“This drama is inspired by real events”—the title card played at the onset for each episode of Netflix and BBC’s The Serpent—is usually code for malarky. “Inspired by true events” typically gives filmmakers the leniency to depict almost anything: extraterrestrials, exorcisms, etc. The Serpent also takes the extra precaution of warning viewers that the dialogue in the film is entirely fabricated. All this language, however, is less for dramatic setup than legal insurance; The Serpent depicts a series of real international crimes and real historical victims. The crimes are almost too great to be believed, the victim’s experiences too horrifying to be imagined.
The Serpent is ultimately the story of Charles Sobhraj (played by Tahar Rahim), who uses the alias “Alain Gautier” and would be later called the “Bikini Killer. He preyed on tourists traveling through southeast Asia’s “Hippie Trail” during the 1970s. From 1972 to 1976, Sobhraj is believed to be responsible for anywhere from 12 to 24 killings. The victims were Western tourists and backpackers traveling through Thailand, India, and Nepal. Sobhraj traveled using the passports of these victims. He was accompanied by Marle‐Andrée Leclerc, though Leclerc’s role in the murders is still unclear. Sobhraj also employed a man named Ajay Chowdhury, who likely helped him commit several of the murders. Sobhraj would say later that, “As long as I can talk to people, I can manipulate them.”
In an interview with the RadioTimes.com, Jenna Coleman, who plays Leclerc in the series, discussed Leclerc’s role in and her potential dissonance toward the killings:
“I think the [question of] ‘is she a victim or is she not,’ how much of her was brainwashed, how much of it was a choice to be there and a choice to live in the delusion; I think that’s what’s really interesting, to make the choices that she made in keeping this reality in a way that she could so that she could keep existing and being with Charles.”
Together, the three—Sobhraj, Leclerc, and Chowdhury—would drug, rob, and, likely by the hands of the two men, kill their victims, using then-acquired passports to travel and avoid identification. The group, however, came under suspicion in 1975. They were forced to flee Bangkok, their more permanent home, after an investigation begun by Dutch diplomat Herman Knippenberg—and spurred by the murder of two Dutch tourists—led to Sobhraj’s temporary arrest by Thai police. He escaped. They all escaped.
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“It was all so easy for [Sobhraj],” Knippenberg later said. “The murders, the deception, everything. He had got away with so much for so long that he believed he was invincible. Personally, I think he might have killed many more. Inside his Bangkok apartment, we found a stack of passports and driver’s permits. They could have easily belonged to others.”
After their escape from Thailand, Sobhraj, and Leclerc were arrested in India after trying to poison a group of tourists. Sobhraj was sentenced to seven years in 1978. Leclerc was allowed to return to her home in Canada, having by then been diagnosed with cancer. She died in 1883. Chowdhury has never been found.
Sobhraj later escaped prison only to be recaptured by Indian authorities. The escape, some believe, was meant to prolong his jail sentence and avoid extradition to Thailand where he could face the death penalty. Sobhraj was released from jail in 1997 at which time he could no longer be tried in Thailand. He was free to travel once more.
Sobhraj returned home to Paris, living as a somewhat infamous celebrity. He then traveled to Nepal. He was arrested there for the murders of two North American tourists found burned in 1975.
Sobhraj continues to serve out his jail sentence in Nepal.
The known victims of the Serpent
Throughout the mid 1970s and perhaps earlier, Sobhraj is believed to have killed as many as 24 people. There are, however, only a dozen or so known murders.
Sobhraj’s first female victim is believed to be American tourist Teresa Knowlton (21), who was found drowned in the Gulf of Thailand in 1975. Knowlton was traveling to Nepal to study at a Buddhist monastery. She was found wearing a flowered bikini.
Later that year, the body of Vitali Hakim was found on the road near Thailand’s Pattaya resort, where Sobhraj had been staying. Hakim was reportedly set on fire.
In December, the bodies of a Dutch couple Henk Bintanja (29) Cornelia Hemker (25) were found strangled and burned. Soon after the discovery, another body was found drowned: Charamyne Carrou, Hakim’s girlfriend, who had arrived in Thailand to search for him. She was found wearing a similar bikini to Knowlton, an MO which gave Sobhraj his moniker, the “Bikini Killer.”
Sobhraj then traveled with Leclerc to Nepal in late December. There, Sobhraj is believed to have killed Canadian Laurent Carrière (26) and American Connie Bronzich (29). The bodies were burned. He and Leclerc then used the victims’ passports to reenter Thailand.
In early 1976, Sobhraj also used the passport of Israeli scholar Avoni Jacob, who was found dead in India. Sobhraj then likely poisoned Jean Luc Soloman before his arrest in India that same year.
Most of these events are depicted in The Serpent, though there are many other murders Sobhraj is believed to have committed during the 1970s. Perhaps after the series hits Netflix, we’ll learn more about Sobhraj’s other crimes.
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