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France Takes Care in Handling ‘The Serpent’

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A notorious self-confessed serial killer so coldblooded and cunning that he is nicknamed “The Serpent” flew into Paris on Tuesday, saying he wants to turn over a new leaf and make a movie about himself.

After more than 20 years in Indian prisons, Vietnamese-born Charles Sobhraj--intelligent, icily calm and as charmingly successful with women as he was sadistically cruel with many of his victims--arrived at Charles de Gaulle Airport at 6:45 a.m. aboard the regular Air France flight from New Delhi. A score of French police guarded the walkways from the aircraft, then bundled Sobhraj away when he emerged from the jetliner.

He was taken to a judge in Bobigny, a northern suburb of Paris, to be questioned in connection with the attempted poisoning of a group of French tourists in India in 1976.

None of the tourists, a group of engineering graduates from the southwestern city of Tarbes, died. But a judicial investigation has been opened into the incident by French authorities obviously jittery at the thought of having Sobhraj in the country.

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According to his lawyer, Jacques Verges, Sobhraj was allowed to leave the judge’s chambers after being questioned by the magistrate.

Before hopping into a taxi, Sobhraj told a waiting mob of journalists outside the Palace of Justice that he was “happy to be finally . . . on French soil.”

Verges said his client had already served a two-year prison term in India for the poisoning, so “the affair is closed.”

Sobhraj was born 53 years ago last Sunday to a Vietnamese mother and an Indian father in Saigon, which was then under French rule.

His reputation was forged in the 1970s, when he preyed on backpackers, hippies, small-time drug smugglers and tourists in India and the surrounding countries of Asia. “I can justify the murders to myself,” he said. “I never killed good people.”

From Quetta, Pakistan, to the outskirts of Bangkok, Thailand, Sobhraj left a trail of victims whose exact number may never be known. In Thailand alone, he may have murdered 14 people, and a stack of passports and driver’s licenses from other people were found in his apartment.

One young American woman, Teresa Knowlton, who was working as a courier for a heroin dealer was drugged and strangled in October 1975. Her bikini-clad body washed ashore after being tossed in the sea at the Thai resort of Pattaya.

“I killed her because she was transporting drugs,” Sobhraj once said.

Sobhraj once told two Australian writers that he had committed 10 murders for which he was wanted in four countries. The writers, Australians Richard Neville and Julie Clarke, sized up their interlocutor as a “brilliant psychopath.”

“As long as I can talk to people, I can manipulate them,” he told them.

Among his many victims were a Dutch couple who had come to stay in Sobhraj’s apartment on the outskirts of Bangkok. They were drugged, choked and set on fire; autopsies showed both were still alive when they were burned.

An Israeli tourist and a Frenchman were drugged and killed in India.

Asked why he mutilated or burned the bodies of many of his victims, Sobhraj once said, “It was either sadism or a warning to the drug cartel.”

Sobhraj was arrested in New Delhi in 1976, after he gave the 60 French tourists capsules filled with crushed sleeping pills and laxatives. He told them the capsules were antibacterial drugs. Soon after swallowing the pills, 20 of the visitors were unconscious, moaning on the floor or vomiting. His goal had apparently been robbery.

That began his long odyssey through the Indian justice system. Courts found him guilty of the murder of two tourists, but one conviction was thrown out and the other reversed on appeal.

When a sentence for theft was almost up, Sobhraj escaped from prison by offering his jailers sweets laced with sleeping pills. He was recaptured 22 days later, saying he had planned the escape and rearrest to avoid being deported to Thailand, where he faced a possible death sentence for murders he allegedly committed there.

The elephantine pace of India’s legal system ensured that Sobhraj was still in New Delhi’s high-security Tihar prison, on trial for the escape, when the Thai extradition warrant, valid for 20 years, expired in 1995.

In February, the Indians dropped the escape charges and ordered him to leave the country immediately. He wanted to go to France, where his mother and stepfather live. French authorities stalled for 50 days, seeking a legal way to deny him entry. In the end, they issued him the travel permit; a pair of Indian immigration officials escorted him to Paris.

Sobhraj has said he expects $15 million for the movie rights to an autobiography he plans to write.

Yves Renier, a well-known French actor and producer who met him six months ago in a New Delhi courtroom, wants to make the film.

Sobhraj is “calculating and manipulative,” Renier explained. “He is a chess player, seductive and charismatic. It’s not for nothing that he is called ‘The Serpent.’ He is unfathomable and cold like one.”

Asked in India if he intends to commit more crimes, Sobhraj answered: “Never. That is a part of my life that I have forgotten.”

“For the crimes that people reproach me,” he said, “I have been judged and acquitted. The result is that now I am a free man, because there is absolutely nothing more against me.”

Amit Sharma of The Times’ New Delhi Bureau contributed to this report.


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