Historical Accuracy (Q&A):
How many people did Charles Sobhraj kill?
The Serpent true story reveals that serial killer Charles Sobhraj is believed to have killed at least a dozen people in the 1970s, possibly up to 24. Most of Charles Sobhraj's victims were discovered along Southeast Asia's Hippie Trail. At least two of his victims were found drowned wearing only bikinis, which earned him the nickname "The Bikini Killer."
When did Charles Sobhraj begin his life of crime?Serial killer and conman Charles Sobhraj was born to a Vietnamese mother and an Indian father in Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City). His father abandoned the family after Charles' parents divorced. Charles began his life of crime as a teenager in France. He did his first stint in prison in 1963 in Paris and reportedly manipulated the guards into doing special favors for him, including letting him keep books in his cell. -Daily Mirror
Why was Charles Sobhraj called "The Serpent"?
A fact-check reveals that he was given the name for his ability to slither out of the clutches of the police, something he would end up doing for years.
The real Charles Sobhraj is pictured on the left in a swimsuit. Actor Tahar Rahim opts for less revealing attire in The Serpent
Had Charles Sobhraj been married prior to meeting accomplice Marie-Andrée Leclerc?
Yes. Charles Sobhraj's former wife, who's introduced in episode six, was a young Frenchwoman named Chantal Compagnon. She is renamed Juliette Voclain in The Serpent miniseries. On the same day that Charles proposed to Chantal, he was subsequently arrested for trying to evade police in a stolen vehicle and ended up serving eight months in prison. He married Chantal shortly after he was released in 1969, promising her he would give up his life of crime. Although she's clearly pregnant at their wedding in the miniseries, she didn't become pregnant in real life until after they were married. As reported in the Telegraph, it appears accurate that Chantal's conservative parents did not approve of Charles.
The couple fled France in 1970 while Chantal was pregnant with their daughter, Usha (renamed Madhu in the miniseries). They used forged documents to travel through Eastern Europe and rob tourists. They were living in Mumbai when Usha was born. It was there that Charles was running a car theft and smuggling operation. As shown in The Serpent, the true story confirms that he was sent back to prison in 1973 after unsuccessfully trying to commit armed robbery at a jewelry store in Hotel Ashoka in New Delhi. He then faked appendicitis and escaped with Chantal's help, but he was soon recaptured.
After his father loaned him money for bail, Charles took off to Kabul where he was apprehended yet again for robbing tourists. Utilizing his earlier strategy, he escaped by faking sickness and drugged a hospital guard. By this time, his wife Chantal had lost hope for their marriage. He fled to Iran by himself, while his family returned to France.
Did Charles try to switch identities with his brother in order to escape from prison?While conducting The Serpent fact-check, we learned that Charles hooked up with his half-brother André in Istanbul after being on the lamb for several years across Eastern Europe and the Middle East. Together, they embarked on a crime spree in both Turkey and Greece before being arrested in Athens. In order to avoid a lengthy prison sentence, Charles attempted to switch identities with André. Things didn't go as planned but Charles still managed to escape, while André would spend the next 18 years in a Turkish prison. It was shortly after Charles' escape that the murders depicted in the miniseries began to unfold along the Hippie Trail in Southeast Asia. -Daily Mirror
Did Chantal Compagnon continue to support Charles Sobhraj financially after their separation?
Yes. The miniseries implication that Sobhraj's wife Chantal remained a part of his life after their parting seems historically accurate. The real Charles Sobhraj told British journalist Andrew Anthony that Chantal stayed in touch with him for years after their separation and continued to support him financially. -Telegraph
When did serial killer Charles Sobhraj commit his first murder?
While it is believed that Sobhraj's first known killing was the 1972 poisoning of a Pakistani chauffeur named Habib, he is thought to have committed his first murder along the Hippie Trail in 1975 with the help of Ajay Chowdhury, a young Indian male who had become his right-hand man. The Serpent true story confirms that the pair drowned Teresa Knowlton, a young woman from Seattle whose body was discovered in a tidal pool in the Gulf of Thailand. She was wearing a flowered bikini. It took seven months to identify Teresa Knowlton's body. At first, authorities had assumed she'd drowned in a swimming accident, but her autopsy, along with forensic evidence, later proved it was murder.
