Tuesday, October 30, 2012


For anyone interested, Amazon have now introduced the 'Look Inside' option for Hip Pocket Sleaze, so you can peruse a few sample pages. I'm assuming this is in preperation for an impending Kindle release...




What a nice surprise Pete Travis' Dredd turned out to be. An ultra-violent, pacey comic book actioner which at times made me think of Carpenter's classic Escape from New York, and has probably the best 3D I have ever seen. Have not been a fan of the overused format in recent years, but Dredd is one film which I think must be seen in 3D to fully appreciate the terrific sense of visual flair on display. A real trip of a film and I dare say likely to become something of a stoner cult classic.


Monday, October 29, 2012

BURY ME DEEP by Megan Abbott

A native of suburban Detroit, Megan Abbott has established herself in the past few years as one of the prime writers in the pulp noir genre, and it wasn’t far into her 2009 novel Bury Me Deep that I began to understand why.

Loosely based on the infamous 1931 case of trunk murderess Winnie Ruth Judd, Bury Me Deep weaves the tale of innocent young Marion Seely, left to fend for herself in Phoenix, Arizona while her older husband – a recovering heroin addict - works a punishing job in a Mexican mine. Finding work at a local medical clinic, Marion becomes at first fascinated with - and quickly seduced into - the fast life of vivacious nurse Louise and her tuberculosis-ridden roommate Ginny. Supplementing their meagre income by hosting parties that entertain some of the most powerful local politicians, law enforcers and businessmen, the girls introduce Marion to the smooth Joe Lanigan, a slick but sleazy owner of a chain of pharmacies and budding politician on his way up, who plants his sights on the lonely newcomer. It's a meeting which ignites a chain reaction of events that lead to a grim denouement indeed, and Marion discovering things about herself that she would probably have rather never known.

While the overall plot of Bury Me Deep may at times feel somewhat familiar, being that it plays with a lot of genre conventions, where it really excels is in the quality of Abbott’s prose, which is wonderfully eloquent and detailed. Abbott really brings the era back to pulsating life, describing sights, smells, tastes and sounds that make you feel immersed in the story, and her dialogue rings true to the genre without being forcibly hard-boiled. There is also a great cinematic quality to her writing, and the thought of a screen adaptation provides a tantalising prospect (presuming it is done right, of course – Jessica Biel optioned the screen rights to Abbott’s 2005 novel Die a Little in 2007, but was unable to secure the funding).

Bury Me Deep is the first Megan Abbott book I have had the pleasure of reading. It won’t be the last.

Megan Abbott’s other novels include Die a Little (2005), The Song is You (2007), Queenpin (2007), The End of Everything (2011) and Dare Me (2012).


Wednesday, October 10, 2012


Charles Sobhraj and the Bangkok Hippie Killings
by John Harrison
Looking at the somewhat grainy, aged photos of him in his 1970s prime, one could easily picture Charles Sobhraj in the role of a villain from a Roger Moore Bond film. The lithe, muscular physique, handsome chiselled features and flared polyester suits cut an impressive figure that was both powerfully charismatic and a clichéd reflection of the macho image of the time. While Sobhraj has been widely classed as a serial killer, his profile and behaviour differed in several important ways from most of the names usually associated with that category of episodic murder. Although clearly unbalanced, he insisted that his crimes were not committed purely to fulfil some psychosexual fantasy, but were "business transactions". Also, unlike most other serial murderers, Charles Sobhraj did not localise his killings, spreading his trail of violence and bodies across a global, blood-spattered path that included Paris, Beirut, Hong Kong and Kathmandu. He also killed people of both sexes, and tried to rationalise it by claiming that he "never killed good people" (a trait that is shared by many serial killers, such as Gary Leon Ridgway - the ‘Green River Killer’ - who sought out prostitutes as his victims because he believed they were less than human and therefore more disposable than ‘real’ people). Whatever his true motives, Charles Sobhraj remains a sinister supporting character on the fringes of that great hippie adventure of the seventies: the spiritual Eastern quest.

