The Serpent – Where Charles Sobhraj and Marie are now

·7-min read
Photo credit: Roland Neveu - BBC
Photo credit: Roland Neveu - BBC

If you were a backpacker in Southeast Asia in the 1970s, there was a chance that you could have run into Charles Sobhraj. And had that happened, your travels could have been cut unexpectedly and tragically short.

With his partner Marie-Andrée Leclerc, right-hand man Ajay Chowdhury and a number of other accomplices, including tourists Barbara Sheryl Smith and Mary Ellen Eather, he drugged and stole from countless individuals.

In some cases, he went even further, murdering his unsuspecting victims when they were at their most vulnerable. Such was the scale and frequency of his crimes that he earned himself three gruesome nicknames: the Bikini Killer, the Splitting Killer and The Serpent.

Talking about constructing the role (via Interview Magazine), Tahar Rahim, who played the convicted killer, said: "I thought of an animal, of course a serpent, but I picked the cobra. It has charm, doesn't really move, but it's scary. When a cobra bites, it goes very fast. Boom."

Photo credit: Robert NICKELSBERG - Getty Images
Photo credit: Robert NICKELSBERG - Getty Images

Sobhraj was arrested and imprisoned multiple times for various crimes from burglary to armed robbery, but he would always be released or manage to escape, such as when he pretended to be ill, drugged a hospital guard and fled.

But in July 1976, his crimes finally began to catch up with him.

Sobhraj, Leclerc, Smith and Eather were all arrested for trying to poison over 30 engineering students in a hotel lobby in New Delhi, India. During the police interrogation, it also emerged that French tourist Jean-Luc Solomon had died by poisoning at the hands of Sobhraj.

He was sentenced to 11 or 12 years in Tihar prison (depending on which publication you read) for the culpable homicide of Solomon, poisoning the students, passport forgery and theft. According to reports, he used blackmail and bribery to enjoy a number of perks while inside, including a television, decent food, a typewriter and even drugs.

Leclerc was also imprisoned, as were Smith and Eather.

Photo credit: Mammoth Screen/Roland Neveu - BBC
Photo credit: Mammoth Screen/Roland Neveu - BBC

He was also wanted for several murders in Thailand, but given how comfortable his situation was in India, and the fact that he would most likely be executed if he stepped back on Thai soil, he took matters into his own hands to ensure that he would remain exactly where he was.

Sobhraj drugged the prison guards and escaped – before being recaptured, which was part of his plan. He served another decade at Tihar, during which time the Thai arrest warrant expired. He then returned to France in 1997 where he courted attention, taking part in a number of interviews and allegedly selling the rights to a film based on his life.

Leclerc was released from prison in 1983 and was permitted to return to her native Quebec, Canada where she received treatment for ovarian cancer. She died the following year at the age of 38.

Leclerc reportedly denied any knowledge of the murders.

Photo credit: BBC
Photo credit: BBC

"It was not an easy piece to play because how can you portray someone who has no empathy?" Jenna Coleman, who plays Leclerc in The Serpent, said (via RadioTimes). "I don't know what it is [to be that way] and I think it is impossible for people like us to know."

Coleman added: "The way she lived was completely delusional. It was all about squashing all of it away and not letting the truth in.

"She had an obsessive nature and was incredibly emotional. I think she was depressive and certainly unstable at times. She lived in this conflicted state, not acknowledging the murders that were going on. In her subconscious it was all about putting the truth away."

Photo credit: BBC
Photo credit: BBC

Chowdhury was never arrested and his whereabouts remain unknown following just one sighting in Germany in late 1976. Some speculated that he had been killed by Sobhraj, according to The Guardian, but he has denied that claim.

In a move that smacks of arrogance, Sobhraj travelled back to Kathmandu, Nepal in 2003 where he was recognised and arrested at a casino for the murder of North American backpacker Connie Bronzich in 1975.

In 2004, he was sentenced to life in prison, in large part due to the evidence provided by Dutch diplomat-turned-investigator Herman Knippenberg.

"It was all so easy for him," said Knippenberg (via The Independent). "The murders, the deception, everything. He had got away with so much for so long that he believed he was invincible."

Speaking to the BBC, writer Richard Warlow said: "Sobhraj had been at the wheel of his own story for many years, spinning his yarns to the enthralled and gullible, his ability to mesmerise never waning, it seems.

"We wanted instead to encourage and record the testimonies of others who were there. "I want our audience to find Sobhraj the way others found him."

Photo credit: PRAKASH MATHEMA - Getty Images
Photo credit: PRAKASH MATHEMA - Getty Images

Sobhraj's wife Chantal Compagnon – renamed Juliette in the series – a French woman with whom he had a daughter, brought a case against the French government to the European Court of Human Rights arguing that he had unlawfully been offered no legal assistance, but his sentence was confirmed by the Nepalese appeals court in 2005.

In 2010, Nepal's Supreme Court rejected another appeal made by Sobhraj and in 2014, he received a second life sentence for the murder of Laurent Ormond Carriere, a backpacker from Canada.

The Telegraph reported that prior to his relationship with Compagnon, Sobhraj had been involved with another woman who was also called Chantal, with whom he had two children. On the eve of his wedding to Compagnon, Chantal Desnoyers was allegedly giving birth to their second child.

She told a journalist from India Today in 1995, when Sobhraj was approaching the end of a prison sentence in the country, that he was "a very dear friend". According to Desnoyers, she kept in regular contact with him and was mulling over emigrating so that she could be with him.

In 2008, a 64-year-old Sobhraj married 20-year-old Nihita Biswas, who supposedly went to visit him in prison to act as an interpreter for Sobhraj's French lawyer. She went on to compete in the fifth series of Indian reality show Bigg Boss.

Photo credit: Prakash Mathema - Getty Images
Photo credit: Prakash Mathema - Getty Images

"I don't know what he was," she said (via Times of India). "What he is now is important. He is a good man, I have seen the way he cares for his family. We have a good relationship.

She added: "He's innocent. There's no evidence against him."

Sobhraj is reportedly now 77 years old and remains in prison. In 2017, Arab News reported that he had suffered a heart attack and was scheduled to undergo open-heart surgery.

Photo credit: Mammoth Screen/Roland Neveu - BBC
Photo credit: Mammoth Screen/Roland Neveu - BBC

It's still not known how many people Sobhraj murdered. He's been linked to 12, but some believe that number could be as high as 24.

"Personally, I think he might have killed many more," Knippenberg said (via The Independent). "Inside his Bangkok apartment, we found a stack of passports and driver's permits. They could have easily belonged to others."

Rahim told The Guardian: "Usually I start building a character from the inside. I try to find bridges psychologically between me and him, but here there was nothing."

He echoed that sentiment during his conversation with Mulligan for Interview Magazine: "It was very hard for me to catch his spirit... I tried, but I couldn't catch him because he has no empathy. You're always trying to find a connection to your character, something that you have inside of you to make it more genuine. And I couldn't find anything."

The Serpent is available to stream now on BBC iPlayer and Netflix.

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