By Henry Samuel
A Frenchman on Monday went on trial for allegedly keeping an aristocratic family under his “mental spell” in their chateau and in Oxford for a decade and defrauding them of their £3.6 million fortune.
Thierry Tilly, whom prosecutors have called the “Leonardo da Vinci of mental manipulation”, is accused of convincing 11 members of the De Védrines family that they were in mortal danger from a cabal of freemasons, a European secret society and paedophiles.
He allegedly claimed he was a secret agent whose job was to protect them from their enemies.
If convicted, Mr Tilly, 48, could face a 10-year prison term and €750,000 (£600,000) fine. Jacques Gonzalez, 65, his alleged accomplice, could face a five-year sentence.
The court in Bordeaux heard that Mr Tilly used his “superior intelligence” to ingratiate himself with three generations of the family, including Guillemette de Védrines, who died in 2010 aged 97, her three children Philippe, Ghislaine and Charles-Henri, the two brothers’ wives, Brigitte and Christine, and five adult grandchildren.
Mr Tilly’s first alleged victim was Ghislaine de Védrines, 66, whom he met as an employee of her Paris secretarial college in 1999. After barely registering the “uncharismatic” man for the first year, she gradually found herself drawn to him, and introduced him to relations.
The family claims he brainwashed them into believing they were the lost descendants of an ancient society called “The Balance of the World”, and locked themselves into the family chateau in Monflanquin near Bordeaux. For five years, they barely left the castle, terrified they would be killed.
Mr Tilly allegedly claimed they were protected by a global network of secretive grandees, whose head, Mr Gonzalez, was a cousin of King Juan Carlos of Spain. They were allegedly persuaded to part with property, savings and jewelry worth €4.5 million (£3.6 million), which were funnelled into a Canadian “charity” that Mr Tilly claimed was set up to pay their “protectors”.
As scrutiny intensified in France, Mr Tilly allegedly convinced most of the family to decamp to Oxford, where they often failed to pay rent and were taken to court. Anyone who resisted was allegedly punished severely. Christine de Védrines, 62, says she was locked in a room for several months, deprived of food and beaten. She says he insisted she knew the number of a bank account that would lead to the lost treasure of the Knights Templar.
When Ghislaine’s husband, Jean Marchand, a journalist, denounced Mr Tilly as a charlatan, his wife and two children branded him an “agent of evil”. Mr Marchand alerted the authorities who refused to act because there were no legal complaints from the rest of the family.
Mr Tilly was finally arrested in Switzerland in 2009 following a complaint by Christine, who escaped after confiding in her employer in Oxford. When Mr Gonzalez was arrested in 2010, police found a BMW 645 with €86,000 in the boot, as well as expensive watches, bottles of fine wine and an “opulent wardrobe”.
Mr Tilly, who told the court on Monday he was a descendant of the Habsburgs and once almost played football for Marseille, denies the charge of “sequestering with the aim of committing an offence, voluntary violence with premeditation against a vulnerable person and abuse of weakness of a person under psychological submission”. Mr Gonzalez denies complicity in the charges. The trial continues.