"I have not one, but two copies of the classic true crime book The Life and Crimes of Charles Sobhraj. It’s a book I’ve delved into many times.
This incredible book written by Julie Clarke and her husband, the late Richard Neville, was a bestseller when it was released more than 40 years ago and has barely been out of print since. It’s a truly terrifying story of the habitual criminal, manipulator and serial killer Sobhraj but it’s also an insight into a different time…the hippy trail that young people traversed from Istanbul to Kathmandu then Southeast Asia in a way that you just couldn’t do today.
Richard was already a high-profile figure when he embarked on writing this book with Julie. The pair were young, in love and, somewhat out of their depth heading into the murky, dangerous world of Sobhraj. Richard was no stranger to pushing boundaries – he co-founded a countercultural magazine called Oz in the 1960s with his friends Martin Sharp and Richard Walsh that used confronting, rude humour to make fun of the conservative society at the time. The magazine was immediately a hit and attracted the ire of the establishment that they were holding to account.
He and the two other editors found themselves tried and convicted of obscenity for the content they produced. The trio spent time in jail in England and their free speech cause attracted worldwide attention and support from the likes of John Lennon and Yoko Ono. Their convictions were eventually quashed, and the case made history.
Julie told us in her recent Australian True Crime interview that Richard, who died in 2017 and had lived with dementia for the previous decade) could mix with anyone, and charm them, but coming face to face with Charles Sobhraj was a different ball game all together,"
- EMILY WEBB
“In many ways they (Neville and Sobhraj) were similar, they were both highly intelligent, spectacularly charismatic mavericks. People became addicted to them. They had both been sent to boarding school when they were far too young and had developed their charisma as a coping strategy. The big difference was that Richard wasn’t a psychopath…” Julie Clarke
ON THE TRAIL OF THE SERPENT
by Julie Clarke
During the 1970s, Alain Gautier (aka Charles Sobhraj) was the stuff of criminal legend - a handsome, charming conman, gem dealer and gangster…and a serial killer. After an abrupt string of brutal murders of student travellers in Bangkok and Kathmandu, an international manhunt for him began in 1976. In 1977 he was finally arrested in Delhi during his botched attempt to drug and rob a tour group of 30 French students.
Why did you want to look so closely at this particular criminal?
Initially it was only because both of us, separately, had travelled across what was called the Hippie Trail. It was the route through Asia that wended its way between Australia and Europe…the gap year fashion of the time, and in retrospect it was fairly wild and risky. Richard sallied forth in 1965 with his best friend the psychedelic artist Martin Sharp, and I set off in 1975 with a group of friends, just after I had met Richard.
Richard and I were both passionate about Asia and that amazing adventure, so when we heard that there was a conman who was accused of befriending and killing young travellers just like us, we felt almost duty bound to cover the story. Then once we got there and started the research it became an obsession to solve all the cases to help ensure that the charming Mr Sobhraj would get safely locked away.
How did Charles Sobhraj operate?
He had perfected the "befriend, drug and rob" scenario and he was a master at it. It meant he could escape from gaol and be standing on a back street with nothing, and within a week he could be checked into a five-star hotel with a flash wardrobe and all the accoutrements of a successful businessman, ready to meet and greet his next victims. So many of his escapades were over-the-top to the extent that you couldn’t have made them up. He kidnapped his own daughter who was still in nappies by drugging his mother-in-law, then drove with her from Paris to India.
When he needed anything, he mined his fellow human beings. When he needed money, he stole it. Did he ever do a normal days’ work in his life? Barely. His only jobs were when he first left school in France, peeling potatoes, selling fire extinguishers and also selling personalised match books.
Many criminals are not that bright or interesting, I assume. But Charles was brilliant. Being a criminal was his calling. What he could have done with the talent and self discipline he had! Jail time was study time. He'd need money urgently, commit a crime, (for example his first crime was an armed hold-up in the apartment of a young mother,) he ended up in gaol, and felt deeply aggrieved by the injustice. Then he'd decide to spend the rest of his gaol sentence studying law. He exercised constantly so he was always in peak physical form when the opportunity arose for a gaol escape. This pattern repeated. And so, he became a master criminal. All of this came in very handy when he was out and about looking for victims to pick up in the bar of a five-star hotel or a hippie cafe in Bombay. And he despised hippies. Other criminals worshipped him.
But to look at this more deeply, as well as all his criminal skills, he operated knowing that most normal human beings behave with an assumption that we can, basically, trust each other, and human society couldn’t work without that. Sobhraj knew that almost everyone and especially those who are travelling and holidaying are going to trust friendly people that they meet. I mean who is going to think that this well-dressed, charming multi-lingual man is actually planning to drop sleeping pills in your drink, help you up to your room in a kindly fashion as you are passing out, get the key to your room from you and then clean you out. Passport, travellers checks, jewellery, cameras, key to your hotel safe. And that if you are fortunate you will wake up a day or two later.
