By JAN McGIRK
Until Charles Sobhraj was charged with murder yesterday, I had been expecting the worst. Sobhraj has a habit of walking away unscathed from his tangles with the forces of law and order.
Though he is considered by many to be the living embodiment of evil, and has been blamed for the deaths of at least 20 young men and women he befriended on the south Asia hippie trail between 1970 and 1976, his many arrests have had remarkably little impact on his liberty.
Two homicide verdicts against him in India were overturned on appeal. He escaped from jails in Mumbai, Greece (twice) and Kabul.
He did serve 21 years in New Delhi's high-security Tihar jail (for robbery and manslaughter), but he lived like a pasha while he was there. He escaped from Tihar, eventually, but allowed the police to recapture him; to extend his sentence in India so he could wait out an extradition order from Thailand, where he would have faced the death sentence for five killings.
Although Sobhraj stars on a bestselling set of "mass murderer" playing cards (thought to have inspired President George W. Bush's Iraqi pack), he has yet to serve time for murder.
His latest arrest, in Nepal, after six years on the run was initially for passport fraud. Last week, a Kathmandu court granted him bail and Sobhraj (it rhymes with "cobra") seemed certain to vanish again.
Then the police took him back into custody before they had even undone his handcuffs.
Their pretext was a reinvestigation of the deaths of two Western tourists, initially named as Laddie DuParr and Annabella Tremont, a Canadian and a Californian respectively, whose burned bodies were found dumped near some rice paddies 28 years ago in Kathmandu, just before Sobhraj - known as "Le Serpent" because of his skill in assuming false identities - slithered off to spend one night in Bangkok, borrowing the dead boy's passport. By yesterday, the names in the charges had been modified to Laurent Carriere and Connie Jo Bronzich - thought to be the same people.
Sobhraj has described - in an out-of-print biography - how he brutally dispatched the pair in 1975. Yet apparently he is confident that there is not enough physical evidence to merit a trial - he wasn't under oath for the incriminating interviews in the book.
I have met Sobhraj only once, at the time of his release and deportation from India in 1997, but I have never forgotten our brief encounter.
Shouldering his way through a scrum of photographers, he caught my eye and winked conspiratorially. Drawing closer, he whispered his mobile number into my ear, promising an exclusive interview about how he'd outwitted the Indian legal system.
"I will marry my love and become a famous writer," he told me. His unctuous, French-accented lisp made my flesh crawl. "I regret the past," he added, sensing my distaste. "But don't ask me which part."
There's plenty to regret. Conman, jewel thief, poisoner, gambler, seducer, murderer: Sobhraj can have few rivals for the title of most notorious man on the planet.
Born in 1944 in colonial Saigon, the son of an Indian tailor and a Vietnamese shop girl who later remarried a French officer, Sobhraj was schooled in Paris from the age of 14. A quick, cunning, wiry boy, he was soon forging cheques and picking pockets, as well as fleecing anyone who had a few francs to spare.
After serving time for burglary and car theft, in 1970 he ran away to Mumbai, where he supported himself by dealing drugs. He was eventually picked up for stealing jewels. That was just a minor hitch in a criminal career of such audacity and ruthlessness that it has supported a mini-industry in movies and books, including two biographies (The Life and Crimes of Charles Sobhraj by Richard Neville and Julie Clarke, and Serpentine by Thomas Thompson); a play (a Canadian work called Serpent Kills); a six-hour English language mini-series (The Shadow of the Cobra); a French film production (which was eventually dropped); and Bottomline, a Bollywood production yet to be shot.
Snake-hipped and charismatic, with intense black eyes and a seductive baritone, Sobhraj can charm and deceive. One of his early coups, in New Delhi, involved wooing a dancing-girl and returning with her to her conveniently placed hotel room - where he drugged her, tied her to the bed, sawed through the floor and looted sacks of gems from a jewellery store directly underneath.
Arrested later in a Mumbai hotel lobby with stolen travellers' cheques and forged passports, he gave his captors the slip and bolted back to Europe, where he lived as a drifter and gambler.
