Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Charles Sobhraj


Early childhood abuse, injury to the brain -- usually the frontal lobes -- and extremely indifferent or cruel parenting are often found in the backgrounds of serial killers. But what made Charles Sobhraj evolve into a psychopath? Could the constant travel back and forth between his natural parents and the ensuing rejection be enough to drive a man to serial homicide? Recent scientific research into the minds of psychopaths provides a different theory.

"Until the psychopath came into focus, it was possible to believe that bad people were just good people with bad parents or childhood trauma and that, with care, you could talk them back into being good," writes journalist Robert Hercz. "(Noted criminologist Bob Hare's research suggested that some people behaved badly even when there had been no early trauma.")

A professor at the University of British Columbia, Hare has spent years studying psychopaths to try to address what has turned out to be a common malady. Through decades of research, interviewing and conducting experiments on some of society's most notorious criminals, Hare developed a commonly used measurement scale to determine a subject's level of "psychopathy." What he has learned is troubling.

Dr. Robert Hare
Dr. Robert Hare

"Hundreds of thousands of psychopaths live and work and prey among us. Your boss, your boyfriend, your mother could be what Hare calls a 'subclinical' psychopath, someone who leaves a path of destruction and pain without a single pang of conscience," Hercz writes. "Even more worrisome is the fact that, at this stage, no one -- not even Bob Hare -- is quite sure what to do about it."

Hare's research helps explain the behavior of men like Charles Sobhraj. Unlike many serial killers, Sobhraj killed for economic and personal gain. He only wanted the passports and identity papers of his victims because that made it easier for his jewel and drug smuggling operations. Sobhraj wasn't driven to kill by perverse sexual desire, nor did he get any particular satisfaction out of homicide. The people he murdered were merely in the way. They had something that Sobhraj wanted and so he took it.

"If I have ever killed, or have ordered killings, then it was purely for reasons of business, just a job, like a general in the army," Sobhraj told journalist Richard Neville during his trial in India.

Psychopaths like Sobhraj are incapable of feeling remorse. To them, the phrases "I want to kill you" and "I want to kiss you" carry the same emotional punch. The concept of fear is almost unknown to them, so threat of punishment will never be a deterrent.

Within the psychopath diagnosis is a subdivision of behavior that analysts call "the puppet master." This class is made up of men like Charles Sobhraj, although killers like Charles make up only a small portion of the puppet masters out there.

"The puppet master would manipulate somebody to get at someone else. This type is more powerful because they're hidden," Hare said.

Industrial psychologist Paul Babiak attributes a trio of motivations to psychopaths: thrill-seeking, an almost insatiable desire to win, and the propensity to injure others. "They'll jump on any opportunity that allows them to do those things," he says. "If something better comes along, they'll drop you and move on."

In one of Charles Sobhraj's earliest encounters with crime, he once explained to his mother that he could "always find an idiot to do what I wanted." The comment came when 10-year-old Charles was accused of inducing a stepbrother  to rob a shopkeeper.

Hare talks about how imprisoned psychopaths  learn "the words but not the music" that parole boards and society want to hear. "They can repeat all the psychiatric jargon -- 'I feel remorse,' they talk about the offense cycle -- but these are words, hollow words."


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