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Charles Sobhraj: The real-life story of ‘The Serpent’ serial killer

Charles Sobhraj: The real-life story of ‘The Serpent’ serial killer

French-Vietnamese serial killer Charles Sobhraj is being interviewed in a new Channel 4 documentary, The Real Serpent: Investigating a Serial Killer, starting tonight (19 March).

The documentary comes three years after a BBC drama about his crimes, The Serpent. Sobhraj was nicknamed after the snake due to his ability to deceive the authorities and slither out of the law’s clutches.

Sobhraj is believed to have killed at least 12 young backpackers on the hippie trail in south-east Asia in the 1970s. They were poisoned, strangled, drowned, stabbed and, in some cases, burned alive.

He lured in his victims by introducing himself as a gem dealer and promising people shelter, drugs, connections and parties.

Sobhraj evaded capture for so long that he became Interpol’s most-wanted man, and he was eventually caught in 1976 months after his killing spree began, thanks to a dogged investigation by Dutch diplomat Herman Knippenberg.

At a party in New Delhi, Sobhraj attempted to drug 22 members of a French tour party. Some of the group managed to stay awake and alerted the authorities. Sobhraj was jailed for 12 years, initially for the manslaughter of two tourists.

A decade later, Sobhraj drugged the Indian prison guards and managed to escape for a month before being recaptured. He was jailed for another 10 years.

Sobhraj in 2014 (AFP via Getty Images)
Sobhraj in 2014 (AFP via Getty Images)

After he was released in 1997, he became a shameless media star, charging journalists for interviews. As recently as 2014, GQ magazine ran an interview with Sobhraj, calling the killer “funny, enigmatic, absurd and engaging”.

In 2003, Sobhraj made the strange decision to travel to Nepal, one of the few countries where he could still be arrested.

He was soon spotted and sentenced to life imprisonment in a Nepalese jail. He was released in 2022 after 19 years.

In the new three-part documentary series, two former Metropolitan police detectives and a leading forensic psychologist explore Sobhraj’s childhood and motivation. The opening episode charts the scams and robberies of his early life, then starts to re-examine what is thought to be his first killing.