Seeds of Evil

Charles Sobhraj was born Gurhmuk Sobhraj to an unwed Vietnamese mother and an Indian (Sindhi) father in Saigon on April 6, 1944. His father wanted little to do with the boy during his early years and soon deserted the family, an act which Song, his mother, blamed on the child (and one which didn’t stop Gurhmuk from growing up with the image of his father as a reverential, almost mythical figure). He was subsequently adopted by his mother’s new boyfriend, a French lieutenant named Alphonse Darreau who was stationed in Indochina. Although Darreau was initially attentive to young Gurhmuk, he refused to bestow his family name upon the child, and as he and Song began to conceive children of their own, the boy clearly felt himself being pushed into the background. As he got shunted back and forth between France and Indochina with his family, with no genuine sense of home or roots, he began to develop discipline and personality problems, often getting himself into trouble at school (on the occasions when he bothered to show up) for disobedience and delinquency. Darreau was by this stage suffering combat-induced shell-shock and spent the remainder of his life being treated for Post-traumatic stress disorder, so apart from lacking the energy necessary to expend on such a child, he no doubt looked upon Gurhmuk as a drain on the family’s slim financial resources.

While living in Marseilles, Charles Sobhraj (who had taken his new name after being baptised as a teenager) had access to trade ships heading east to Indochina, and he frequently began stowing away on them in an effort to reach his natural father. Several times he managed to make it out of Marseilles, only to be inevitably discovered while at sea and promptly returned to port, his mother and father not amused in the slightest when forced to reimburse the expenses. By the time he reached his mid-teens, Charles’ psychopathic disorders had already begun to emerge and make themselves the dominant force of his personality. With his parents no longer willing to bail him out of his predicaments, he found himself bouncing back and forth between the Orient and Europe, feeling at home in neither place. He was almost completely estranged from his family when arrested in Paris for burglary and sentenced to three years imprisonment. It seemed to be during this period of incarceration that Charles’ hatred and resentment towards the outside world really began to fester, and he became determined to punish society for what he viewed as its discarding of him, although many people were ultimately sceptical that this period provided any real deep motivation for his future crimes (Oz contributor Richard Neville, who co-authored The Life and Crimes of Charles Sobhraj, wrote of him that "His claims that his life was a protest against the French legal system or that his love for Vietnam and Asia motivated his criminal career are absurd, but as tools of psychological manipulation they were very effective").

963 would be a highly significant year for Charles, spending it as he did in the notorious Poissy Prison on the outskirts of Paris. Constructed originally as a convent in the sixteenth century, and converted into a prison during the French revolution, the harsh and brutal environment of Poissy had broken many hardened criminals, yet despite his youth and relatively small stature, Charles refused to be intimidated by his situation, honing his physique through hours of exercise and utilising self-taught karate to defend himself. Charles also used his perceived vulnerability to his advantage, being allowed to read books in his cell (which other prisoners were forbidden to do) and attracting the attention of Felix d’Escogne, a wealthy young man who visited Poissy each week, donating his time to help the prisoners with letters and basic legal issues, as well as providing simple companionship. D’Escogne would prove to be an important figure in Charles’ immediate future, with the pair striking up a genuine friendship and Charles looking upon Felix as, if not a substitute father, then a significant elder role model.

Upon his parole from Poissy, Charles moved in with d’Escogne and resumed his low-rent criminal activities while keeping up the pretence of an honest lifestyle, accompanying Felix to society parties attended by some of the most famous families in Paris. The taste of the high life was intoxicating to Charles, and through it he met his fiancée: a beautiful, sophisticated woman named Chantal. But his self-destructive bent saw him back in jail on the same night that he had proposed to her. Charles had stolen a car and lost thousands of borrowed francs in a frenzied gambling spree, and when the angered Chantal turned down his proposal, he had sped towards home with such a breakneck speed that it terrified the woman into agreeing to marriage. It was a short-lived celebration though, as he was pulled over by the police and quickly found himself back doing an eight month stretch at Poissy for evading the authorities while driving a stolen car. At his sentencing, d’Escogne pleaded with the judge to recommend psychological counselling as part of his prison conditions, noting that Charles "Exploits 100 percent the weaknesses of those around him. He has a small conscience, if any... is capable of politeness, but calculatedly so. Impulsive and aggressive."

