Serpent killer Charles Sobhraj from The Serpent was arrested thanks to the Dutch diplomat Herman Knippenberg. But the Netflix series does not tell everything …
Today, Southeast Asia is a promised land for globetrotting backpackers, but that was a little different in the 1970s. At the time, Charles Sobhraj, a French assassin who anticipated adventurous tourists, was still at large.
Sobhraj was so difficult to track down that police nicknamed him “The Serpent,” one snake that ate backpackers.
By the time he was finally arrested, he had at least a dozen murders to his name. Including a Dutch couple. The statements of another Dutchman, diplomat Herman Knippenberg, ultimately sealed Sobhraj’s fate in court.
Sobhraj was sentenced to life but continued to deny
Charles Sobhraj was arrested in October 2003 in Nepal. It was strange that he was just going to that country; Nepal was one of the few countries where an arrest warrant was still pending for him. A reporter for The Himalayan Times spotted Sobhraj in a casino, followed him for two weeks, and published the article.
That was enough for the Nepalese police to know where he was and he was arrested. Thirteen months later, the Nepalese court imposed a life sentence on him.
He received this sentence for the murder of Connie Jo Bronznich, an American backpacker he previously killed in Nepal. However, experts suspect that Sobhraj has killed around 30 people.
Still, the United Nations Human Rights Committee felt that the trial in Nepal had not been fair. In 2014, Sobhraj, therefore, had to appear a second time. Again he was found guilty. And not only about Broznich’s murder, but also her partner, Laurent Carriere. Sobhraj was given another life sentence for that.
Sobhraj continues to deny the allegations to this day. In a 2016 interview with Vice, he had his own statement at hand. “The people who were found dead were drug addicts. Maybe they were… uh… liquidated by a cartel. Because they were dealing heroin, I mean. ” He is still detained in the Nepalese capital Kathmandu.
Leclerc claimed to have been manipulated by Sobhraj
Sobhraj did not commit the murders alone. He often got help from his partner in crime, Marie-Andrée Leclerc. The Canadian tourist had come to Thailand for adventure and Sobhraj knew better than anyone how to fulfill that need. Leclerc and Sobhraj traveled across Asia with stolen or forged passports and, in order to gain the trust of tourists, pretended to be jewelers and drug traffickers.
Although Leclerc was by no means an angel, more and more people are beginning to see her as the Bonnie of this Bonnie and Clyde parody: an unstable but benevolent girl who fell head over heels in love with a sociopath. A sociopath who used his charisma to drag her into his life of murder and crime.
Leclerc was eventually arrested for the murder of Avoni Jacob, a Jewish academic. Leclerc had watched Sobhraj strangle him in a hotel room and then run off with his passport. When Leclerc was diagnosed with cervical cancer in 1983, she was allowed back to Canada. She wrote a book claiming that she never liked Sobhraj and died of her illness a year later.
Knippenberg was the first on the heels of Sobhraj.
It does not often happen that a Dutch person plays a leading role in an international crime story. But without Herman Knippenberg, Sobhraj and Leclerc would never have been locked up. The Dutch ambassador to Thailand tracked down the killers in 1975 after they killed two Dutch travelers.
What Knippenberg found on the moratorium was nauseating. The autopsy revealed that the Dutch had been strangled and, while still alive, set on fire. The Thai police already wanted to put the bodies away, but Knippenberg first had dental impressions made. With the help of a Dutch dentist, he was able to find out the identities of the victims. Now that of their murderer.
When the Thai government let a well-known swindler in possession of two Dutch passports leave the country, Knippenberg was on his own. On his own initiative, he started an investigation into the con man, a Frenchman of Eastern descent, and his Canadian girlfriend.
When Sobhraj and Leclerc were arrested for other crimes a few years later, Knippenberg was able to link them to ancient murders.
After police finally arrested Sobhraj, they gave Knippenberg the opportunity to question him. The diplomat declined that opportunity. “I thought it would be wise to operate from the sidelines,” he said in a recent interview with EenVandaag . “So that there would always be someone who could still strike. In retrospect, that was a very wise decision. ”
The hunt for Sobhraj took 30 years of Knippenberg’s life. Several times the full-time ambassador and part-time detective ran into burnout. With the support of his wife Angela (also seen in the series), he did not burn down. However, Sobhraj’s memories and the mutilated corpses he left behind never left Knippenberg. He compares the murderer to an illness acquired while on vacation.
Main picture: The real Herman Knippenberg (seated) poses with Billy Howle, the actor who plays him in The Serpent.