No-one ever thought like that. And if you were a young student traveller, tripping across the hippie trail, you were even more trusting of this fascinating person, who knew his Buddhism from his Hinduism and dropped Nietzsche into the conversation and knew riveting details about Asian culture and the best place to stay and eat. Plus, his piece de resistance was to offer access to cheap gems. Gems he used like lollies as temptations to befriend his victims.
What were the events leading to his making it onto Interpol’s Most Wanted list?
After a genius gaol escape from Hagineau Gaol in Greece, he got to Bangkok having, en route in Kashmir, ensnared the innocent holidaying Marie Andree Leclerc, who then flew back from Quebec to join him in Bangkok. With her at Pattaya he did a classic “befriend, drug and rob” on a young Australian couple which netted him enough money to rent an apartment in the tourist district near Patpong and begin setting up a gem business. The flat became party central for young backpackers staying at the nearby Malaysia Hotel, where I had been staying only a month earlier. It was the place to stay in Bangkok on the hippie trail, luxurious by road standards because there were actual sheets on the beds, and a pool, but it was still cheap. Sobhraj hired travellers sitting around at the hotel to tell kids there was this amazing gem dealer selling for half the price of anywhere else, and they could buy one sapphire which could flog off when they got back to Europe and pay for their whole trip … so his apartment became somewhere that lots of kids visited and hung out and he soon had the diplomatic community dropping in as well for a few trinkets. There was a young French couple also living in the building, Nadine and Remy Gires, Remy was a chef, and they also became friends, as they enjoyed having somewhere they could talk French. At the same time Sobhraj had ensnared a couple of young Frenchmen who he kept semi-drugged and used as his servants. Then an Indian boy arrived, Ajay, who seemed to already know Charles, and was like his henchman. It was then that something changed.
An American girl came to the apartment, Teresa. She was on her way to Kopan Monastery in Nepal. Sobhraj and Ajay offered to drive her to Pattaya, and her drowned body was found the next day. After that a Dutch couple, who were visiting the apartment, became ill and their burnt bodies were found by the roadside near Pattaya. Then a Turkish man, Vitali from Ibiza, who had known drug connections, came to the apartment, fell ill and was seen leaving the apartment with Charles and Ajay. His body was later found stabbed and burnt by the road, and soon after that a contact of his, Stephanie from Formantera, who also was seen at the flat, was found drowned in a ditch. At the time, none of the bodies were identified. From all over the world families started writing to their consulates in Bangkok, but they took little interest. Missing hippie travellers were not the most important item on most diplomats’ agenda at that time. Except for Herman Knippenberg at the Dutch embassy, a Third Secretary who was only 31.
Just before Christmas in 1975 Charles, Ajay and Marie made a quick trip to Kathmandu. Two more bodies turned up there, both stabbed and burnt. Connie, an American girl who had known drug connections and Laurent, a Canadian who was on his way to Everest Base Camp. These were the most vicious murders yet. Connie’s body was identified but Laurent’s was not. But the French boys who were staying in the Bangkok apartment began to realise something was going on, and when photos of the bodies were published in the newspaper they recognised them. Obviously, they were terrified. Then they saw the story about the murders in Kathmandu and realised it had to be Charles. They told Nadine, the French girl who lived in the same apartment building, and she began trying to get someone in authority to do something, she tried every consulate and the police…no-one was interested but finally Herman Knippenberg became involved, and it unfolded from there. Like a movie.
It seems that during his interviews with Sobhraj, Richard Neville developed quite an intense relationship with him.
Richard had to get close to Sobhraj in order to get the story out of him, so he tried to suspend his moral judgments. He couldn't have been exclaiming "Oh that's disgusting! How could you do that!" as Charles was describing how to set a body alight. He tried to just go along with it as the story unfolded and say "Hmm" and "Tell me more…" like a psychologist would. But then Charles would say to him things like "So tell me Richard, what is the difference between me wiping out a drug courier and an American soldier bombing a Vietnamese village? Is it the same? Or is the American worse?"
For a while I became increasingly worried about Richard's close relationship to Charles, that he might cross a line, that his moral compass might malfunction…which didn’t happen, but that allowed us to see how much power Sobhraj could wield with his mind games and that helped writing the book.
In many ways they were similar, they were both highly intelligent, spectacularly charismatic mavericks. People became addicted to them. They had both been sent to boarding school when they were far too young and had developed their charisma as a coping strategy. The big difference was that Richard wasn’t a psychopath, and his sense of humour imbued almost everything he did. It was interesting to note a complete lack of a sense of humour in Sobhraj.
Why do you think he made such detailed murder confessions to Richard?