The fact that Chantal stood by Charles during his time in jail - despite her parents’ pleas and insistence that they would never allow her to marry a Vietnamese half-breed - spoke volumes for the power of Charles Sobhraj’s magnetism and persuasion. His embellished tales of adventurous life in the Orient, his way with words and ability to spout a philosophy which pinned all his troubles on the cruelness of the world around him rather than his own antisocial behaviour and dislike for a straight life (he would continuously refuse to accept responsibility for his actions), along with his claims of family wealth back in Vietnam, all impressed her and appealed to her sense of adventure and repressed rebellion.

Charles was also a skilled and energetic lover, and not long after his release from Poissy Chantal fell pregnant. The couple had, by this stage, been married in a civil ceremony, and shortly afterwards travelled across Eastern Europe in d’Escogne’s ‘borrowed’ MG sports car, surviving by writing bad cheques and robbing people who became enamoured of the seemingly innocuous, friendly couple. By the time they reached Bombay - where Chantal gave birth to a baby girl and Charles’ charm helped ingratiate himself into the lives of many expatriate French families - the authorities back home were already on the trail of the couple; although Chantal proclaimed that she remained naively unaware of her husband’s illegal activities, at least during this early stage of their marriage.

The Me Decade

After the intense social activism and communalism of the sixties, the dominant theme of the 1970s seemed to be that of living for one’s own pleasure (writer Tom Wolfe famously coined it as ‘The Me Decade’), and throughout the first year of the seventies, Charles Sobhraj’s major crime operations involved selling classy (and difficult to obtain) American and European automobiles to wealthy Indians and relocated foreigners. His method was simple and ingenious: stealing the cars in neighbouring Pakistan and Iran, he would pay border guards a few dollars to look the other way and, once the vehicles were in India, turn them in as stolen and then gain legitimate ownership by buying them back dirt cheap at police auctions, selling them on to his customers for a handsome profit. While Charles would present Chantal with (no doubt ill-gotten) jewellery as a way of making up for the long stretches of time in which he left her alone in Bombay, his compulsive gambling usually saw him pawning the gifts in order to pay off his huge gambling debts.

Raking up an enormous loss at the Macao Casino, and finding his life at risk from the ruthless debt collectors which the casino employed, Charles was lured by a Frenchman into a daring robbery of a jewellery store in Delhi. It was a crime that was doomed to failure. The initial plan called for the robbery crew to drill into the store from the hotel room above, but after three days of drilling it became clear that they were getting nowhere. Frustrated, Charles lured the owner of the store up to the motel room on the pretence of making a large sale, and subsequently ordered the handover the of the jewellery case keys at gunpoint. He was then forced to dump all the stolen jewellery, plus $10,000 in cash, at the airport, after the store owner broke free of his bonds and alerted the authorities. Charles returned to Bombay empty-handed but with spirits undiminished, although he was soon pulled over in a stolen vehicle by police officers and, after being identified as the man sought in connection with the Delhi jewel store robbery, was placed into custody at Bombay’s prison, Tihar.

It was in Tihar that Charles orchestrated the first of his audacious, dramatic prison escapes. Feigning a bleeding ulcer, he was transferred to a local hospital, where despite having nothing actually wrong with him, doctors diagnosed an appendicitis. Recuperating from pointless surgery, Charles escaped from the hospital ward by having Chantal drug his guard and convincing his wife to subject herself to a dose of chloroform and take his place in the hospital bed. It was hoped that this would convince authorities that Chantal was an innocent victim in the escape plan, but when Charles was arrested soon after, both he and Chantal were taken into custody. After he convinced his father to post bail money, the pair fled India and headed for Afghanistan. It was in Kabul that Charles first seemed to hit upon the idea of robbing young backpackers, mostly generic hippie types clinging to a dying sixties ideal who had travelled east in pursuit of self-enlightenment and - perhaps more to the point - good hash. It afforded himself and Chantal a comfortable living, but he was soon back in prison after being arrested by Afghan police for skipping out of his hotel whilst owing two months rent.

