JAKARTA – Such stories are rare in a veteran journalist’s career, but for more than 44 years Dutch diplomat Herman Knippenberg and I have been bound together by the twists and turns in a chilling tale of a French-Vietnamese serial killer who murdered at least 12 foreign tourists across Asia in the 1970s.
Now the subject of The Serpent, a recently-released BBC television series, the story of Saigon-born Charles Sobhraj began for me on a steamy evening in 1976 when I kept an appointment with Knippenberg at his rented home off Bangkok’s Sukhumvit Road.
Dropping a bulging green manila file on the coffee table in front of me, the 32-year-old diplomat proceeded over the next few hours to tell me in astonishing detail of the smooth-talking French national’s trail of death and druggings through Thailand, Nepal and India.
In what I saw as cheap sensationalism, the Hong Kong editors titled the August 1976 cover story I subsequently wrote for Asiaweek magazine “The Bikini Killings,” annoyingly misleading when only one of Sobhraj’s confirmed victims was found wearing a bikini.
Still, it did have an impact. Picking up the magazine as they drove through Rawalpindi, Pakistan on their way back from Europe, Sobhraj and his French-Canadian girlfriend, Marie Andree Leclerc, were shocked at how much the police knew of their crimes.
An emotional wreck, Leclerc was later to tell police that Sobhraj became edgy and she detected cracks in his confidence and in his trust in her. Knippenberg believes the international coverage panicked the couple into what he called the “end game.”
American teenager Anne Teresa Knowlton, whose bikini-clad body was discovered wrapped in plastic and floating in the sea off Thailand’s Pattaya beach resort, had been an early victim after attending one of the wild parties Sobhraj often threw in his shabby Bangkok apartment.
So, too, were Dutch-born Indonesian Henk Bintaja, 29, and his fiancé, Comelia Hemker, 25. Drugged and strangled, it was their smoldering bodies, found dumped and burned on a roadside north of Bangkok, that brought Knippenberg into a case that was to consume his life.
A young third secretary, Knippenberg had no experience in detective work. Frustrated by the Thai police’s lack of interest, he did most of the five-month investigation himself, aided by embassy colleagues and his so-called “agent-in place,” a young Frenchwoman who was Sobhraj’s Bangkok neighbor.
The case continued to follow him wherever he was posted. “It was like having malaria,” Knippenberg tells me from his retirement home in Wellington, New Zealand. “Every couple of years or so something would happen that would draw me back into it again.”
Sobhraj himself would say of the tenacious Dutchman: “I don’t know what he has against me.” Says Knippenberg: “It was absolutely imperative to stop the killings even if it was not in the parameters of my official job.”
Even now, he believes there may have been many more victims. “The way he operated, passing around poisoned drinks at any opportunity, there is no doubt there were other killings,” he says. “He was always on a hunting expedition.”
Neither of us has talked to Sobhraj behind bars. But we have always agreed the psychotic Frenchman is the real-life incarnation of one of fiction’s most dangerous characters – a cultured, cunning, satanically handsome villain with a compulsion to do evil.
Former United Press International correspondent Alan Dawson, who did interview him, recalls his self-serving motive: “His reason was that white people have enslaved Asians with drugs and he was getting his own back, but without actually admitting it.”
The 76-year-old killer is now serving life imprisonment in Nepal after inexplicably returning to the scene of two of his murders. It had been seven years since he was released from a 12-year jail term in India for manslaughter and an array of other crimes.
Knippenberg was an adviser to the gripping eight-part BBC TV series, its name taken from Serpentine, the title of a part-fictionized book on the saga by the late American author Tommy Thompson, who caught a fatal liver disease doing his research in Southeast Asia.
As a drama “inspired by true events,” Serpentine isn’t always a true portrayal of the hunt for Sobhraj. But Knippenberg, who befriended the directors and cast and watched the filming in London and Bangkok, is delighted with the way the series turned out and, in particular, the recreation of 1970s Bangkok.
The central character, British actor Billy Howle, 31, bears more than a passing resemblance to the young Knippenberg. “He is almost exactly like Herman was 40 years ago,” says wife Vanessa, a former New Zealand diplomat herself. “He could even be his son.”
As fate would have it, Kanit House, the grey apartment block which Sobhraj used as his base, was directly across the street from where I spent the last of my 16 years in the Thai capital. It was demolished some years ago and replaced by a glitzy condominium.
Looking for a replica, the producers eventually came across a suitable abandoned building in the lower Sukhumvit area, coincidentally on the same no-exit street where I lived during my first year in Bangkok in 1970.
Fate shadowed Knippenberg as well. It was on September 19, 2003, the day he retired from the diplomatic service, that Sobhraj was taken into custody at Kathmandu’s Yak and Yeti Hotel casino after a local journalist recognized him in the street and called police.
A year later, the Kathmandu District Court lost little time in jailing the suave Frenchman for life for the brutal December 1975 stabbing deaths of American backpacker Connie Bronzich, 29, and her Canadian boyfriend Laurent Carriere, 26 on consecutive days.
The key evidence in rebuilding the Bronzich case came from Knippenberg’s four boxes of materials, including photographs and witness statements, he had kept with him in a career that had taken him from Thailand to the US, Indonesia, Australia, Luxembourg, Greece and New Zealand.
Sobrahj had taken daring risks in the course of his crimes, but all along he was counting on the ineptitude of the Thai police, who perhaps understandably could not conceive of a foreign serial killer preying on other foreigners. In that, he was unique.
On the day the bodies of the Dutch couple were identified, he and Leclerc audaciously used the passports of their victims to fly to Kathmandu. When they returned to Bangkok, they traveled on the passports of the dead Bronzich and Carriere.
By the time Knippenberg had started piecing together the clues, Sobhraj had already claimed his first five victims. When Thai police did arrest the couple in March 1976 at the diplomat’s urging, they released them only hours later without explanation.
Knippenberg finally received permission to search their empty Bangkok apartment. There he found the personal effects of many of the victims and an eight-kilogram cache of medicines, including injectables and six bottles of an anti-diarrhea medicine laced with rat poison.
By then the couple was in Europe, but it wasn’t long before they found their way back to India. There, in July 1976, they were arrested after drugging 22 members of a French tour party who prematurely collapsed all over the lobby of a New Delhi hotel.
Both were sentenced to 12 years’ imprisonment, but in March 1986, two years before his scheduled release, Sobhraj escaped from New Delhi’s Tihar Prison. He was recaptured in Goa and given another 10 years, avoiding extradition to Thailand where he faced almost certain execution.
When he finally walked free in early 1997, memories had faded and so had the Thai arrest warrant, which expired the year before. A tragic figure at the end, Leclerc had been released in 1984 on humanitarian grounds, dying of ovarian cancer in Canada at the age of 38.
A second accomplice, 22-year-old Indian Ajay Chowdhury, who took an active part in some of the murders, has never been found. He was last seen by a German friend in the small town of Grafenhausen on the French-German border on August 28, 1977.
Sobhraj lived for the next six years in the suburbs of Paris, briefly enjoying his notoriety. Why he returned to Nepal baffles everyone, but Knippenberg suspects that as a risk-taker he was seeking attention, always convinced that his superior intelligence would prevail.
Asked now whether he thinks Sobhraj will ever win his freedom, Knippenberg responds: “You would think they will keep him. But I have always said that in his case, anything is possible. Never say never.”