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The Chilling True Story Behind Charles Sobhraj From BBC's New True Crime The Serpent

The Chilling True Story Behind Charles Sobhraj From BBC's New True Crime The Serpent

BBC's new true crime drama The Serpent is already setting tongues wagging.

Set in the 1970s, the series centres around French serial killer Charles Sobhraj, played by Tahar Rahim (The Looming Tower), and his girlfriend, Marie-Andrée Leclerc, played by Doctor Who's Jenna Coleman.

Meanwhile, Billy Howle (On Chesil Beach) also stars as Herman Knippenberg, a Dutch diplomat who relentlessly pursues the killer.

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Known as The Bikini Killer (due to the outfits his victims wore) and The Serpent (due to his slippery and deceptive methods) Sobhraj is thought to have killed at least 12 backpackers in South-east Asia (across India, Thailand and Nepal) in the 1970s, while on the hippie trail.

He did so by poisoning his victims, as well as strangling drowning and stabbing them.

The Serpent was an infamous killer in real life, too (Credit: BBC)
The Serpent was an infamous killer in real life, too (Credit: BBC)

Disturbingly, in some cases he even burnt his victims alive.

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Sobhraj reeled in his victims by posing as a gem dealer, and offering up shelter, drugs, parties and networks.

And he managed to slip through the net rather successfully, ending up becoming Interpol's most-wanted man before he was eventually captured in 1976, several months after he had begun his onslaught of murders.

It was only when Sobhraj attempted to conduct a mass murder at a party in New Delhi that his evil ways caught up with him.

While he had planned to drug 22 members of a French backpacking tour, he didn't successfully manage to keep them all unconscious, and some alerted the authorities.

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Jenna Coleman stars in the BBC drama (Credit: BBC)
Jenna Coleman stars in the BBC drama (Credit: BBC)

Once he was caught in 1976, Sobhraj was sent to jail for 12 years, only charged with the manslaughter of two of the tourists.

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Meanwhile, Marie-Andrée Leclerc was sent down for the murder of Avoni Jacob in 1980, but, after suffering ovarian cancer in 1983 she was freed to return to her home in Canada. She died a year later aged 38.

Ten years after his first arrest, like a true serpent, Sobhraj hatched a plan to escape the jail by drugging the prison guards, who he had befriended. But he was recaptured soon afterwards, and handed another 10 year sentence for his crime.

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When he was released from jail, it wasn't the end of The Serpent, either.

Real image of Sobhraj being led to jail (Credit: Shutterstock)
Real image of Sobhraj being led to jail (Credit: Shutterstock)
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Instead of living a reformed life, he decided to step up to the limelight and accept tonnes of interviews, profiting from his crimes.

However, when he bizarrely travelled to Nepal in 2003, which was one of the countries he was wanted for his crimes, the jig was up, and he was sentenced to life imprisonment in a Nepalese jail as soon as he was spotted there.

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The BBC drama shines a fresh light on the gripping true crime story (Credit: BBC/Shutterstock)
The BBC drama shines a fresh light on the gripping true crime story (Credit: BBC/Shutterstock)

Sobhraj remains in the jail to this day, and is currently aged 76.

If you haven't started watching the eight part series yet, the synopsis for the BBC show follows much the same narrative, telling Sobhraj's true story.

Sobhraj went on to pander to the media after his release from jail (Credit: Shutterstock)
Sobhraj went on to pander to the media after his release from jail (Credit: Shutterstock)

"Posing as a gem dealer, Sobhraj and his girlfriend Marie-Andrée Leclerc travelled across Thailand, Nepal and India in 1975 and 1976, carrying out a spree of crimes on the Asian 'Hippie Trail' and becoming the chief suspects in a series of murders of young Western travellers," it reads.

While the series has changed the name of some of Sobhraj's victims to protect their privacy, their stories remain the same.

There's Teresa - the American lady who was on her way to Nepal to join a Buddhist monastery, and Willem and Lena, a young Dutch couple (who were named Henk Bintanja and Cornelia Hemker IRL) .

Much like in reality, the show also depicts how the Sobhraj and Leclerc would often assume the identities of their victims.

You can watch The Serpent on BBC iPlayer now.

Featured Image Credit: Shutterstock/BBC

Topics: True Crime, BBC, TV Entertainment

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Joanna Freedman

Joanna is a journalist at Tyla with a particular interest in highlighting women's issues and telling inspiring first person stories. She's also their resident foodie, and loves covering exciting new beauty launches, too. Contact her at [email protected]