The Hippie Trail
Back in the mid 1970’s the original hippie trail between Europe and South Asia, mainly through Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, and Nepal was in its hey day. Thousands of young “long hairs” would travel as cheaply as possible, hitch hiking, buying and driving cheap old mini vans, private buses or third class rail become the go to method of travel.
Hippies tended to travel light with a backpack, seeking to pick up and go wherever the action was at any time. Hippies did not worry about money, hotel reservations or other such standard travel planning. In the days before ATM’s and debit cards the real threat of having what little cash they did have stolen resulted in the wide spread use of travelers cheques. Travelers cheques could be replaced if stolen by the issuing bank.
Along all the major stopping points, cheap hostels, hotels, restaurants, cafés, clubs and “smoking dens” thrived. Whilst the locals welcomed the travelers, some saw them as easy targets for stealing money or travels cheques, passports, cameras and other valuables they had.
Charles Sobhraj – The Serpent, The Bikini Killer
Perhaps the most notorious criminal to prey on the travelers was Charles Sobhraj (Hatchand Bhaonani Gurumukh Charles Sobhraj). Sobhraj was born 6 April 1944 Sobhraj was born to Vietnamese shop girl Tran Loan Phung, and Indian Sindhi businessman Sobhraj Hatchand Bhaonani, who was based in Saigon. He became most well know as thief, fraudster and serial killer.
Sobhraj was fluent in several languages, was a charmer, and known for his way with women but started his crimes young – as a teenager he began to commit petty crimes and received his first jail sentence (for burglary) in 1963, serving time at Poissy prison near Paris.
After being paroled, Sobhraj spent his time manipulating himself in to the high society of Paris and the criminal underworld and soon began accumulating riches through a series of burglaries and scams. During this time, Sobhraj met and began a relationship with Chantal Compagnon, a young Parisian woman from a conservative family. Sobhraj proposed marriage to Compagnon, but was arrested later the same day for attempting to evade police while driving a stolen vehicle. He was sentenced to eight months in prison.
Chantal remained supportive throughout the entirety of his sentence. Sobhraj and Chantal were finally wed upon his release. As soon as he was married, he returned to his old ways and was soon wanted for burglary again. Before he could be arrested, and along with a pregnant Chantal, they left France in 1970 for Asia.
They travelled through Eastern Europe with fake documents, robbing tourists whom they befriended along the way. They arrived in Mumbai later the same year. Here, Chantal gave birth to a baby girl, Usha. In the meantime, Sobhraj resumed his criminal lifestyle, running a car theft and smuggling operation. Sobhraj’s growing profits soon went towards his budding gambling and poker addiction.
In 1973 Sobhraj was arrested and imprisoned after an unsuccessful armed robbery attempt on a jewelry store at Hotel Ashoka. Sobhraj was able to escape, with Chantal’s help, by faking illness, but was recaptured shortly thereafter.
Sobhraj was forced to borrowed money for bail from his father, and soon as he gained bail the couple fled to Kabul. There, the couple began to rob tourists on the Hippie Trail, only to be arrested once again. Again, Sobhraj escaped in the same way he had in India, feigning illness and drugging the hospital guard. Sobhraj then fled to Iran, leaving his family behind. Chantal, although still loyal to Sobhraj, but wishing to leave their criminal past behind, returned to France and vowed never to see him again.
Sobhraj spent the next two years on the run, using as many as ten stolen passports. He passed through various countries in Eastern Europe and the Middle East. Sobhraj was joined by his younger half-brother, André, in Istanbul. Sobhraj and André quickly became partners in crime, participating in various criminal activities in both Turkey and Greece. The duo were eventually arrested in Athens. After an identity-switch hoax went awry, Sobhraj managed to escape, but his half-brother was left behind. André was turned over to the Turkish police by Greek authorities and served an 18-year sentence.