Charles Sobhraj's victim Teresa Knowlton (left), and actress Alice Englert in The Serpent
Was Charles Sobhraj's girlfriend, Marie-Andrée Leclerc, a willing accomplice?Yes. The miniseries' portrayal of Leclerc (Jenna Coleman), who called herself "Monique," seems mostly accurate. Serial killer Sobhraj met Leclerc, a medical secretary from Quebec, in 1975 while he was still married to his French wife Chantal Compagnon. Leclerc encountered him while on vacation in India. She then relocated from her home in Quebec to live with Sobhraj in Bangkok. Nadine Gires, Sobhraj's former neighbor who assisted in his capture, said that Jenna Coleman's character is different than the real-life Leclerc. "I felt sorry for Marie-Andrée [Leclerc] because she was a sad and simple person, not the movie star we see in the series. And she was Charles' prisoner. She told me, 'I have no passport, no money and if I try to leave he will kill me.'"
The real Marie-Andrée Leclerc (left), and actress Jenna Coleman in The Serpent
Despite Leclerc's affection for him, Sobhraj continued to sleep with other women. "I swore to myself to try all means to make him love me," she later wrote, "but little by little I became his slave." She helped him drug victims and was known to use their passports. To what degree she was involved in the murders is unclear. -The Life and Crimes of Charles Sobhraj
Are the murders in the miniseries portrayed accurately?The murders in the miniseries seem to be depicted rather accurately, despite a few of the names being changed out of respect for the victims and their families. We know that Sobhraj would pose as a drug dealer or a gem salesman to lure in his victims. He poisoned them, often by giving them cocktails spiked with sleeping pills. He would then inject them with Largactil. He'd steal their money and passports. He burned the bodies of some and drowned others. Below is a list of Charles Sobhraj's victims that we know of.
- Teresa Knowlton: The bikini-clad body of Seattle tourist Knowlton was discovered in a tidal pool in the Gulf of Thailand in 1975. While initially believed to be an accidental drowning, an autopsy and forensic evidence revealed that she had been murdered.
- Vitali Hakim: A Turkish competitor in the drug trade, his neck was snapped and his burned body was discovered on the road to the Pattaya resort, which is where the serial killer Sobhraj was staying with others. He is Sobhraj's second known victim.
- Stéphane Parry: The French contact of the drug trafficker Hakim, she had been strangled so violently by Sobhraj that her neck had been broken. Stéphane Parry's body was found in the water not far from a beach. Despite the fact that she had been wearing a dress and not a bikini, the media labeled her and Teresa Knowlton's murders "The Bikini Killings."
- Henk Bintanja and Cornelia Hemker: Amsterdam couple Henk Bintanja, 29, and his fiancée Cornelia Hemker, 25, were poisoned by Sobhraj. He nursed them back to health to gain their trust but ended up killing them to avoid suspicion when Charmayne Carrou came looking for her boyfriend, Vitali Hakim, one of Charles Sobhraj's earlier victims. Their strangled and burned bodies were discovered on December 16, 1975.
- Charmayne Carrou: She was the French girlfriend of Charles Sobhraj's victim Vitali Hakim. Sobhraj drowned her after she came in search of her boyfriend. Her body was found in a similar style swimsuit as Teresa Knowlton's, causing investigators and the media to continue to dub Sobhraj "The Bikini Killer."
- Laurent Carrière and Connie Bronzich: The bodies of Carrière, a 26-year-old Canadian backpacker, and his friend Bronzich, a 29-year-old American tourist, were found stabbed and burned in two separate areas of Kathmandu.
- Avoni Jacob: He was an Israeli student who was murdered by Sobhraj for his passport.
- Ajay Chowdhury: He was the right-hand-man of the serial killer Sobhraj. He disappeared in 1976 and is believed to have been murdered by Sobhraj after delivering stolen gems to him.