Well, it could have been because he had signed a contract to tell his whole life story including the reasons for his arrest. He saw himself as a swashbuckling criminal hero, an international man of mystery. He wrote crime fiction starring someone rather like himself. It has not been published. But mainly I think the chemistry between the two men was most unusual. Richard was brilliant, he was already celebrated as the publisher of a radical magazine, and had a high-profile trial at the Old Bailey where he was supported by John Lennon and Yoko Ono, among others. He had been gaoled for obscenity, an experience he compared to boarding school. He had the widest of interests and could charm most anyone, and he had a sympathy for the underdog.
As someone with a deep knowledge of the case, what do you think about the series “The Serpent”.
I'm the sort of person who wouldn't normally watch The Serpent, except that it’s set in a place and a time that I loved. I get off on shows like Schitt’s Creek, Curb Your Enthusiasm that make you snort-out-loud. I have found the slings and arrows of normal life challenging and difficult enough without looking for more knives and guns on the screen. I don't enjoy murder. Having met with the families of Sobhraj’s victims, the reality is stark for me. I remember during one interview I was so upset to be causing upset to the family that I vomited. It worries me that us humans like to watch violence to relax, I feel that somehow that can’t be good.
When I watched the first episode of The Serpent I found it so intense I had to wait a week before I watched the next episode. And the second episode also hit me very hard. And then I began to see it was a work of art in many ways. The astonishing hypnotic performances, every one of them was enthralling, and the casting was perfect. Plus, the script, although it felt a bit confusing at first with flashbacks and flashforwards, it managed in the end to tell a complex true crime story. And just as we wanted with our book to think more deeply about good and evil and the effects of colonialism and what causes some humans to go rogue, I feel the series did that as well. It was not a superficial "The Bikini Killer" type of sensationalism. Plus, the gorgeous art direction, capturing the feeling and look of the seventies. And the escapism of travelling to the exotic worlds of Thailand, Nepal and Paris was perfectly for our COVID-19 lockdowns.
What was it like to return to the book after 40 years?
It was emotional. Less than two years after Richards’ death, Mammoth Screen contacted me about the series, and I worked closely with them going through our research. Writing that book together had been the cauldron in which our relationship was forged. The research was intense. We were out of our depth dealing with the criminal community in Delhi and Asia, there were some shocks with corruption in high places as well as medium places and low places. I became scared quite soon into the project, as we were being followed and spied on. But Richard made a joke out of everything. For him it was a hoot to invite all of Sobhraj’s ex gaol mates up to our lovely room in the Hotel Imperial for drinks, to learn from them how to forge passports and to smoke some weed with them so he could extract information for the book. But it ended with us, at a certain point, being warned by the Australian Embassy in Delhi to leave immediately. It took us a year to write the book in Shelter Island, New York. Once it was published we decided to return to Australia and live in the bush and have kids. I'd had enough of that dark world, but Richard stayed in touch with Sobhraj for many years, they corresponded and occasionally there'd be a phone call from him.
For the new edition I went through the book line by line and lovingly polished it up, as we had been in such a rush to get it finished the first time. While doing that I finally felt proud about what we had achieved together. It was a thorough and thoughtful, an in-depth study of a psychopath and of a culture in time, the Hippie Trail, which can never happen again.
When were working on the book many of our friends asked "Why do you want to write about such a horrible story?" But after 40 years I saw that we had told a human story about good and evil that covered behaviour so bizarre it was almost difficult to believe. For the rewrite, I went to New Zealand to visit Herman Knippenberg, the Dutch diplomat who was posted in Bangkok when the murder of young travellers began. He was one of the heroes, and his life was forever changed by his involvement in the case.
Herman and I talked it all over 40 years later. Our sticking point was the motive for the murders. Sobhraj gave us a very clear motive which added up about 70%, but there is no reason to believe anything he says. He often said “I never killed good people”. There was extensive proof that amateur drug smuggling was involved. Herman came up with another motive which they went with in The Serpent series, which was that Sobhraj was trying to create a family and was flipping out of control if people refused to do what he asked, which would have been smuggling. That’s also a possibility, as he was gambling and losing money, pushing the gem business to extremes and taking a lot of speed to keep going.
What did you see of the relationship between Marie Andree Leclerc and Charles Sobhraj, which was such a feature of the drama series?
I saw a lot of her at court and I felt that she was still completely, powerlessly, masochistically in love with him, even after she knew everything that he had done. Like the love-rat he was, he gave us copies of passionate letters she wrote to him in gaol, I have them. She was also a very proud stubborn person and became embittered as well as extremely religious but still never stopped loving him it seems. At the time of the first of the first drug and rob of an Australian couple in Thailand, she may have been not sure what was going on, but she was so quickly pulled into his spell that she ceased having any freedom to act or object or escape. I see her as one of his victims, he slowly tortured her to death instead of the quicker murders of the other victims. Her journal should be published as a warning to all women about how easy it is to lose your freedom and independence if you fall in love with a manipulative psychopath. There was nothing criminal about her when she had the misfortune to meet Sobhraj.