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Richard S. Ehrlich: Sobhraj Bikini Killer

Sobhraj Bikini Killer


by Richard S. Ehrlich

BANGKOK, Thailand -- An alleged serial murderer known as "The Bikini Killer" who preyed on American, French, Australian and other backpackers in Asia, may be protected by a statute of limitations despite being arrested in Kathmandu, Nepal.

During a spectacular criminal career spanning the 1970s and 1980s, Charles Sobhraj escaped from Thai police and dodged extradition to Bangkok, ignited a fire to flee Greek custody, drugged his guards to escape Afghanistan and busted out of prison in India by hosting a drug-laced birthday party.

Mr. Sobhraj ("so-BRAHJ") was linked to about 20 unsolved murders across Asia beginning in the early 1970s when a so-called "hippie trail" criss-crossed the continent, attracting a parade of young, idealistic, restless Westerners who pilgrimaged to Kathmandu and beyond.

In a surprise move on Friday (Sept. 19), Nepal's police nabbed Mr. Sobhraj in Kathmandu's upmarket Yak and Yeti Hotel casino while he played baccarat.

After 27 years, Mr. Sobhraj had returned to Kathmandu and was staying in the capital's tourist neighborhood of Thamel, claiming to be interested in exporting shawls from the Himalayan kingdom.

He was wanted in Kathmandu for the 1975 murder of a Californian woman, Anabella Tremont, and her Canadian boyfriend, Laddie DuParr.

Peasants discovered the couple's smoldering remains on the outskirts of Kathmandu at the time.

It was not immediately clear if the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation would now become active the case because it involved an American citizen, or whether Mr. Sobhraj was safe under a statute of limitations.

After arresting him, police in Kathmandu questioned him about the two unsolved murders but he reportedly denied any connection.

Thailand may also be barred under a statute of limitations from demanding extradition for Mr. Sobhraj, 59, to stand trial for at least five sensational murders and two cases of attempted murder in 1975.

Here in Thailand, those murders included:

-- Jennifer M. C. Bolliver, of Cabrillo Beach, California who was found washed ashore at Pattaya, a tourist resort on the Gulf of Thailand, with sand and salt water in her lungs as if forcibly drowned, according to a Thai pathologist.

-- A French woman, Charmayne Carrou, who was also found dead at Pattaya beach, after being strangled so hard her neck bones broke.

Both females were clad in bathing suits, inspiring the Thai media at the time to dub the culprit, "The Bikini Killer."

-- Ms. Carrou's Turkish boyfriend, Vitali Hakim, whose body was discovered in Pattaya after he was apparently burned alive.

-- A Dutch couple, Henricus Beintaja and his fiance Cornelia "Cocky" Hemker, whose bodies were found beaten, strangled and burned in a ditch 35 miles south of Bangkok.

Interpol and Thai police suspected Mr. Sobhraj, using the alias Alain Guathier, lured his victims to their deaths by offering to sell them gems from his Bangkok apartment on Soi Saladaeng.

Mr. Sobhraj was also wanted in Thailand for allegedly attempting to murder Russell Lapthorne and his wife Vera, in 1975 after repeatedly drugging the Melbourne couple and stealing more than 2,000 US dollars worth of belongings. They survived.

In 1976, when Thai police brought Mr. Sobhraj in for questioning, the experienced escape artist walked free when police looked the other way.

He fled to Malaysia with his Canadian lover, Marie-Andre Leclerc, of Levis, Quebec and their alleged partner, an Indian named Ajay Chowdhury.

Mr. Sobhraj and Ms. Leclerc were then arrested in India where a court convicted them of killing Israeli tourist Avoni Jacob in 1976 in the Hindu holy city of Benares, also known as Varanasi, along the Ganges River.

Mr. Sobhraj was also found guilty of killing French tourist Jean-Luc Solomon in New Delhi the same year.

Both victims were found drugged to death.

Mr. Sobhraj, however, was later acquitted of both murders.

But he was imprisoned in India for 10 years in 1977 for drugging a busload of French tourists in New Delhi's middle-class Vikram Hotel while attempting to rob them.

In 1985, during jailhouse interviews in New Delhi, the muscular Mr. Sobhraj appeared suave yet hyper when he told me in French-accented English:

"Officially I am denying I killed anyone. Of course I am denying."