Once again, Charles escaped captivity by drugging his hospital guards after pulling a sick routine: he drank a syringe full of his own blood and regurgitated it in front of his jailors, convincing them that he was suffering from a bleeding ulcer. He continued to support himself by thievery, constantly moving around to avoid detection, and travelling with as many as ten (mostly stolen) passports in various names, none of them ‘Charles Sobhraj’. Throughout the period 1972-1973, Charles would use his bank of passports to journey to places as diverse as Karachi, Pakistan, Tehran, Rome, Yugoslavia and Copenhagen. After being abandoned by her husband in Kabul, and with her police file ever expanding, Chantal took their daughter Madhu and fled for Paris, hoping to never see Charles again. She would come to realise that it was not so easy to expel Charles Sobhraj from your life.

With Chantal back in France, and with the places he was able to run to rapidly diminishing, Charles decided to enlist his younger half-brother Andre to help him perpetrate his scams. Pledging blind obedience to his increasingly notorious elder sibling, Andre was only too happy to accompany him to the East, where authorities were more buyable and where Sobhraj felt that his Indian-Vietnamese heritage would allow him to assimilate and re-invent himself as any number of nationalities.

After testing their partnership with a couple of small hold-ups in Turkey, the pair made their way to Greece and preyed on tourists before being nabbed following a jewel robbery in Athens. Assuming that the Turkish and Greek authorities would not be overly cooperative in sharing information on the brothers (thanks to the historic bitterness between them), Charles convinced Andre to take his place, hoping that, after Charles was safely across the border and the mix-up was realised, the Greek authorities would let Andre go within a few weeks, as his criminal history was minor. Surprisingly, the plan almost worked, but when the authorities decided to come down hard upon the two men, Charles (still posing as his brother) was forced to fall back upon his old escape method of feigning an illness, this time breaking out of a police van while being transported to hospital. A few days later, Andre revealed to the warden that they had actually let his brother escape from prison. However, the furious Greek authorities were not as lenient as Charles had assured Andre, handing the younger man over to the Turks, who in turn sentenced him to eighteen years of hard labour.

Without Andre to assist him in his crimes, Charles headed eastward, committing small crimes and scams around India, Iran and Kashmir. Usually he would pose as a wealthy dealmaker to befriend English or French speaking tourists (usually couples) and either steal their passports, travel tickets and savings, or use them as unwitting couriers for stolen jewels. Almost always, it was Charles’ natural charisma and magnetism, along with his gift for words and storytelling, which made strangers feel at ease with him in so short a time. It was this modus operandi that Charles found most effective, and while he was busy honing his act he met the woman who would become the most central female figure in his criminal life: a young French Canadian named Marie Leclerc, who had drifted east looking to fill her life with excitement and adventure.

After Marie returned to France, Sobhraj bombarded her with passionate letters extolling his love for her, and begging her to return to the Orient to join him in a life together. If the correspondence she had received had led Marie to believe that Charles would be faithful to her, she would have no doubt been shocked to discover that upon her arrival back East he had hooked up with a Thai woman named May. Although Charles introduced her as his "secretary", it was obvious to Marie that the pair were sleeping together, but such was her degree of love for the man that she was willing to turn a blind eye to his dalliances, and she soon found herself inexorably entangled in his web of lies and deceit.

Marie’s love for Charles bordered on obsession, while Charles believed that he should be allowed to sleep with as many women as he fancied. But it was clearly Marie’s pathological addiction to Charles that enabled her to be seduced into becoming his partner in crime. The couple ingratiated themselves into the lives of an Australian professor and his wife who were vacationing in Thailand, forming what seemed to be a tight knit friendship, until the day Marie served the Australians coconut milk laced with a powerful sedative. While the couple fell unconscious, Charles went through their hotel room, robbing them of their passports, cash, plane tickets and even their wedding rings.

It was a curious method of operation, one which says much of Charles Sobhraj’s psychological profile. Rather than a quick hit, he preferred to ingratiate himself into the life of his victims for a time, as though the sense of power and control over them was as much a reward as the money and property he would ultimately relieve them of. Like many counter-culture communities of the day - and drawing a particularly insidious comparison to another Charles who operated in California a few years earlier - Sobhraj began to assemble a family of sorts, taking in a string of young travellers, drifters and confused misfits into his apartment at Kanit House in Bangkok.