Picture of them claiming to be Gem Dealer Alain Gautier and Leclerc using the pseudonym of Monique
On the run again, Sobhraj found a new way to finance his lifestyle. He began by posing as either a gem salesman or drug dealer to impress and befriend tourists, whom he then defrauded. In Thailand, Sobhraj met tourist Marie-Andrée Leclerc a Canadian from Lévis, Quebec. Charmed and dominated by Sobhraj, she quickly became his most devoted follower, and turned a blind eye to his crimes. He created the alias of Alain Gautier, gem dealer for himself. He convinced Leclerc the pseudonym of Monique
Sobhraj gathered targets by gaining their loyalty – his trick was to help them out of difficult situations. In one case, he helped two former French policemen, Yannick and Jacques, recover missing passports that Sobhraj himself had actually stolen. In another scheme, Sobhraj provided shelter to a Frenchman, Dominique Rennelleau, who appeared to be suffering from dysentery. Sobhraj had actually poisoned him. He was finally joined by a young Indian man, Ajay Chowdhury, a fellow criminal who became Sobhraj’s accomplish.
Sobhraj and Chowdhury committed their first (known) murders in 1975. Most of the victims they murdered had spent some time with the pair before their deaths having been targeted by Sobhraj and Chowdhury and gained their trust. Often they had also been convinced them to join Sobhraj and Chowdhury in crimes (often gem smuggling).
Sobhraj would later claim that most of his murders were really accidental drug overdoses, but in is believed that the victims had threatened to expose Sobhraj and Chowdhury, which was the motive for murder.
The first victim was a young woman from Seattle. Teresa arrived in Bangkok on her way to Kathmandu where she was going to study Tibetan Buddhism at Kopan Monastery. What exactly happened to Teresa on her last night in Bangkok differs in various sources.
The main research shows Sobhraj and Chowdhury had befriended her and invited her to a party. Later while being served drinks a bar it’s believed she was drugged, stripped and a bikini put on her. Sobhraj and his companion would be seen putting Teresa into a car, and driving off. They stopped near the town of Pattaya, and Sobhraj told Chowdhury to “Take her for a swim”.
They then carried her down to the embankment, swam out with her and let her go.
Five days later, on October 18, the young tourist was found drowned in the Gulf of Thailand, wearing a floral bikini. She was found by a farmer who saw a woman floating face down in the rising tide. It was only months later that Knowlton’s autopsy, as well as forensic evidence, proved that her drowning, originally believed to be a swimming accident, was murder.
The next victim was Vitali Hakim , It is claimed he was a Turkish drug smuggler. His burnt body was found on the road to the Pattaya resort, where Sobhraj and his growing clan were staying. The autopsy showed he had been beaten, his neck snapped, his corpse doused with gasoline and set alight.
Henk Bintanja, and Cornelia Hemker
Dutch students Henk Bintanja, 29, and his fiancée Cornelia Hemker, 25, were invited to Thailand after meeting Sobhraj in Hong Kong. The young couple had been promised the chance to buy cheap gems that they could take home and sell for a large profit. It is believed that during the visit the couple became suspicious of Sobhraj and decided to leave with out the gems.
They, like many others, were poisoned by Sobhraj, who then nurtured them back to health in order to gain their obedience. As they recovered, Sobhraj was visited by his previous victim Hakim’s French girlfriend, Charmayne Carrou, who had come to investigate her boyfriend’s disappearance.
Fearing exposure, Sobhraj and Chowdhury dealt with Bintanja and Hemker. Their bodies were found strangled and burned on 16 December 1975. A few days after, Carrou was found drowned and wearing a similar-styled swimsuit to that of Sobhraj’s earlier victim, Teresa Knowlton. Although the murders of both women were not connected by investigators at the time, they would later earn Sobhraj the nickname “The Bikini Killer.”
On 18 December, the day the bodies of Bintanja and Hemker were identified, and the murder reported to the Dutch embassy. Dutch diplomat Herman Knippenberg and his then wife Angela began investigating the murders of Bintanja and Hemker.
