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In early 1976, the bodies of two tourists were found burnt on the side of a road north of Bangkok, Thailand. They had smoke in their lungs, meaning they had still been breathing when they were set on fire. They were initially reported as missing Australian backpackers, but after Dutch diplomat Herman Knippenberg received a letter about two Dutch tourists who had uncharacteristically stopped communicating with their families in February 1976, he began to investigate further. He eventually matched the dental records of the missing Dutch couple to the burned bodies.
BBC mini series The Serpent, which arrives on U.S. Netflix on April 2, shows the devastating web of crimes that Knippenberg's (played by Billy Howle) digging uncovered. With imagined dialogue, the suspenseful series retells the druggings, robberies, and murders committed by Charles Sobhraj (played by Tahar Rahim) and his inner circle throughout Asia in the ‘70s. The real Herman Knippenberg, who is 76 years old today and living in New Zealand, consulted on the show.
The series is largely accurate in terms of the timeline it presents. But Charles Sobhraj—who went by many aliases, including Alain Gautier—was committing crimes years before the events of the series began. He was born in Vietnam in 1944, and had been in jail twice already for theft by the time he allegedly committed his first murder of a taxi driver in Pakistan in 1972, when he was 28. According to CNN, he had been placed in, released from, and escaped from various jails at least four times in several Asian and European countries between then and 1975, when the string of druggings, robberies, and murders of tourists covered in The Serpent began.
Sobhraj really did meet 30-year-old Marie-Andrée Leclerc (played by Jenna Coleman), who was born in Quebec in 1945, while travelling in India in 1975. She came to Thailand to be with him three months later, as the show depicts, and spent the next two years posing as Monique, the wife of Alain Gautier the gem dealer. They traveled across Asia using the stolen passports of Sobhraj’s victims while he drugged, robbed, and killed at least a dozen travelers in Thailand, India, and Nepal. The Dutch couple—Henricus Bintanja and Cornelia Hemker—had their names changed in the Netflix series, but all the murders depicted in the series, including of American Teresa Knowlton and the two Nepal travelers, occurred.
Nadine Gires (played by Mathilde Warnier), Sobhraj’s neighbor who assisted Herman Knippenberg, was also real. She had met the Dutch couple who had vanished, and witnessed other guests come to her neighbors' apartment, get sick and disappear, too. She was instrumental to the case, putting her own life in danger to obtain evidence and alerting Knippenberg to the couple’s whereabouts. Specifically in March of 1976, she warned him they were planning to travel. Although they evaded police capture, Knippenberg had a team raid the apartment while they were out of the country. According to CNN, they found 11 pounds of medicine, 3 industrial-size cartons of a drug that was both laxative and a "chemical straitjacket," as well as the Dutch woman’s coat and bag.
Finally, on May 5, 1976, Knippenberg went to the press with his story that had until that point been shunned by the Dutch ambassador and the Thai police. The Bangkok Post printed a front-page story titled "Web of Death," and after that, the Thai police issued an Interpol notice. Sobhraj fled to France, then to India, where the police finally arrested both him and Leclerc on July 5, 1976 after he drugged an entire French tour bus in an attempt to rob them. He was also charged with two murders. Those murder convictions were later overturned, but he was found guilty for the robbery and sentenced to 12 years in New Delhi’s Tihar Prison.
Marie-Andrée Leclerc was originally sentenced to life in prison in India for her complicity in Sobhraj’s crimes, including murder. A few years later, as the series shows, she was diagnosed with cancer, and allowed to return to Canada. She claimed she never knew about Sobhraj’s murders, although she had lived with him in 1975 and 1976, as well as traveled using the passports of their missing visitors. She died in April 1984 of ovarian cancer at the age of 38.
Sobhraj, however, did well in jail in New Delhi. According to CNN, he had a suite of cells, special privileges, and the respect of the wardens. On March 17, 1986, it paid off. He drugged the guards with laced candied fruit claiming it was his birthday, and escaped the top-security jail along with six other inmates. At that point, he was wanted in Thailand, Nepal, and Singapore for murder, as well as in Greece for a prison escape, and nearing the end of his sentence, likely orchestrated the escape—for which he would be re-arrested—in order to avoid extradition to Thailand. In Thailand, he faced murder charges punishable by death.
Charles Sobhraj was re-captured on April 6, 1986 drinking beer in a resort bar. He was jailed in India again for a period during which, according to CNN, the time where he could be tried for the alleged Thai murders would expire. He was released in 1997 after 21 years total in jail, moved to France and lived as a free man. He also reportedly sold the movie and book rights to his life for $15 million dollars, although the film was never made.
Curiously, Charles Sobhraj returned to Nepal in 2003—the only country he was still a wanted man. He was arrested on September 13, 2003, for the 1975 murder of a American tourist Connie Jo Bronzich, which The Serpent depicts. Herman Knippenberg, who was then retired and living in New Zealand, dug up his old files and sent them over to the FBI upon request. His records aided in convicting Sobhraj.
In August 2004, Sobhraj was sentenced to life in prison despite his arrest and trial, according to his lawyers, breaching his human rights. He didn’t speak the language and couldn’t call his own witnesses in court, but he remained in jail, losing several appeals. In 2008, when he was 64, Sobhraj married his lawyer’s 20-year-old daughter, Nihita Biswas, who served as his translator.
The case was reopened in 2013 because, according to CNN, prosecutors worried Sobhraj might appeal for an early release because of old age. So, in 2014, he was also convicted of killing Canadian tourist Laurent Carriere, who was traveling alongside Connie Jo Bronzich in 1975.
Sobhraj is now 76, and remains in prison. He’s never been back to Thailand, and was never tried there for the many horrors depicted in The Serpent. The extent and breadth of Sobhraj’s multi-continent crimes are unknown, but according to his biographers, he admitted to at least 12 murders between 1972 and 1976. He has hinted to others in press interviews, too, as he does in the first scene of the series, but has retraced any confessions he ever made.
As for the rest of the characters in his web of crimes, what happened to Sobhraj’s right-hand man Ajay Chowdhury remains the largest mystery. The Serpent depicts Sobhraj abandoning him on the side of the road before fleeing to France in 1976, but it’s unclear when exactly Ajay vanished. Sobhraj has denied killing him, and there was an unconfirmed reported sighting of him in Germany in late 1976, but the Interpol file on him remains open to this day.
Nadine Gires, the heroic neighbor who aided Knippenberg in taking Sobhraj down, is now 67. She really did loan Dominique, the French traveller Sobhraj kept drugged in their apartment, the money to flee Thailand, and the frightening scene in which Sobhraj returned to Thailand and inquired after Dominique really happened, too. “It was terrible. I was waiting in a hotel lobby when they came up behind me and said, ‘Surprise!’ My heart jumped. They offered me a ride home and I had to get into a very small lift with them,” she, now 67, told The Mirror in January 2021. She now runs the Bamboo Resort hotel in Khanom, Thailand.
Dominique Renelleau currently lives back in his hometown in western France. He is married with children, and is the treasurer of a billiards club, according to The Sun. He does not like to talk about the terrifying three months he spent in the apartment next door to “Alain” and “Monique.”
To this day, Herman Knippenberg keeps his files on the case, which is unresolved in every country Sobhraj murdered in aside from Nepal. "This isn't over for me until he is in a better world, or I am in a better world," Knippenberg told CNN in March. "I don't take anything for granted."
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