The psychological grip, and sense of guilt, which Sobhraj would wield over his victims is clearly evident in the case of Dominique Rennelleau, a French boy whom Charles and Marie befriended and welcomed into their apartment. Over several days, Charles subtly spiked his drinks with just enough poison to make Dominique fall ill with what appeared to be a severe case of dysentery. Taking up the gracious offer to stay at Kanit House while he recovered, Charles continued to keep the young man sick and off his feet by poisoning the very drinks that were supposed to be making him better. Once Dominique realised he was in Charles’ debt (and his poisoner had safely locked his passport away), his health began to improve rapidly. Two former French police officers, Yannick and Jacques, also became Sobhraj aides when, while out on the town with Marie, Charles stole their passports and savings, then assured them that they could stay with him until their new passports were processed in Bangkok.

To complete his inner circle, Charles picked up a young Indian named Ajay Chowdhury, who would turn out to be almost as cold and heartless as his mentor. Ajay made a fitting right hand man as Charles’ crimes - along with his level of viciousness and cruelty - began to escalate dramatically.

Death Wears a Bikini

Although there have been indications that he had done so previously, it was shortly after he assembled his Kanit House gang that Charles Sobhraj began to kill in earnest. His first known victim was a young and impressionable American girl named Jennie Bollivar, who had travelled east in order to study meditation and the Buddhist lifestyle. Somewhere not far into her journey, she ran into Charles Sobhraj and fell in with his crew, spending a few days at his flat during October 1975. While Sobhraj later used his usual excuse that the killing was purely a business matter (he claimed that Bollivar was a drug courier, although there was never any evidence to suggest this), it is unclear exactly why he murdered her, although Herman Knippenberg (a Dutch diplomat involved in later investigations) believed it was because the girl refused to become a permanent part of Charles’ entourage and work for him as a drug and gems smuggler. Bollivar was found dead in the water off the Gulf of Thailand, clad only in a cheap floral bikini. While it was initially believed (and no doubt intended) that she drowned after a night of too much alcohol and hashish, an autopsy report performed months later revealed that she had forcibly had her head held under water until she died.

Charles’ next victim was a troubled young Turkish man and small-time drug dealer from Ibiza named Vitali Hakim whom, much like Jennie Bollivar, had travelled east looking for meaning and a fresh start in life, but ended up getting seduced by Charles’ charisma. After spending several days at Kanit House, Vitali accompanied Ajay and Charles on a trip to the nearby resort town of Pattaya but failed to return with them. Charles explained his absence by saying that Hakim had decided to stay with friends he had run into at Pattaya, something which seemed a bit strange to Jacques and Yannick, as they knew that Vitali had given over his passport and traveller’s cheques to Charles for safe keeping.

A few days later, the badly burned body of Vitali Hakim was discovered on the road to Pattaya (in a later interview with Richard Neville, Charles claimed that he killed Vitali Hakim because "I wanted his murder to be a message, a message to others in the business.") The body showed signs of being badly beaten, and the autopsy report indicated that the man had still been alive when he was doused with petrol and set alight. No connection with the death of Jennie Bolliver was hinted at, and police deduced that the unfortunate man had been ambushed, robbed and murdered by Thai bandits. A note which Hakim had left for his girlfriend Charmayne Carrou unwittingly led the French girl into a death trap when she showed up at Kanit House in December and began to ask too many questions. In almost identical circumstances to that of Bolliver, the body of Carrou would eventually be found floating in the sea. Once again, at an autopsy performed months later, it was revealed that she had not drowned but had been strangled with such a force that it shattered the bones in her neck.

While Charles had not yet been suspected of murder, the trail of robberies and confidence tricks which he left across Thailand had certainly come to the attention of both the local authorities and Interpol, who had dubbed him ‘The Serpent’ (due in part to his ability to slither his way out of any situation). As his self-belief soared even higher, Charles Sobhraj’s crimes became not only increasingly audacious, but even more brutal, and two couples would serve as his next victims.

