Still As Slippery As Ever

CHARLES SOBHRAJ IS A self-confessed serial killer, torturer, poisoner, thief and jailbreak artist. Last week he also proved to be a pretty good attorney. The magistrate in the overcrowded New Delhi courtroom, evidently growing tired of the bumbling government lawyer, turned to the slim, black-eyed defendant, held tightly by a police guard. ""Mr. Sobhraj, you are more conversant with this than anyone else,'' said the judge. ""What would you say?'' Sobhraj gave a lucid, concise outline of Indian extradition law, said it didn't apply to him and explained why he should be freed on bail. Within 24 hours, the man who left a trail of corpses across Asia in the mid-1970s was told he could go free.

In his day, Charles Sobhraj, 52, was the superstar of serial killers. He was born in Saigon of an Indian father who abandoned him and a French mother who abused him. A street kid on some of the meanest streets in the world, a petty criminal in Saigon and then Paris, a brilliant psychopath who grew up to speak six languages, he was dubbed the ""Bikini Killer'' because one of his earliest victims, a young American named Teresa Knowlton, was found dead in a bikini on a beach in Thailand. Sobhraj killed 10 people in 1976 alone, most of them young men and women on the ""hippie trail'' leading through Afghanistan and Nepal into Southeast Asia. ""He showed no sign whatsoever of feeling any remorse for what he had done,'' says Australian writer Richard Neville, to whom Sobhraj confessed his crimes for the 1979 book ""The Life and Crimes of Charles Sobhraj.'' ""I think he believes the people he killed were just spoiled Western druggies, subject to the whims of Asia--the Asia he represented.''

Sobhraj told Neville and his coauthor, Julie Clarke, that he gave a sleeping potion to Knowlton, a young hippie who wanted to become a Buddhist nun, on a beach in southern Thailand in 1975. Half-conscious, she asked him, ""What are you going to do to me? Are you going to beat me up?'' and Sobhraj told her, ""No, something better.'' Sobhraj and his henchman in many murders, an Indian named Ajay Chowdhury, undressed her, redressed her in a bikini and then dragged her into the sea and left her to drown. Sobhraj drugged a French heroin dealer named AndrE Breugnot in the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai, then drowned him in his bath when he was unconscious. ""I held AndrE Breugnot's head under water until he was dead,'' Sobhraj told the two writers. ""Then I dusted my fingerprints, locked the door behind me, [and] put up a DO NOT DISTURB sign.'' Often he burned his victims' bodies--on at least two occasions, before they'd stopped breathing.

Sobhraj was jailed in India in 1976 after attempting to drug 60 French tourists at once (several stayed conscious enough to raise an alarm). Soon after he began an 11-year term, Thai authorities applied for his extradition on murder charges, but Indian law said Sobhraj had to serve his Indian term first. As the sentence neared its end in 1986, he engineered a jailbreak and was soon rearrested at a party in Bombay. His new sentence, as he calculated, took his jail term beyond 20 years--just the period of the Thai statute of limitations. When he leaves prison this week, he told NEWSWEEK, ""I will go to church, and then a temple, and then I would like to walk the streets of Delhi for two hours alone''--a confessed mass murderer, never brought to justice for his most horrific crimes.