He financed his lifestyle through jewel thefts, and, increasingly, by prowling guesthouses in France, Turkey and Greece, stalking hippies, drugging them and rifling through their backpacks. Various arrests followed, but he was always able to talk his way out of trouble, or, failing that, to escape. He broke out of jails by leaping walls, by feigning illness, by beguiling prison staff or by setting fires. His second getaway from a Greek jail was plotted with an Australian nurse whom he had charmed in the sickbay.
It was she who helped him to devise the jewellery scam at the centre of his most terrible crimes. First in Thailand, and later in Nepal, the urbane "gem dealer" duped naive travellers by suggesting that they were clever enough to go into illicit partnership with him; easy profits were to be had by reselling his sapphires and amethysts, which he would supply at a cut rate.
The catch lay not in the jewels but in the helpful tip he supplied to go with them: that bouts of Delhi belly were to be expected on the road, and that the sensible traveller would take pills to guard against it. Sobhraj kindly provided these pills, which were in fact powerful sedatives.
By the time his victims recovered, he would be gone.
The full catalogue of his crimes may never be completed. (In another variant of the scam, accomplices would lace his victims' drinks with laxatives, before doling out Quaaludes as a "cure" and tucking the hapless victims into bed. Many awoke groggy, with their valuables missing and Sobhraj nowhere to be seen. Some never woke up at all.)
Finally, in October 1975, a series of grisly deaths that became known as the "bikini murders" began to hit the headlines in Thailand. First, the body of Jennifer Bolliver, a Californian, washed up on Pattaya beach, south of the capital. Soon, more young tourists turned up dead: Vitali Hakim, a Turkish hippie; Charmayne Carrou, his French girlfriend; and Teresa Knowlton, another Californian. The corpses wore swimsuits.
Then, in December, two more Westerners were found in a ditch. Cornelia Hemker and her Dutch fiance, Henricus Beintaja, had been strangled and set alight. Before Interpol could link Sobhraj to these deaths, he strolled out of the apartment where he was being questioned, taking advantage of his interrogators' momentary distraction.
At least 20 murders have been linked to him, many of them confessed to in print - although he now denies any homicide. From Turkey to Thailand, Sobhraj conned gullible travellers in eight languages, drugged and robbed others, and allegedly killed the ones who found him out. Victims were stabbed, strangled or, sometimes, burned alive.
Women were especially vulnerable to his charms. Even today, embassy warnings against trusting gem dealers can be found in many of Asia's backpacker hostels - haunting reminders of a spectre that has never wholly disappeared.
He bungled badly in 1976 by distributing a quick-acting poison to an entire coachload of French tourists in New Delhi. When the 60 students collapsed with cramps in the Vikram Hotel lobby, rather than in their rooms, this led to Sobhraj's arrest and, ultimately, to his conviction on charges of administering drugs with intent to rob, using bodily harm to commit robbery, and the culpable homicide of one of the students.
For two decades, Sobhraj served his consecutive sentences in some comfort, while showing little sign of remorse. Instead, he studied the intricacies of international extradition law, or amused himself by practising karate and beating other inmates at chess. He also dominated the wardens with the same overwhelming intelligence and charm with which he had seduced his victims, quoting Nietzsche and Jung and presenting himself as a misunderstood superman.
The bulk of his alleged crimes remained untried. Following his release, he was deported to France, where he successfully claimed citizenship. Since then, after a brief period of peddling his life story, he has been avoiding the attentions of any further would-be prosecutors by keeping a low profile.
Finally, last month, after six years as a free man, "Le Serpent" resurfaced in Nepal, registered under his own name for a fortnight at a cheap inn in Thamel, the tourist zone near the royal palace in Kathmandu. A freelance photographer recognised him - even today, aged 59, his face is distinctive.
Perhaps he will now be brought to account. Or perhaps, like a deadly snake, he will once again slip away, to shed his old identity and to seek fresh prey to mesmerise and poison.
By JAN McGIRK