A Serial Killer Who Specialized in Western Tourists Traveling the Hippie Trail
Charles Sobhraj (1944 – ) is a Frenchman of Vietnamese and Indian origins, who spent much of his childhood moving back and forth between France and Indochina. He became a delinquent at an early age, engaging in petty crimes, and was sentenced to his first prison sting at age 18, for burglary. A manipulative psychopath, he met and endeared himself to a rich prison volunteer, who introduced him to high society after his release.
Sobhraj used that access to the rich to enrich himself in turn, via scams, and scouting the homes of his new upper-class friends and acquaintances for lucrative burglaries. Legal troubles eventually forced him to flee France with his girlfriend in 1970 to avoid arrest. The couple traveled through Eastern Europe with fake documents, robbing tourists along the way, before ending up in India.
There, Sobhraj ran a car theft and smuggling ring until 1973, when he was arrested for an attempted robbery of a jewelry store. He managed to escape, however and fled to Afghanistan. There, Sobhraj and his girlfriend began praying on tourists along the “Hippie Trail” – an overland route between Europe and South Asia, popular with Hippies and Beatniks between the 1950s and 1970s.
His girlfriend eventually left him and returned to France. Sobhraj then engaged in a variety of criminal schemes, including one with his brother that backfired, and left his sibling serving an 18-year term in a Turkish prison. Thereafter, Sobhraj’s grew steadily darker, and he began piling up the bodies of murder victims all along the Hippie Trail. He is believed to have murdered at least 20 Western tourists, and the true body count is thought by many to be much, much, higher.
Sobhraj was finally undone in 1976, when he attempted to drug a group of French tourists in India. He miscalculated the dosage, however, and his victims became violently ill, but still conscious enough to realize what Sobhraj had tried to do. They managed to overpower and seize him, until police arrived. Thai authorities sought his extradition for a murder committed there – which likely would have resulted in a death sentence. Indian authorities decided to try him for crimes committed on Indian soil first, however. He was convicted of a variety of offenses and imprisoned but escaped in 1986 after drugging his prison guards.
He was easily recaptured a month later, leading many to speculate that it was a deliberate attempt to get extra jail time tacked on to his sentence. With the extra jail time, he was not released until 1997, after the 20 years statute of limitations for his crimes in Thailand had passed. Thus, he could no longer be extradited to face a potential death penalty in Thailand.
While behind bars, Sobhraj used his cunning and charisma to keep himself in the public eye and maintain his celebrity status. While imprisoned in India, he charged a pretty penny for interviews with journalists, and an even prettier penny for selling his Indian movie rights. India had no “Son of Sam” laws, preventing criminals from profiting from the celebrity arising from their crimes, so Sobhraj presumably managed to keep those earnings.
After his release from prison in 1997, Sobhraj returned to Paris, where he enjoyed a celebrity lifestyle and reportedly sold his international movie rights for 15 million US dollars. His freedom did not last long, however: he unwisely traveled to Nepal in 2003, and when the authorities were alerted of his presence, he was arrested for a 1975 double murder. He was convicted the following year and handed a life sentence, and as of early 2018, an aging Charles Sobhraj is still locked up in a Nepalese prison.