The Serpent and his sidekick: New BBC series tells story of ‘bikini killer’ Charles Sobhraj starring Jenna Coleman as ‘brainwashed’ lover who helped him murder at least a dozen tourist on the 1970s hippie trail in Asia
- Charles Sobhraj murdered at least a dozen Westerners on the 1970s hippie trail
- Would drug victims to rob them and trick them into trusting him with scams
- Gained nickname bikini killer after body of first victim was found in tidal pool
- Marie-Andrée was Sobhraj’s girlfriend who ignored him murdering Westerners
He was the killer who drugged and killed at least a dozen Westerners on the Hippie Trail in Asia in the 1970s.
Now, a new series revisits the crimes of serial killer Charles Sobhraj, who gained the nickname The Serpent because of his skills at deception and evasion, and will premiere tonight on BBC One.
The eight-part drama will detail his killing spree in 1975, and how his accomplice Marie-Andrée Leclerc, played by Jenna Coleman, stood by him despite full knowledge of his crimes and promiscuity.
She’s admitted it was disturbing to play girlfriend who had ‘no empathy’, and would help the killer drug and rob unsuspecting tourists to finance their lifestyle.
Here, Femail revisits the hideous crimes of ‘the bikini killer’ Sobhraj, who was eventually hunted down and sentenced to life in prison.
WHO IS CHARLES SOBRAJ?
Sobraj, pictured with Leclerc in 1986, was known as The Serpent because of his skills at deception and evasion, he drugged and killed at least a dozen Westerners on the Hippie Trail in Asia in the 1970s
Born to an Indian father and Vietnamese mother, Sobhraj grew up in Saigon before his parents divorced and his father cut of all contact with the family.
He was later adopted by his mother’s new boyfriend, a French Army lieutenant stationed in French Indochina, who is thought to have neglected him in favour of his own children with Sobhraj’s mother.
As a teenager he spit his time between Indochina and France, beginning to commit petty crimes and serving his first prison sentence for burglary in Paris in 1963.
In prison he met volunteer Felix d’Escogne, a wealthy young man who he would eventually move in with use to help accumulate riches through a series of burglaries and scams in high society Paris.
Jenna Coleman has revealed her discomfort at playing the partner of bikini killer Charles Sobhraj, who had ‘no empathy’ as he carried out his horrific crime spree. Pictured, Coleman and Tahar Rahim as Marie-Andrée Leclerc and Sobraj
In 1973 he escaped prison after an unsuccessful armed robbery by fleeing to Kabul where he first started fleecing tourists on the Hippie Trail, but was soon arrested again and fled again to Iran.
He spent the next two years on the run, using as many as ten stolen passports, and began committing crime with his half brother Andre across Eastern Europe and the Middle East, before his brother was arrested and he fled once again.
WHEN DID HE MEET MARIE-ANDREE LECLERC?
In the Spring of 1975, Sobhraj met Marie-Andrée Leclerc, a medical secretary travelling India when he acted as her guide of the country.
Sobhraj had been financing his lifestyle by posing as either a salesman or drug dealer to impress tourists, who he then drugged, robbed and often murdered.
At this point the killer was joined by Ajay Chowdhury, a young indian man who would help him scam tourists by helping them out of situations he had caused, for example providing shelter to victims he had poisoned.
Jailed: Charles Sobhraj (pictured in 2014 with Nepalese police) preyed on Western tourists visiting Asia and was known as The Serpent and The Bikini Killer
While he claimed that murders were often accidental drug overdoses, it was later alleged by investigators that his motive for murder was silencing victims who threatened to expose him.
Three months later Leclerc flew to Bangkok to meet him after months of him seducing her with love letters – turning blind eye to his philandering with local women.
Besotted, Leclerc became intwined in Sobhraj’s vicious crime spree, and would help him drug tourists to steal their passports and money
Jenna found it disturbing to portray Marie-Andrée Leclerc, the partner of Sobhraj (Tahar Rahim) who stood by him despite full knowledge of his crimes and promiscuity.
‘It was not an easy piece to play because how can you portray someone who has no empathy?’ Coleman told the Radio Times.
WHO DID HE MURDER?
According to Serpentine by Jennie Bollivar, the first murder took place in 1975, when he drowned a young woman from Seattle called Teresa Knowlton.
Her body was found a tidal pool in the Gulf of Thailand a flowered bikini, inspiring the killers nickname ‘the bikini killer’.
His next victim was Vitali Hakim, whose burnt body was found on the road to the Pattaya resort, followed by Henk Bintanja and his fiancée Cornelia Hemker, who had been poisoned by Sobhraj and then nursed back to health.
While they were staying with him, a visit from Hakim’s French girlfriend, Charmayne Carrou threatened to expose him, and so he strangled the pair and burned their bodies.
He murdered at least two others in Thailand before fleeing to Kolkata, where he killed student Avoni Jacob simply to obtain his passport. He later murdered Jean-Luc Solomon by poisoning him.
Sobhraj, who is now aged 76 and serving his life sentence in Nepal, had already spent 20 years in prison for a string of crimes, including murder and robbery
HOW HE WAS CAUGHT?
Knippenberg exposed Sobhraj as a multiple killer after initial attempts to bring him to justice in Thailand were halted due to fear a murder trial would be bad for the tourist industry.
His hunt for the killer started in 1975 with a brief to help Thai police investigate the deaths of the two Dutch students who had been invited to Thailand after meeting Sobhraj in Hong Kong.
He launched his own investigation and gained permission to enter Sobhraj’s home, after the suspect had left for Malaysia.
There he found victims’ blood-stained documents and passports, as well as poisons and syringes.
A sighting of Sobhraj in Kathmandu in 2003 led to his arrest for the murders of two Canadians there in 1975, and at his trial the prosecution relied on evidence accumulated by Knippenberg.
Coleman undertook extensive research ahead of the role, reading Marie-Andrée’s diaries of the periods before and after the murders
The former Dutch diplomat Herman Knippenberg who exposed Sobhraj will be played by British actor Billy Howell (pictured)
WHERE IS HE NOW?
A Nepali court sentenced the notorious criminal to life imprisonment in connection with the killing of an American backpacker in 1975.
Sobhraj, who is now aged 76 and serving his sentence in Nepal, had already spent 20 years in prison for a string of crimes, including murder and robbery.
‘I am shocked,’ said Sobhraj as he walked out of the courtroom in handcuffs.
‘I have been found guilty without witnesses and evidence. Not a single witness was called,’ said Sobhraj. ‘We are going to appeal.’
Marie-Andrée Leclerc was accused of complicity in the murders, namely those of Jean-Luc Salomon and Avoni Jacob.
In 1980, she and Sobhraj were convicted of the murder of Avoni Jacob, though she has always denied involvement in the killings and was later released on the condition she remained in India.
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