When Henk Bitanja and his fiancée Cornelia Hemker - two Dutch students making their way across Southeast Asia - first met Charles Sobhraj in Hong Kong, he introduced himself as Alan Dupuis and told the couple he was a gems dealer, eventually selling Cornelia a (obviously stolen) sapphire ring for the bargain price of $1,600. As he left Hong Kong, Charles invited them to stay with him in Bangkok, although when they arrived on December 11 the pair no doubt found the apartment at Kanit House to be not quite the "luxurious villa" that their new friend had boasted about. But the financially-restricted couple were happy for the free accommodation and thankful when the gracious host offered to take care of them when they mysteriously fell sick soon after their arrival, even locking up their passports and valuables in his safe for protection.

Then, on the night of December 16, Charmayne Carrou suddenly turned up at Kanit House looking for Vitali Hakim. Charles and Ajay hurriedly hustled Henk and Cornelia out of the apartment - despite the fact that they were still quite ill - and returned by themselves several hours later, covered in mud and smelling of gasoline. When Charles offered no explanation of what had happened to the Dutch couple, Dominique Rennelleau, along with Yannick and Jacques, began to grow suspicious of his activities; a feeling of dread which must have been heightened when the Bangkok newspapers began to run stories of the discovery of two unidentified bodies, believed to be tourists, who had been strangled and set ablaze, presumably by bandits.

Using Henk Bitanja’s passport, Charles travelled to Nepal and, a few days before Christmas 1975, ingratiated himself into the lives of a pair of Westerners in Kathmandu. Canadian Laurent Ormond Carrière had met Connie Jo Bronzich - a Californian girl looking for thrills and some direction in life - in Nepal and quickly developed a tight friendship (the pair were incorrectly identified in some sources as Laddie DuParr and Annabella Tremont). While Laurent waited for the weather to clear up enough for him to attempt a climb of Mount Everest, the pair spent a lot of their time in the seedy section of Kathmandu dubbed ‘Freak Street’, where drugs and stolen goods were rampant. While it is unclear exactly how Sobhraj met Laurent and Connie Jo, it wasn't long after his arrival in Kathmandu that the body of an unidentified Westerner was found lying in a field, burned and slashed with a knife. A second body, positively identified as Bronzich, was found nearby with multiple stab wounds to the chest.

Police suspicions for the murder of Connie Jo Bronzich initially fell on Laurent Ormond Carrière, after Nepalese customs reported that he had left the country not long after the girl’s body had been discovered. This left the mystery as to who the body found nearby belonged to. Of course, it had been Charles Sobhraj who fled Nepal using Laurent’s passport. Stopping briefly in Bangkok, he sold some jewels he had stolen from Bronzich, then returned to Kathmandu the next day, again using Bitanja’s passport (it is easy to see the tangled trail that he was becoming adept at leaving).

When Charles, Marie and Ajay were eventually questioned by police whom had pieced together the final days of Bronzich and Carrière, they managed to bluff their ignorance, although Charles was more concerned with what he had discovered while he had briefly returned to Bangkok. Banding together to discuss their suspicions, Dominique, Yannick and Jacques slowly realised that they were in the care of a murdering psychotic. A search of Charles’ office uncovered dozens of stolen passports and identity papers. Fleeing the apartment, the three Frenchmen tipped police off with what was going on inside Kanit House, before heading home to Paris.

Despite having no money, being wanted by the Nepalese police and uncertain of what may be laying in wait back in Bangkok, Charles remained supremely cocky and confident about the future. With Marie and Ajay in tow, he crossed the border into India and made his way to Calcutta, where he went in search of money and a fresh passport. He quickly found it thanks to a young Israeli scholar named Avoni Jacob, who was discovered drugged and strangled in a decrepit Calcutta motel room. His passport and traveller’s checks were missing. Charles used Jacob’s passport to gain entry into Singapore, while Marie was forced to use the passport of a French male that they had robbed. Charles’ uncanny sense of local attitudes assured him that Indian border guards would not bother to question why Marie had been given a man’s name, and as usual he was right.

