Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Charles Sobhraj

Crime Does Pay

Imagine that you could earn nearly a million dollars for every year you spent in prison with the understanding that you would likely get out in the prime of your life. Would you take that deal?

More specifically, suppose you could live like royalty behind bars, in almost total control, with guests free to come and go as they pleased, cellphones, TV, gourmet food and fine wine to eat and drink. Would that make the deal worth 20 years of your life?

Charles Sobhraj in France
Charles Sobhraj in France

For serial murderer Charles Sobhraj, the idea of retiring to Paris and making $15 million for a movie deal based on his life made spending more than two decades in a notoriously corrupt Indian prison worthwhile. Sobhraj, a Vietnamese-Indian by birth and French national by adoption, turned a sentence for homicide in India into almost a life of leisure while at the same time evading prosecution for a dozen murders in jurisdictions that should have brought a death sentence. 

He was a con man, jewel thief, drug dealer and murderer, but one who lived a life of adventure and intrigue that made him a media celebrity. He amassed enough money to bribe his captors who provided him with amenities to make life in an Indian prison more bearable. For most of his incarceration he had access to typewriters, a television, refrigerator and a large library. That's in addition to the drugs and food that he used to entertain and control his fellow inmates in the prison that was supposed to be the harshest in India.

Even more vexing  was the idea that, at 52 years old, Sobhraj could walk out of Delhi's Tihar prison, sign a $15 million deal for his life story and then charge the media upwards of $5,000 an interview once he returned to Paris.

Not bad for a man who was convicted of one homicide and accused of committing at least 10 more. Some authorities believe Sobhraj killed more than 20 unsuspecting European and American tourists and pilgrims who journeyed to the Far East and the subcontinent. Some came east in search of drugs and others came in search of spiritual growth. Instead, they found Charles Sobhraj and his gang of killers.

Sobhraj wanted to create a family-like cult of sorts with himself as the father figure, says Dutch diplomat Herman Knippenberg, who spent years trying to bring Sobhraj to justice. Knippenberg said Sobhraj wanted to create "his own family of Charles Manson-like characters, with himself as the father. The ones he killed were the people who saw through his mask and who tried to get away."

Today, you may be able to find Charles Sobhraj idling away his days in a Paris bistro and for a fee he may even sit down and talk about his life.

He has slipped easily into the life of a celebrity, with mainstream publications willing to pay for posed pictures of the murderer enjoying the good life. In the words of his agent: "No money, no meeting."

The friends and relatives of his victims only hope that karma -- the concept that says the collective force of a man's actions dictates his destiny -- isn't done yet with Charles Sobhraj.

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