- Jean-Luc Solomon: Sobhraj attempted to poison him in order to render him helpless while he robbed him, but the poison ended up killing him.
This May 1976 headline in the Bangkok Post
displays several of the serial killer's victims. Sobhraj had yet to be identified.
Did Charles Sobhraj kill his right-hand man, Ajay Chowdhury?Sobhraj's second-in-command, Ajay Chowdhury, was reportedly last seen delivering stolen gems to Sobhraj in Malaysia. In researching the true story behind The Serpent miniseries, we learned that no remains were ever found but it is believed that Sobhraj murdered Chowdhury before leaving Malaysia. Chowdhury was reportedly later sighted in West Germany, but the report is unsubstantiated.
Are Dutch diplomat Herman Knippenberg and his wife Angela portrayed accurately?
While Herman Knippenberg was impressed with the accuracy of Billy Howle's portrayal of him, his former wife Angela said that Ellie Bamber's portrayal of her missed the mark. "I was never the dutiful diplomat's wife," Angela said of how she's portrayed. She emphasized that she and her husband Herman acted as much more of a team in real life. "Herman and I were very much partners in all of this," she told The Mirror. She said that she was also more assertive than the character and that she was never blonde, nor did she have long hair at the time. She and Herman later divorced and both have remarried.
How was serial killer Charles Sobhraj captured?
By July 1976, Sobhraj had recruited two more women, Barbara Smith and Australian nurse Mary Ellen Eather, who joined him and Marie-Andrée Leclerc in their attempted drugging and robbery of a group of French post-graduate students. He told the students he was giving them anti-dysentery medication, when in reality it was poison. When the drugs took hold more rapidly than Sobhraj had anticipated, the students began to pass out in their hotel lobby. Three students who were still conscious realized what was happening. They overpowered Sobhraj and called the police, which resulted in his capture.
The two newly-recruited women who had helped him, Smith and Eather, caved and confessed during their interrogations. Sobhraj was charged with the murder of Frenchman Jean-Luc Solomon. Both he and Marie-Andrée Leclerc were convicted of murder and sentenced to 12 years in an Indian prison.
Charles Sobhraj (left) after being granted bail in a New Delhi court in 1997. Tahar Rahim (right) as an older Sobhraj in the miniseries.
Did Charles Sobhraj escape from prison?Yes. He was charged with the murder of victim Jean-Luc Solomon and was jailed in India. He lived comfortably in prison, in part due to bribing guards with precious gems that he had smuggled in by concealing them in his body. Ten years later, when his sentence was about to be up, he escaped from prison because he knew that there was still an outstanding Thai arrest warrant against him. If tried in Thailand, he almost certainly would have been executed. He knew that even if he was recaptured in India, they would simply extend his sentence, which would save him from being extradited to Thailand. If he could remain imprisoned in India, the 20-year lifespan on the Thai warrant would expire.
After escaping by throwing a party for the guards and drugging them with sleeping pills, he was recaptured and his sentence was extended by ten years. Following his release in 1997, he returned to France. In 2003, he was arrested at a casino in Nepal and charged with the murders of Connie Bronzich and Laurent Carrière. He was sentenced to life in prison.
What happened to Marie-Andrée Leclerc?
Charles Sobhraj's girlfriend, Marie-Andrée Leclerc (portrayed by Jenna Coleman in The Serpent), was released on appeal under the condition that she remain in India. However, by 1983, she was suffering from advanced ovarian cancer and was allowed to return home to Quebec to receive treatment. She denied any knowledge of Sobhraj's murders. Leclerc passed away in 1984 at just 38.
The real Marie-Andrée Leclerc (left) shortly before her death from ovarian cancer, and actress Jenna Coleman (right) in the miniseries.
Has Charles Sobhraj admitted to the murders?No. He has never owned up to any of the killings. In 2016, he told Vice, "I never murdered anybody. You are speaking about drug addicts. They may have been... Uh, liquidated by a syndicate, for dealing heroin." The serial killer reportedly had a strong dislike of hippie culture. Sobhraj has a new wife, Nihita Biswas, who he married while in prison. -Esquire