Returning to Bangkok in March 1976, Charles wasted no time in stealing the identity of an American whom he drugged and robbed (he decided you could never have enough spare passports on hand). Once again showing the almost uncanny luck he had running with him, Charles was briefly questioned by police who were investigating the ‘Bikini Murders’ (as the local media had dubbed them) and following up on the information given to them by Dominique Rennelleau and company. While Thai police did not treat the matter as overtly serious, Herman Knippenberg at the Dutch embassy was convinced that Charles Sobhraj (or Alain Gauthier, the pseudonym that Rennelleau had known him as) was the man responsible for the brutal murders of the two Dutch tourists, and was determined to see that justice would be served.

But this was the Far East in 1976, where a blind eye and freedom could be bought for the right price. Charles greased the palm of a Thai police official - to the tune of $18,000 - to have him look the other way while he fled the country with Marie and Ajay. Stopping briefly in Malaysia, Charles had Ajay procure $40,000 in gems from the mining towns, which he planned to sell once they arrived in Geneva. When Charles arrived at the airport to catch his flight to Geneva, Marie was surprised to see that Ajay had not accompanied him. She enquired as to his whereabouts, but the unnerving glare in Charles’ eyes told her she was better off not knowing. Ajay Chowdhury had seemingly outlived his usefulness to Charles Sobhraj, and the popular theory is that his still-undiscovered remains lay buried somewhere deep in the Malaysian jungle...

The Net Tightens on the Serpent

Despite his supreme arrogance and belief that the Far East police were too incompetent to ever pin anything substantial on him, it seemed that it would be only a matter of time before Charles Sobhraj’s complex web of lies began to unravel. With citizens from America, Turkey, France, Canada, the Netherlands and Israel all found murdered under similar mysterious circumstances, embassies from all over began to cry out for justice.

While Sobhraj had been on the Interpol database since the failed 1973 jewel robbery at the Hotel Ashoka, his name had so far not been linked to the Bikini Murders in Thailand - officials had been looking for an ‘Alain Gautier’ - and he felt comfortable enough to start working his familiar scams again once he reached Bombay. A simple robbery attempt turned into murder when Charles drugged Frenchman Jean-Luc Solomon, who fell into a coma and succumbed to the poison he had been given. Perhaps he was getting careless, or perhaps it was his belief that he was above any law, but when the end finally came for Charles Sobhraj, it came quickly, and was not so much the result of clever detective work but more a stupid miscalculation on his own part.

After recruiting two Western women - Mary Ellen Eather and Barbara Sheryl Smith - into his clan, Charles travelled to Delhi in July 1976, where he ingratiated himself with a group of French engineering postgraduates who were on a holiday tour. The students quickly fell for Charles’ magnetism and knowledge of the area and its history, much to the annoyance of the group’s official tour guide. On July 5, with the students assembled in their hotel lobby, Charles graciously offered them a pill which he claimed would ward off dysentery, and many took it without a second thought. The plan was to rob the hotel rooms of those who had taken the pills once they began to feel drowsy. But Charles had drastically miscalculated the dosage: the pills worked too well, too quickly, and the students began to writhe around the floor of the lobby in agony, vomiting and passing out. When someone worked out that the only people who were getting sick were those who had taken their friend’s preventative medicine - and noticed that Charles was attempting to quietly slip out of the motel - a trio of students wrestled him to the ground and put out a call for the police.

The Serpent had been captured and, unlike past situations, he was not going to find it easy to wriggle out of this one. His small clan was quickly rounded up and arrested, and it didn’t take much pressure for Barbara and Mary Ellen to spill everything they knew, in particular the murder of Jean-Luc Solomon. Charles himself refused to crack throughout two weeks of intense police interrogation, sticking to his story that he was an important French merchant. But the evidence against him was coming in thick and fast from all over the world, as his string of aliases began to be uncovered. Thailand and Nepal were eager to speak to Charles about the killings committed in their countries, and he had been exiled from France. He was also wanted in Greece, Turkey and Afghanistan for the rash of crimes and prison breaks he had orchestrated in their countries. Finally, India charged Charles and his three female cohorts with the murder of Solomon, locking the accused within the hellish, rodent-infested walls of Delhi’s Tihar Prison.

