Known to play around with legal systems over the
world as a child would play with his toys, Charles Gurumukh
Sobhraj, the serial killer dubbed as ‘The Serpent’ or ‘The Bikini
Killer’, is now a free man.
Sobhraj (78) was freed from jail on Friday afternoon as per the order of the Supreme Court of Nepal, following which he boarded a Qatar Airways flight to Paris.
Born to French-Vietnamese mother Tran Loang Phun and Sindhi father Sobhraj Hotchand Bhawnani, fictional and documentary accounts of his life have often cited a neglected childhood as a reason for his subsequent persona.
Reports of his serial killings earned him the name ‘Bikini Killer’, and his cunning disposition fetched him sobriquets as ‘Serpent’, ‘Cobra’ and the ‘Snake’.
His capture by the authorities, not only in India, but even abroad was
no less dramatic than his life.
Sobhraj, convicted for the murder of two North Americans, was finally released from the Kathmandu prison on Friday after serving 19 years in jail.
Prior to his conviction in Kathmandu, Sobhraj was also convicted in India and had spent two decades in the country’s high security Tihar Jail in Delhi, where, officials who knew him, say that he used to ‘run an empire’ from the prison.
From drug peddling to arms smuggling, Sobhraj was running entire syndicate from behind the bars. Interrogators at the time said that he was a manipulator, which made him succeed in such operations.
Before coming to India in early 60s, Sobhraj had been a delinquent teenager.
Through minor crimes, he used to earn small amounts that helped him reach India, but he returned soon.
After graduating in science, Sobhraj again came back to India around 1967 and in November 1971, he was first booked by the Delhi Police and was nabbed near the Chanakyapuri area for not having a passport.
But Sobhraj was Sobhraj, the cunning man who even then fled from police custody while he was being taken to a hospital for what was later found to be a ‘fake illness’ — one of his easiest tricks of all times.
This is how it all began and for the next 8-9 years, Sobhraj off-and-on kept frequenting the prison cells.
Talking to IANS, then Deputy Commissioner of Police (Crime Branch), Amod Kanth, who worked on Shobraj’s case, termed him as a crook and a murderer, who used to think of himself as an intellectual, despite being behind the bars for heinous crimes.
The former IPS officer had joined the service in 1974 and later he was posted for training in the New Delhi district.
Sobhraj committed one of the most serious crimes when he poisoned a group of French tourists residing at the YMCA in Delhi, of which one died, Kanth said.
“He used to present himself as a charming man. He befriended foreigners whom he drugged and looted. This was his modus operandi. As far as I know, he killed 22 people. He was a ruthless killer,” Kanth told IANS.
Later, a Delhi court in October 1981 convicted Sobhraj and sent him to rigorous imprisonment for five years. Then in 1986, what Sobhraj did etched his name in the history of most cunning criminals of all times after he escaped from Tihar jail by feeding the guards drug-laced food during a ‘party’ in the high-security prison complex.
Kanth said that during the period Sobhraj was incarcerated at Tihar jail, he formed bonds with every person there, including some of the dreaded inmates that also included businessmen and smugglers. He used to think him as a foreigner and an intellectual when compared to other prisoners.
“He made friends with everyone and practically controlled the prison. In real terms, he was running an empire from the Tihar jail,” the former IPS officer said.
From drugs syndicate to arms smuggling, Sobhraj left no stone unturned
to run his empire and manipulate other inmates and officials, said sources.
And then came a day in 1986 when Sobhraj, after meticulous planning for years with his friend David Richard Hall, fled from the high-security jail. But his luck ran out and he was caught by the police after 22 days from Goa.
Such was his hold on the Tihar Jail that Sobhraj, carrying a country-made pistol and a grenade, meticulously planned his escape along with five other prisoners.
On March 16, 1986, Sobhraj, who had already procured more than 1,000 larpoz (sleeping pills) tablets, mixed them with custard, cake and some sweets and gave them to every person in Tihar Jail who could have come in his way of escape.
As per Kanth, when he escaped from Tihar jail in 1986, where he had already spent 10 years, his strategy was simple. He had just lost his appeal against a Delhi court order extraditing him to Thailand where he was wanted for murder and would have faced the death sentence.
“Knowing that under Indian law, no undertrial can be extradited if he is wanted here for an offence, he engineered his sensational escape knowing that once recaptured, he would be kept inside Tihar until the Thai arrest warrant against him expires. And his calculation had proved right,” said Kanth.
Kanth, who had written a book on all his prominent cases, also shared the details of the fateful day of the convicted killer’s arrest.
“After Sobhraj escaped from Tihar, being DCP Crime Branch, the case was handed over to me and we began looking for his record in the Delhi Police dossier, but there was hardly any information,” Kanth said.
As per Kanth, more information about Sobhraj was available in the books which were written on him like ‘The Serpentine’, which was published in 1979, or ‘The Bikini Murders’.
“When he was in jail, he himself had generated these stories and given the information to the media about his exploits,” he said.
To crack the case, first the Tihar Jail officials and some prisoners were questioned.
“At last, we got a clue that Sobhraj was hiding in Mumbai near the railway station. I contacted the then Maharashtra DGP and one of the escapees, but Sobhraj was not caught,” said Kanth.
Another one was caught by the Railway Police from a railway station in Mumbai. Their interrogation led the probe teams to Goa, from where Sobhraj was nabbed, exactly 22 days after he fled from Tihar.
Upon his capture, the police were doubly cautious while locking him up.
Kanth said he brought Sobhraj back to Delhi in a special aircraft provided by the Border Security Force (BSF).
After his arrest, it was made amply clear to Sobhraj that he will be treated as ‘an ordinary criminal’.
“The only thing I did was that I made him sit on the ground. I always sat on a chair while interrogating Sobhraj, as well the others questioning him. I never allowed my team to apply third-degree or beat him, but psychologically he was made to understand that he was being treated as an ordinary criminal and that he could not bluff us. We had done our homework,” said Kanth.
“The media had given him too much hype. He was nothing but a manipulator and crook,” Kanth said.
Once he was locked up again, Kanth said Sobhraj didn’t show any sign of resistance and diverted his attention to his partner-in-crime, David Richard Hall.
“Sobhraj’s major funding happened through David Richard Hall. He also did videography of the escape episode from Tihar jail. I used to have lunch packed by my wife. One day, I was trying to get David talk while having lunch in front of him.
“I offered him food cooked by my wife, and this made him break down. David remembered his wife, who was then working in the UK. I got him to talk to her, which emotionally charged him, and he started talking. Then I got the entire story of their chase from him,” said Kanth.
The former top cop also fails to fathom Sobhraj’s image as a ‘ladies’ man’.
“I don’t know what girls found attractive (in Sobhraj),” he said.
(Shekhar Singh can be contacted at email@example.com)