When we think of serial killers, we think of Ted Bundy, or Jeffrey Dahmer, or John Wayne Gacy — all Americans.
Rarely do we think about serial killers who operated in other countries, like Charles Sobhraj.
He was convicted of killing 12 people, but is suspected of killing as many as 30 across multiple countries. He may not be as prolific as Bundy or Dahmer, but he is every bit as terrifying.
Sobhraj was born in Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City), Vietnam, in 1944. His father reportedly denied his paternity, and Sobhraj was raised by his mother and her new husband, though Sobhraj felt neglected once the couple had additional children. Sobhraj began committing crimes as a teenager, receiving a sentence for burglary in 1963. While in prison, he manipulated the guards into giving him special privileges, including keeping books in his cell.
He continued to commit burglaries and scams once he was released, as well as stealing cars and using fake documents to travel through Europe with his pregnant fiancé, Chantal Compagnon. The coupled robbed tourists after befriending them. Sobhraj had begun amassing wealth through his crimes but developed a gambling addiction.
Sobhraj was arrested in India in 1973 after a failed robbery attempt, but escaped from prison with the help of Compagnon. He was quickly apprehended, but the couple posted bail and fled to Kabul, where they once again began robbing tourists. The couple was arrested again but, yet again, Sobhraj escaped, this time fleeing to Iran. Compagnon returned to France in an attempt to forget her criminal past.
Sobhraj spent the next two years on the run, traveling through Eastern Europe and the Middle East, and, along with his younger half-brother, committing crimes in Turkey and Greece and eventually being arrested in Athens. Sobhraj once again escaped, but his younger brother was sentenced to 18 years in prison.
While on the run, Sobhraj ran scams to make money, such as helping two former French policemen recover passports that Sobhraj had stolen himself.
Sobhraj reportedly committed his first known murder in 1975 with the help of an accomplice, Ajay Chowdhury, who was known as the serial killer’s second-in-command. The first victims reportedly recruited the pair to help them commit crimes, but later threatened to expose Sobhraj for his crimes, leading him to kill them. The first known victim was Teresa Knowlton, a young woman from Seattle, Washington, who had been drowned in a tidal pool in the Gulf of Thailand. Her death was originally believed to be an accident, but months later, her post-mortem and other evidence showed she had been intentionally drowned.
Next, Sobhraj and Chowdhury killed a young Turkish Sephardic Jew named Vitali Hakim, whom they burned. They then killed Dutch student Henk Bintanja and his fiancée Cocky Hemker, who were both poisoned, strangled, and burned in Thailand.
During this time, Sobhraj built up a cult following, and, joined by his most devoted follower, Marie-Andree Leclerc, entered Nepal using the Dutch student’s passports. There they murdered American Connie Jo Bronzich and her Canadian friend Laurent Carriere.
Next, Sobhraj traveled to Calcutta and murdered Israeli scholar Avoni Jacob. Sobhraj then used Jacob’s passport to travel with Leclerc and Chowdhury to Singapore, then India, and on to Bangkok.
During this time, police were closing in on the group, and Dutch authorities were closing in on those who killed Bintanja and Hemker. Investigators searched Sobhraj’s apartment a month after he left the country, and found the victims’ passports, poisons, and syringes.
In 1976, Interpol issued an arrest warrant for Sobhraj for the four murders committed in Thailand – Knowlton, Hakim, Bintaja, and Hemker.
Even with the arrest warrant, Sobhraj and his crew continued to travel and kill. He and new followers killed Frenchman Jean-Luc Solomon in Bombay. They then poisoned a tour group of French post-graduate students in New Delhi. Three of the poisoned students figured out what was happening and took down Sobhraj. He was detained by police and spent the next 20 years in an Indian prison. During his imprisonment in India, he escaped briefly after drugging several prison guards, later claiming he did so to extend his sentence and avoid extradition to Thailand, where he was wanted for additional murders.
On February 17, 1997, Sobhraj, now 52, was released and allowed to return to France, since the warrants and evidence against him for his other crimes had been lost.
In France, Sobhraj raked in the cash by selling the rights to his life for a film and charging for interviews and photographs. In 2003, he returned to Nepal, where he was still wanted for multiple murders. A journalist saw him at a casino and wrote an article about him, which was seen by police, who raided the casino and arrested Sobhraj.
On August 20, 2004, Sobhraj was sentenced to life in prison for the 1975 murder of Bronzich. Sobhraj appealed the decision and lost, and on September 18, 2014, he was convicted of murdering Bronzich’s friend, Carriere. He was sentenced to another 20 years in prison.
By 2018, Sobhraj was in failing health and had received multiple open-heart surgeries.
A court ruling on December 21, 2022, ordered Sobhraj to be returned to France within 15 days, following a petition from his legal team arguing he should be released due to good behavior and his advanced age. The concession was granted thanks to a Nepalese law that allows inmates who have served at least 75% of their sentence with good behavior to be released.
“Keeping him in the prison continuously is not in line with the prisoner’s human rights,” the ruling said, according to the BBC.
On December 23, 2022, Charles Sobhraj walked out of prison and was deported to France. He is not allowed to return to Nepal for at least 10 years.