While death may have been a preferable option for Marie and the two women (Barbara and Mary Ellen both attempted suicide during the years before their trial), Charles was seemingly not bothered by the atrocious, unsanitary conditions of Tihar. Having smuggled more than seventy carats of precious gems in his body cavities, he knew that he would be able to buy his way into power and relative comfort within the prison walls. Due to the notoriously clogged Indian legal system during the 1970s, where martial law was applied by the tough Indira Gandhi, it would take almost two years from the time of their arrest before Charles Sobhraj and his three co-accused would make it to trial. The trial itself was, by all reports, a great piece of theatre, with Charles hiring and firing lawyers at will, Mary Ellen Eather recanting her statement that she had witnessed Charles drugging Jean-Luc Solomon, and even the arrival of younger brother Andre Darreau, who had been released early from his Turkish prison and travelled to Delhi in an unsuccessful bid to help Charles escape.

Like Charles Manson before him, Charles Sobhraj eventually decided to defend himself, although the judge was ultimately unimpressed with his courtroom histrionics, and eventually found him guilty of drugging with intent to rob, causing hurt to commit robbery and culpable homicide not amounting to murder: the Indian equivalent to manslaughter. Marie was found not guilty in the manslaughter of Solomon, but would go on to serve some prison time for her role in the poisoning of the French students. She received mercy parole from Tihar when she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, returning home to Canada to die in April of 1984, and professing her love for Charles to the very end.

While the prosecution argued strongly for the death penalty - it was clear that Charles Sobhraj was a pathological killer who would murder again if given the chance - people were understandably stunned when the judge sentenced him to a mere seven years in Tihar Prison for the murder of Jean-Luc Solomon, with an additional five years for his attempt to rob the French students. Rumours circulated that he had managed to buy off the judge, although he still had the spectre of a warrant from Thailand that was good for twenty years, which meant that he would be deported as soon as he walked out of his Tihar stint, and most likely executed for the string of murders he had committed over there.

Rather than orchestrate another prison break, Charles decided to bide his time, virtually running Tihar prison and wanting for very little. To celebrate his tenth anniversary behind its walls, he threw a party for prisoners and guards alike, and when the guests started to fall asleep from the pills he had spiked their drinks with, Charles Sobhraj literally and casually walked out though the prison gates. It wasn’t his objective to flee India, however. Rather, Charles allowed himself to be recaptured and charged with the drugging and escape. It was, in retrospect, a brilliant and audacious plan, which added years to his Tihar sentence and ensured that as the time passed the charges awaiting him in other countries would fade away as governments changed hands, evidence disappeared and witnesses died.

It seemed as if Charles Sobhraj would indeed have the last laugh.

Release and Aftermath

Without the aid of any poison, Charles Sobhraj finally walked out of Tihar Prison on February 17, 1997, at the age of fifty-two. Kept in custody until Indian authorities could find a country that would accept him, he eventually returned to France, settling in the Chinese quarter of Paris, where he enjoyed something of a celebrity status, charging reporters for interviews. In September 2003, he was arrested at the famous Casino Royale in Kathmandu and charged with entering Nepal on a fake passport back in 1975.

Of course, the real reason for his arrest was to question him over the deaths of Connie Jo Bronzich and Laurent Ormond Carrière. Charles vigorously denied the charges, claiming he was not even in the country at the time, arguing that the body of Carrière had never been positively identified. While district Court Judge Bir Singh Mahara originally ordered his release in October 2003, authorities later re-arrested him on murder charges. He was tried and found guilty of the two murders in the summer of 2004 and sentenced to life in prison.

A failed escape attempt in November 2004 - in which he utilised a laptop computer and cellular phone to obtain a chemical compound that he planned to drug the prison guards with - has to date been the last act of defiance from Charles Sobhraj. But, as he continues to protest his innocence in the killings of Carrière and Bronzich, and claims to be the victim of a set-up and circumstantial evidence, it is unlikely that the Serpent, the Bikini Killer, the seventies Bond villain made flesh, is ready to give up the fight and fade into obscurity just yet...

Copyright John Harrison 2012

(Note: the above piece was originally written for inclusion in a true crime book entitled Saturn In Retrograde - a study of counter-culture crime of the 1960s and 70s, which unfortunately never saw publication).



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