He said his legal strategy was to block extradition from India to Thailand, where he feared execution.

"According to the Thai constitution, they can shoot anyone without trial. So I don't think you can get a fair trial there," Mr. Sobhraj said at the time.

"There is no evidence to connect me with the crimes there."

The balding, grinning convict said, "If I go free from this jail, I will try to stay in India, get residence here and do my writing. I find pleasure in writing short stories.

"And I will try to get married. I don't know yet. I want to settle. Kids is what I want," he said.

"There is no question of my going back into crime."

Wearing slacks, slip-on shoes, a shirt rolled up at the elbows and a gold watch, he resembled an urban, Vietnamese salesman giving a hard-sell to customers in a showroom instead of a prisoner in New Delhi's infamous Tihar Jail.

For a while, he lorded over Tihar Jail by blackmailing the prison's superintendent, after planting eavesdropping devices which recorded the superintendent's illegal rackets.

After the Indian government investigated his activities, the superintendent was transferred.

According to Mr. Sobhraj's own written description of himself to promote his unpublished memoirs, he claimed to be a "master jail breaker," "master criminal" and "master murderer."

He also displayed the short stories he wrote while in prison, including his version of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi's 1984 assassination, rendered in bloody, graphic slow motion.

Asked about various charges against him in seven other countries, Sobhraj smiled and replied, "Nobody has applied for my extradition except the Thais."

Mr. Sobhraj, who enjoyed reading German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche and Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung, said, "I believe the childhood I had, played a lot in my development. Certain traumatic things in my psychological setup."

In 1986, he escaped from Tihar Jail by hosting a birthday party for the guards and serving them drugged sweets, but was caught less than one month later in India's Goa beach resort, wearing long hair and a beard while mingling with backpackers.

He was confined a total of 21 years in India before being released in 1997 and deported to France.

Born illegitimately on April 6, 1944 to a Vietnamese mother and an Indian father in Saigon, South Vietnam -- then a French colony -- his childhood was described as a painful quest for love from his parents, who alternately accepted and rejected the troubled child as he shuttled back and forth between Vietnam and France.

Mr. Sobhraj said alienation turned him into an outcast who dabbled in petty theft, resulting in incarceration as a teenager in France's brutal detention centers.

As one of Asia's most-wanted criminals, Mr. Sobhraj, a French citizen, used his good looks, linguistic skills and slick psychology to wine and dine innocent travelers, overdose them into oblivion, and rob their passports, jewelry, cameras and traveler's cheques, according to courtroom testimony and survivors.

Over the years, the fast-talking confidence man eluded police in Hong Kong, Thailand, Nepal, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Turkey, Greece and France, often by bribing officials, feigning illness and changing his identity, authorities said.

In 1975, while being transported in Greece in a prison van, he poured gasoline from an innocent-looking bottle of shampoo inside the vehicle and ignited the fluid.

Amid the chaos, he fled to Turkey even though he was wanted there for a robbery at the Istanbul Hilton hotel.

Earlier, in 1972, the wily Frenchman was seized in Herat, Afghanistan for car theft but drugged his Afghan guards while being held in a Kabul prison hospital and escaped.

He became the subject of two non-fiction biographies, titled, "The Life and Crimes of Charles Sobhraj" and "Serpentine".

When his Canadian lover Ms. Leclerc developed ovarian cancer in jail, the Indian government allowed her to return to Canada in 1983 for humanitarian reasons, and she died there one year later.

While waiting in New Delhi's international airport to board her flight home, Ms. Leclerc appeared ravaged by cancer and imprisonment but still pretty as she spoke about her years with Mr. Sobhraj.

"I stayed with Sobhraj because I had no passport, no money, and did not speak English then," Ms. Leclerc told me in a 1983 interview at the airport.

"I consider Sobhraj a man who is sick," Ms. Leclerc said softly.

**-ENDS-**

- Richard S. Ehrlich, a freelance journalist who has reported news from Asia for the past 25 years, is co-author of the non-fiction book, "HELLO MY BIG BIG HONEY!" -- Love Letters to Bangkok Bar Girls and Their Revealing Interviews. His web page is http://www.geocities.com/glossograph/


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