How a Cat Helped South Asia’s Bikini Killer Escape Prison
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because knowing what to watch out for is a good place to start.
In a corner of Tihar, New Delhi — South Asia’s largest prison complex — a group of inmates found an unconscious cat. Over the next two days they nursed the cat back to health, and on the third day, it started walking again.
On March 17, 1986, just a few days later, a white car drove to Tihar’s main gate. One of the passengers was David Hall, a suave young Englishman who had been imprisoned for heroin smuggling and was now out on bail. Hall handed the two guards at the gate 100 rupees (less than a dollar at the time) and a gift of fruit, telling them he was there to see his friend Charles Sobhraj.
“It is Charles Sahib’s birthday,” he told them, using the suffix indicating respect. It was a Sunday afternoon and even though Sunday visits were not allowed, Hall was let in, thanks to the fruit basket and the cash that he slipped the two guards.
A serial killer who’d left a trail of blood across several Southeast Asian countries, Sobhraj had been in Tihar for the past 10 years. While in prison, Hall and Sobhraj had hit it off, and during this visit, Hall was running errands for his friend. He took another offering of fruit to the assistant superintendent’s office, where Sobhraj was sitting on the desk, a regular occurrence even though such fraternization was technically forbidden. His 42nd birthday was actually still three weeks away. The wardens were given the food, a peace offering, and something more. They soon became groggy from the drugs concealed in the food.
Does a professional soldier feel remorse after having killed a hundred men with a machine gun? Did the American pilots feel remorse after dropping napalm on my homeland? No.
Sobhraj escaped from Tihar in Hall’s car, using one of the drugged wardens as a decoy by dangling his arm out the passenger’s side window. The guards, seeing the warden, waved the car through the gate unchallenged, oblivious to what had happened inside the prison.
It soon became clear that Sobhraj had used the unconscious cat as a guinea pig to test a dosage of the drugs Hall would later hide in the fruit they gave to the wardens. He’d attempted escape twice before and this time he was taking no chances. The Bikini Killer was free.
Sobhraj had earned that nickname, along with “Serpent,” in the 1970s after committing two dozen murders followed by audacious prison escapes. He was a media obsession, one he fed with his flamboyant lifestyle even when behind bars, which included conjugal visits from fans and weekend parties allowed by prison staffers. On the outside, Sobhraj often posed as a drug dealer, befriending tourists and then killing them once their guard was down. According to Ananta Raj Luitel, co-author of Charles Sobhraj: Crime and Punishment, Sobhraj often seduced his victims — a few of whom were clad in bikinis when their bodies were found, thus his moniker — before killing them.
Born Hotchand Bhawnani Gurumukh Sobhraj to an Indian father and a Vietnamese mother in 1944, Sobhraj’s childhood wasn’t a happy one. When Sobhraj was 4, his father abandoned him and his mother remarried. His mother then moved to Marseille and married a French army officer. Sobhraj faced constant rejection in his childhood, Luitel says. His birth father never accepted him, and he disliked his stepfather. After he tried to wreck his biological father’s car, Sobhraj was sent to live with relatives in India, at which point, “he turned to robbery,” says Luitel, commencing his career in crime. In 1963, in Paris, Sobhraj received his first jail sentence, for burglary.
Following his release, Sobhraj continued his criminal activities, murdering, extorting and kidnapping his way across Thailand, Nepal, Malaysia and India. He escaped prisons, crossed borders and became famous for luring female tourists traveling through Asia into his orbit, inspiring multiple books and an Indian film about his prison escapes. It was rumored that Sobhraj wanted to create a “family” for himself, a cult-like Charles Manson’s.
Like Manson, Sobhraj was known to be charming. One of those enthralled by him, Chantal Compagnon, even married him — and together they embarked on a joint career of robbery and extortion in Paris. Compagnon was from a conservative Parisian family and fled to Asia with Sobhraj when he was facing arrest for robbery and extortion. In Mumbai, in 1970, she gave birth to a baby girl.
During a 1977 interview in Tihar with Richard Neville and Julie Clarke, authors of The Life and Crimes of Charles Sobhraj, Sobhraj said, “If some will ask me whether I feel remorse, and many will, I answer: Does a professional soldier feel remorse after having killed a hundred men with a machine gun? Did the American pilots feel remorse after dropping napalm on my homeland? No.”
Sobhraj’s murderous spree came to an abrupt stop when Delhi police arrested him at a hotel where he was attempting to drug a group of French tourists. Thailand was also seeking Sobhraj, to extradite him on murder charges. Inside Tihar, Sobhraj was known to start his day with 100 pushups, followed by kung fu and karate practice.
After his headline-grabbing escape from Tihar, which incensed Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, Sobhraj gave himself up to avoid incarceration in Thailand, a country that has the death penalty. Sobhraj is serving a life sentence in Nepal, where capital punishment is illegal, for the murders of American Connie Jo Bronzich and Canadian Laurent Ormond Carriere. In 2008, while imprisoned, he became engaged to a Nepalese woman 44 years his junior.
And just last year, the then-72-year-old Sobhraj petitioned a court in Kathmandu for release, claiming that new guidelines for elderly convicts mandate he be freed. Later that year, Sobhraj underwent open-heart surgery under full guard. The Nepalese surgeon who conducted the surgery tweeted that despite the devastation Sobhraj had wrought on his victims, “he has a heart and I just fixed valves inside.”