Nepal’s Supreme Court on Wednesday ordered the release of Charles Sobhraj, the French serial killer who murdered a string of Western tourists traveling through Asia in the 1970s.
Sobhraj, whose crimes inspired the Netflix drama series The Serpent, had been serving a life sentence for killing American Connie Jo Bronzich, 29, in Nepal in 1975. The court also ordered that the murderer return to his own country within 15 days, according to the Kathmandu Post.
Sobhraj, 78, has been linked with over two dozen deaths, specifically targeting people traveling the “Hippie Trail” through Southeast Asia. A Frenchman with Indian and Vietnamese parentage, Sobhraj served several stints in prison in France as a teenager for petty crimes. He started traveling the Hippie Trail himself in the ’70s, charming and robbing young travelers along the way.
But his crimes eventually escalated in violence. His first known murder victim was Teresa Knowlton—a 21-year-old backpacker from Seattle who was found drowned. Knowlton was found wearing a floral bikini; after another of his female victims was found in swimwear, Sobhraj became known as the “Bikini Killer.”
His better-known “Serpent” moniker derived from his snake-like skill in evading law enforcement and his ability to charm his victims into trusting him. “As long as I can talk to people, I can manipulate them,” Sobhraj once bragged to his biographer. At different times, he posed as a gem salesman or a drug dealer and even assumed the identities of some of his victims to travel and escape capture.
It’s unclear how many victims were poisoned, strangled, or burned by Sobhraj. His killings were at times facilitated by an Indian accomplice, Ajay Chowdhury, and Sobhraj’s Quebecois lover, Marie-Andrée Leclerc.
In India in 1976, Sobhraj tried to steal a group of French students’ passports by giving them sleeping pills under the pretense that they were antibiotics. The scheme went awry and some of the victims raised the alarm. Indian authorities arrested Sobhraj and he was sentenced to 12 years for the poisoning and other charges, including for the culpable homicide of Frenchman Jean-Luc Solomon.
Sobhraj would ultimately spend 21 years in prison except for a brief escape in 1986. Following his release in 1997, Sobhraj moved to Paris, where he gave interviews about his dark criminal exploits.
Six years later, in 2003, he was seen in Nepal once again and arrested by local authorities in a casino a few days later. Sobhraj was put on trial for the 1975 murder of Connie Jo Bronzich, whose burned and stabbed body had been found in Kathmandu. Sobhraj was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment in Nepal. A decade later, while in prison, he was also found guilty of killing Bronzich’s Canadian friend Laurent Carrière, 26, whose passport Sobhraj had used to flee Nepal after murdering the traveling companions.
In recent years, Sobhraj’s health has declined and he underwent a five-hour heart operation in 2017. He continues to require regular treatment for heart disease, according to the verdict ordering his release seen by AFP. “Keeping him in the prison continuously is not in line with the prisoner’s human rights,” the verdict adds.
An official at Kathmandu’s Central Jail, where Sobhraj is incarcerated, told the news agency that the murderer is likely to be released on Thursday.