Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Charles Sobhraj


The year 1963 would be the first of many behind bars for Sobhraj, and he quickly adjusted to life in prison. It was brutal and cruel, and a small half-Asian teen like Charles should have been fresh meat for predators in jail. However, Charles knew karate and he used it to defend himself.

Poissy Prison near Paris was a terrible place. It was built in the 16th century as a convent and converted into a prison by the agnostics of the French Revolution. High stone walls separated prisoners from the outside world, and the individual cells were so small they were used only for sleeping -- during the day the prisoners were lumped together in pens sorted into groups based on their ferocity, sanity and nationality.

"It is a horror," Sobhraj biographer Thomas Thompson quotes a visitor as saying. "One enters the place and chills pass through the bones like stepping into a cellar. Each moment I am inside, I am repelled."

Sobhraj's behavior in jail was indicative of things to come. Prisoners were forbidden to keep books in their cells, but not Charles. Infractions that would have brought harsh punishments were not enforced around Sobhraj, and he portrayed himself as so pathetic he attracted the special attention of one of the volunteers who visited prisoners. The man, Felix d'Escogne, was a wealthy young man who came to Poissy each week to help prisoners with letters, resolve simple legal issues and to provide companionship. Charles quickly latched on to Felix, whom he treated as a savior and role model.

The men struck up a friendship during the time Charles was imprisoned and Felix even tried to reconcile father and son, as well as Charles with his mother, with limited success. He provided Charles with reading material, emotional stability and encouragement as the young man idled away his days in Poissy.

After he was paroled, he moved in with his friend Felix and resumed his criminal lifestyle, but he was much more adept and cautious. He straddled two very different worlds. In one, the bright world of Felix d'Escogne, was filled with work and service, and interaction with some of the best Parisian families. The other world was the darker, more sinister place where Charles Sobhraj felt at home -- the Parisian underworld.

Charles' own self-destructive behavior sent him back to jail on the very night he proposed to his fiancee. He had stolen a car and taken the woman, Chantal, to a glamorous casino. Crazed, almost frenzied wagering caused him to lose thousands of borrowed francs, for which he blamed Chantal, who had put off his requests to marry him. Later, with Chantal white with fear beside him, he sped home at breakneck speed until Chantal agreed to be his bride.

It was at that time he noticed les flics in the patrol car behind them, siren wailing and lights flashing. He tried to evade the police but lost control on a rain-soaked curve and crashed the car. He was arrested and sent back to Poissy for eight months for evading police in a stolen car.

At the time of his sentencing, Felix wrote a warning to the judge, advising that mandatory psychological counseling be part of any sentence. He explained his request by listing some of Sobhraj's behaviors.

"He exploits 100 percent the weaknesses of those around him," Thompson reports that Felix wrote the judge. "He has a small conscience, if any ... is capable of politeness, but calculatedly so. Impulsive and aggressive."


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