Laurent Carrière and Connie Bronzich,
Sobhraj and Leclerc managed to travel to Nepal using Henk Bintanja and Cornelia Hemker passports. Sometime on either 21 or 22 December they murdered Laurent Carrière, 26 (from Canada), and Connie Bronzich, 29 (from the U.S).
Kathmandu was shocked by the two gruesome murders in December 1975 when two bodies, both bearing multiple stabbings and charred beyond recognition, were found in two separate places. The victims had shared the same budget hotel room in Kathmandu. Bronzich is said to have been a drug addict. The articles found by police in her hotel room included a manual on drug use and her travelling companions reportedly told police in 1975 she had urged them to visit a drug dealer. It is also claimed by the hotel owner that the couple fled without paying the bill.
The two victims were incorrectly identified in some sources as Laddie DuParr and Annabella Tremont.
Sobhraj and Leclerc returned to Thailand, using their latest victims’ passports before their bodies could be identified. Upon his return to Thailand, Sobhraj discovered that three of his French friends had started to suspect him of serial murder, having found documents belonging to the earlier murder victims in his apartment. Dominique Rennelleau, whom he had given shelter to a few months before fled the country after stealing back his own passport.
Sobhraj’s next destination was Calcutta, where he murdered Israeli Avoni Jacob. They had met in Calcutta and traveled together to Varanasi. The Varanasi police found the body of the Israeli in a hotel room. He had been drugged to death. The motive was to simply obtain Jacob’s passport which was given to Chowdhury. Not much more is available about the details surrounding this murder.
Sobhraj, Leclerc and Chowdhury the hit the road first to Singapore, then to India, and, in March 1976, returning to Bangkok, despite knowing that the authorities there sought him. The trio had been interrogated by Thai police in connection with the murders, but they were released due to lack of evidence, possible corruption and because authorities feared that the negative publicity accompanying a murder trial would harm the country’s tourist industry.
Meanwhile, Herman Knippenberg and his wife Angela continued gathering evidence. With the help of Nadine and Remy Gires the French friends and neighbours of Sobhraj’s, Knippenberg built a case against him. He was eventually given police permission to search Sobhraj’s apartment, a full month after the suspect had left the country. Knippenberg found evidence, including victims’ documents and passports, as well as poisons and syringes.
Chowdhury goes missing
The trio’s next stop was Malaysia, where Chowdhury was sent to steal gems fromna local shop. Chowdhury was observed by witnesses delivering the stolen gems to Sobhraj. This was the last time he was ever seen, apart from one unconfirmed sighting in Germany in late December.
Chowdhury nor his remains have ever been found. It is believed that Sobhraj murdered his former accomplice before leaving Malaysia to continue his and Leclerc’s roles as gem salesmen in Geneva.
Jean Dhuisme, Barbara Smith and Mary Ellen Eather
returning to Asia from Geneva, Sobhraj was soon back to his old way. He recruited Jean Dhuisme, a drugged up real estate dealer, Barbara Smith and Mary Ellen Eather, a blonde Australian nurse to help him continue his crime spree in Bombay.
Sobhraj’s next victim was a Frenchman, Jean-Luc Solomon, whose poisoning during a robbery, simply intended to incapacitate him, left him dead. Luke Solomon had been invited to join the Sobhraj quartet for dinner. A drug was slipped into Solomon’s dinner and the next morning his nude body was discovered on the balcony of his room in Ranjit Hotel. He had been robbed of his cash and travellers’ cheques.
Sobhraj next surfaced in Agra where he joined a group of 22 tourists. Travelling back to Delhi with the group, Sobhraj joined them for dinner at the Vikram Hotel where they were staying. During dinner, Sobhraj allegedly distributed hand-fulls of pills meant, he said, to counteract the effects of the spicy Indian food and drinking water.
