The Serial Homicide Case of the Day, from "Hunting Humans, the Encyclopedia of 20th Century Serial Killers" , by Michael Newton
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Sobhraj, Charles Gurmukh
Born Hotchand Bhawnani Gurmukh Sobhraj, in April 1944, Asia's premier serial slayer was the illegitimate son of a Vietnamese peasant girl and a wealthy Indian merchant living in Saigon. Soon after his birth, Sobhraj's father married an Indian woman in Pooma, and his mother retaliated by wedding a French military officer when Sobhraj was four years old. The land of Indochina was in turmoil at the time, with French colonial troops fighting a hopeless rear-guard action against Viet Minh communist rebels, and Hotchand Sobhraj witnessed countless acts of violence before his step-father took the family to France in 1953.
Sobhraj hated Europe and the Catholic boarding school in Paris where he soon became the butt of racial jokes and insults. (The school's lasting mark was a name change - to "Charles" - after Sobhraj's clever impersonation of comedian Charlie Chaplin.) At first, he expressed his displeasure through tantrums and persistent bed-wetting, twice running away to Saigon in his teens. Sobhraj's father sent him back each time, but finally agreed to pay his passage for a trial visit home. The ticket never came, and Sobhraj turned to robbery, landing briefly in jail on his second try. He finally reached Vietnam on his own, but the family reunion was tense, and Sobhraj was soon packed off to live with relatives in India after wrecking his father's car. When he turned up in Saigon again, uninvited, Charles's father threw in the towel, sending him back to France.
In Paris, Charles was locked up twice for auto theft, emerging from jail the second time with a short-lived desire to "go straight." He married, found a job, but the straight life quickly palled. Jailed again for writing forged checks on his sister's account, Charles was freed when she dropped the charges. He continued bouncing checks thereafter, saving up some 30,000 francs before he took his wife to Bombay , setting up shop as an international con man and smuggler, specializing in the theft of passports from American and European tourists. Arrested for a jewel robbery in Delhi, Charles was granted bail in spite of an escape attempt. He fled at once to Kabul, in Afghanistan, where he was jailed for auto theft and lesser charges. Another escape brought him back to France, where he kidnapped his infant daughter from his mother-in-law, leaving the woman drugged and locked in a hotel room.
Sobhraj's first known murder victim was a Pakistani chauffeur named Habib, hired by Charles and a female companion in September 1972, for a drive between Rawalpindi and Peshawar. Along the way, for reasons unknown, Charles injected Habib with a drug that took his life, then dumped the driver's body in a river. Warrants were issued for suspect "Damon Seaman," but another year would pass before Sobhraj was finally identified.
Arresting him was something else. In November 1973, Sobhraj was in Istanbul, teaming up with his brother Guy to drug and rob wealthy tourists. Both were arrested in Greece, but Charles managed another escape, leaving his brother in jail as he fled back to India. In Delhi, he entered the heroin trade, gaining a foothold in the cut-throat business with inside information procured - under drugs and torture - from a local pusher whom Sobhraj later killed.
Murder seemed to come easier each time. In October 1975, Sobhraj killed an American tourist, Teresa Knowlton, in his Delhi flat and had a sidekick dump her body. A Turkish competitor in the drug trade, Vitali Hakim, was beaten, his neck snapped, his corpse doused with gasoline and set afire. In Bangkok, Charles strangled Hakim's French contact, one Stephanie Parry. A month later, still in Bangkok, he strangled Dutch tourists Cornelia Hemker and Henricus Bitanja on December 16, burning their bodies as a hedge against arrest. Shortly before Christmas, Canadian Laurent Carriere and American Connie Bronzick were found dead in Katmandu, their bodies burned. Sobhraj -traveling as Henricus Bitanja, with his victim's passport - had booked a room at the same hotel, but he slipped out of Nepal after preliminary questioning.
The killer continued his aimless trek across Asia, murdering Israeli Allen Jacobs for his passport at Varanasi, in northern India. A few days later, on January 9, 1976, Sobhraj and two accomplices drugged a trio of Frenchmen at Goa, dumping their bodies at roadside, but all three victims managed to survive. In Hong Kong, Allen Gore was also lucky; he lost $8,000 but kept his life, despite a jolt of Sobhraj's chemical cocktail. Arrested with false passports in Bangkok, Charles was allowed to walk after doling out bribes all around. In Penang, he was arrested for trying to cash stolen traveler's checks, but he managed to talk his way out of jail.
Back in Bombay, Sobhraj slipped a fatal mickey to French tourist Jean-Luc Solomon, moving on from there to more ambitious projects. Shooting for the moon, he drugged an entire class of 60 French engineering students, but miscalculation of the dose sent 20 to a local hospital, and this time police were waiting. Arrested on July 5, 1976, Sobhraj was linked with at least ten homicides spanning the past three years.
Convicted of "culpable homicide" in the Solomon case, Sobhraj was sentenced to seven years at hard labor, with two more years tacked on for drugging the French students. In 1982, he was sentenced to life imprisonment for the murder of Allen Jacobs, but appeals are continuing. Thailand and Nepal have announced their intention to file murder charges if Sobhraj should manage to win his release.
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