PARIS - A self-confessed serial killer, a man so cold-blooded and cunning that he is nicknamed "The Serpent," flew into Paris yesterday, saying he wanted to turn over a new leaf and make a movie about himself.
After more than 20 years in Indian prisons, Charles Sobhraj was a free man - at least for a while.
The Vietnamese-born Sobhraj arrived from New Delhi. A score of French police guarded the walkways from the aircraft, then bundled Sobhraj away when he emerged from the jetliner.
He was taken to a judge in Bobigny, a northern suburb of Paris, to be questioned in connection with the drugging of a group of French tourists to India in 1976.
None of the tourists, a group of engineering graduates from the southwestern city of Tarbes, died. But a judicial probe has been opened by French authorities obviously jittery at the thought of having Sobhraj in the country.
According to his lawyer Jacques Verges, Sobhraj was allowed to leave the judge's chambers after being questioned by the magistrate. Before taking a taxi, he told journalists outside the Palace of Justice that he was "happy to be finally . . . on French soil."
Verges said his client had already served a two-year prison term in India for the poisoning, so "the affair is closed."
Sobhraj was born 53 years ago to a Vietnamese mother and Indian father in Saigon, which was then under French rule.
His reputation was forged in the 1970s when he preyed on backpackers, hippies, small-time drug smugglers and tourists who set off for India and surrounding Asian countries. "I can justify the murders to myself," he said. "I never killed good people."
From Quetta, Pakistan, to the outskirts of Bangkok, Thailand, Sobhraj left a trail of victims whose exact number may never be known. In Thailand alone, he may have killed 14 people.
One young American woman, Teresa Knowlton, who was working as a courier for a heroin dealer, was drugged and strangled in October 1975. Her body washed ashore after being tossed in the sea at the Thai beach resort of Pattaya.
"I killed her because she was transporting drugs," Sobhraj once said.
Sobhraj once told two Australian writers he had committed 10 murders for which he was wanted in four countries. "As long as I can talk to people, I can manipulate them," he told them.
Among his many victims was a Dutch couple who had come to stay in Sobhraj's apartment on the outskirts of Bangkok. They were drugged, choked and set on fire; autopsies showed both were still alive when they were burned.
Two drug addicts were incinerated in similar fashion in Katmandu, Nepal, after their necks were broken. An Israeli tourist and a Frenchman were drugged and killed in India.
Asked why he mutilated or burned the bodies of many of his victims, Sobhraj once said, "It was either sadism, or a warning to the drug cartel."
Sobhraj was arrested in New Delhi in 1976, after he gave the 60 French tourists capsules he had filled with crushed sleeping pills and laxatives. He had told them the capsules were antibacterial drugs. Soon after swallowing the pills, 20 of the visitors were unconscious, moaning on the floor or vomiting.
Sobhraj has said he expects $15 million for the movie rights to an autobiography he is planning to write. Yves Renier, a well-known French actor and producer who met him six months ago in a New Delhi courtroom, wants to make the film.
Sobhraj is "calculating and manipulative," Renier explained. "He is a chess player, seductive and charismatic. It's not for nothing that he is called `The Serpent.' He is unfathomable and cold like one."
Asked in India if he intended to commit more crimes, Sobhraj answered: "Never. That is a part of my life that I have forgotten."