However, Sobhraj had literally overplayed his hand. To his surprise, and that of the hotel staff, the drugs took effect almost immediately, and members of the group started collapsing at the dining table.
Three of the students realised what Sobhraj had done. They overpowered him and contacted the police, leading to his capture. During interrogation, Sobhraj’s accomplices, Smith and Eather, quickly buckled and confessed. Sobhraj was charged with the murder of Solomon and all four were sent to Tihar prison, New Delhi while awaiting formal trial.
Smith and Eather attempted suicide in prison during the two years before their trial. Sobhraj had entered with precious gems concealed in his body and was experienced in bribing captors and living comfortably in jail. He turned his trial into a spectacle, hiring and firing lawyers at will, bringing in his recently paroled brother André to assist, and eventually going on a hunger strike. He was sentenced to 12 years in prison. Leclerc was found guilty of drugging the French students, but was later paroled and returned to Canada when she developed ovarian cancer. She was still claiming her innocence and was reportedly still loyal to Sobhraj when she died at her home in April 1984. She was 38.
Sobhraj’s systematic bribery of prison guards at Tihar reached outrageous levels. He led a life of luxury inside the jail, with television and gourmet food, having befriended both guards and prisoners. He gave interviews to Western authors and journalists, such as Oz magazine’s Richard Neville in 1977 and Alan Dawson in 1984. Neville was accompanied by his future wife, Julie Clarke, who has frequently written about the subject. Clarke has said that Sobhraj sold the rights to his life story to a Bangkok businessman, who sold them on to Random House. Because of Neville’s hippie trail connections, Random House offered him a contract to go to Delhi to research the case, even though he and Clarke, both journalists in New York, had no experience of crime reporting. They were out of their depth, having to deal with Sobhraj’s ‘creepy emissaries’ who kept them under surveillance, and arranged for them to visit him in prison, where he described the murders in detail, and she was extremely relieved when they left Delhi.
While Sobhraj freely talked about his murders, he denied what he said about them, and pretended that his actions were in retaliation against “Western imperialism” in Asia.
When Sobhraj’s sentence was due to end, the 20-year Thai arrest warrant against him would still have been valid, making possible his extradition and almost certain execution. So in March 1986, in his tenth year in prison, Sobhraj threw a big party for his guards and fellow inmates, drugged them with sleeping pills and walked out of the jail. Inspector Madhukar Zende of the Mumbai police apprehended Sobhraj in O’Coqueiro Restaurant in Goa; his prison term was extended by ten years, just as he had hoped. On 17 February 1997, 52-year-old Sobhraj was released with most warrants, evidence and even witnesses against him long lost. Without any country to extradite him to, Indian authorities let him return to France.
Sobhraj fled to France and retired to a comfortable life in suburban Paris. He hired a publicity agent and charged large sums of money for interviews and photographs. He is said to have charged over US$15 million for the rights to a movie based on his life.
Back in prison
On 1 September 2003 Sobhraj was spotted by a journalist for The Himalayan Times in a casino in Kathmandu. The journalist followed him for a fortnight and then wrote a news report in The Himalayan Times with photographs. The Nepal police saw the report, raided the Casino Royale in Yak and Yeti hotel and arrested a blissfully unaware Sobhraj, who was still gambling there. According to the newspaper, Sobhraj had returned to Kathmandu to set up a mineral water business. The Nepal police reopened the double murder case from 1975 and got Sobhraj sentenced to life imprisonment by the Kathmandu district court on 20 August 2004 for the murders of Bronzich and Carrière.
Most of the photocopy evidence used against him in this case was from that gathered by Knippenberg, the Dutch diplomat, and Interpol. He appealed the conviction, claiming that he was sentenced without trial. His lawyer also announced that Chantal, Sobhraj’s wife in France, was filing a case before the European Court of Human Rights against the French government for refusing to provide him with any assistance. Sobhraj’s conviction was confirmed by the Patan Court of Appeals in 2005.