
After the Indian government investigated his activities, the superintendent was transferred.
According to Sobhraj's own written description of himself to promote his unpublished memoirs, he claimed to be a "master jail breaker", "master criminal" and "master murderer".
He also displayed the short stories he wrote while in prison, including his version of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi's 1984 assassination, rendered in bloody, graphic slow motion.
Asked about various charges against him in seven other countries, Sobhraj smiled and replied: "Nobody has applied for my extradition except the Thais."
Sobhraj, who enjoyed reading German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche and Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung, said: "I believe the childhood I had played a lot in my development. Certain traumatic things in my psychological set-up."
In 1986, he escaped from Tihar prison by hosting a birthday party for the guards and serving them drugged sweets, but was caught less than a month later in India's Goa beach resort, wearing long hair and a beard while mingling with backpackers.
He was confined a total of 21 years in India before being released in 1997 and deported to France.
Born illegitimately on April 6, 1944 to a Vietnamese mother and an Indian father in Saigon, South Vietnam -- then a French colony -- his childhood was described as a painful quest for love from his parents, who alternately accepted and rejected the troubled child as he shuttled back and forth between Vietnam and France.
Sobhraj said alienation turned him into an outcast who dabbled in petty theft, resulting in his incarceration as a teenager in France's brutal detention centres.
As one of Asia's most wanted criminals, Sobhraj, a French citizen, used his good looks, linguistic skills and slick psychology to wine and dine innocent travellers, overdose them into oblivion, and steal their passports, jewellery, cameras and traveller's cheques, according to courtroom testimony and survivors.
Over the years, the fast-talking confidence man eluded police in Hong Kong, Thailand, Nepal, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Turkey, Greece and France, often by bribing officials, feigning illness and changing his identity, authorities said.
In 1975, while being transported in Greece in a prison van, he poured petrol from an innocent-looking bottle of shampoo inside the vehicle and ignited the fluid.
Amid the chaos, he fled to Turkey even though he was wanted there for a robbery at the Istanbul Hilton hotel.
Earlier, in 1972, the wily Frenchman was seized in Herat, Afghanistan for car theft but drugged his guards while being held in a Kabul prison hospital and escaped.
He became the subject of two biographies: The Life and Crimes of Charles Sobhraj by Richard Neville and Serpentine by Thomas Thompson.
When his Canadian lover Leclerc developed ovarian cancer in jail, the Indian government allowed her to return to Canada in 1983 for humanitarian reasons, and she died there one year later.
While waiting in New Delhi's international airport to board her flight home, Leclerc appeared ravaged by cancer and imprisonment but still pretty as she spoke about her years with Mr Sobhraj.
"I stayed with Sobhraj because I had no passport, no money and did not speak English then," Leclerc told me.
"I consider Sobhraj a man who is sick," she said softly.
Website, more Asia news by Richard S. Ehrlich plus the non-fiction book of interviews, documentation and investigative journalism, titled: "Hello My Big Big Honey!" Love Letters to Bangkok Bar Girls and Their Revealing Interviews