An alleged guru and conman went on trial in Bordeaux yesterday accused of brainwashing and robbing three generations of an aristocratic French family from his base in Oxford.
Thierry Tilly, 48, is said to have persuaded the Védrines family that he was a Nato "master spy", a confidante of presidents, a financial genius, and the representative of an ancient order which fights the forces of evil.
He is accused of using brainwashing techniques and violence to convince 11 members of the family that they were victims of an international plot that only he could defeat. For seven years from 1999, the Védrines gave up their lives and careers to barricade themselves inside the family chateau at Monflanquin, 100 miles east of Bordeaux.
The court was told that Mr Tilly, and his alleged accomplice Jacques Gonzalez, 65, obliged the family to liquidate and hand over family assets worth over €4.5m. From 2006, eight members of the family, including a senior doctor, moved to Oxford – where Mr Tilly was based – and accepted relatively low-paid jobs as gardeners or kitchen workers.
On the first day of a trial which is expected to last two weeks, Mr Tilly appeared smiling, wearing a black polo-neck jumper and glasses. Two rows of the courtroom were occupied by his alleged victims. Briefly introducing himself to the court, Mr Tilly claimed to be descended from the Hapsburgs. He said he was a Catholic and appeared to dismiss "them" – the Védrines family – as only Protestants. His lawyer, Alexandre Novion, said before the hearing that it was "grotesque" to talk of "sects" and "gurus" and that he hoped that the trial would "not stray from the logical and the rational".
Outside the court, Ghislaine Marchand (*ée de Vedrines) 58, the first member of the family to meet Mr Tilly, said that he was a "liar and con-man". "He kidnapped us by … turning us against one another," she said. In an interview with Europe 1 radio, she added that Mr Tilly had claimed to "belong to a secret service which was above all the others, which could fix anything, and was in direct contact with the President of the United States". "We were scared of everyone and everything," she told the radio station. "We were so paranoid that we could no longer think straight."
Spouses and other relatives were baffled by the fact that Mr Tilly did not have to be physically present to control his alleged victims. Once his domination was established, they say, he issued most of his orders by telephone or e-mail from Oxford. "From time to time, each of us rebelled in turn," Ghislaine Marchand told Europe 1. "But the others would put us back on the straight and narrow."
In March 2009, Christine de Védrines, wife of Ghislaine's brother, Charles-Henri, fled the group in Oxford and, with the help of local people and relatives, returned to France. She told police that she had been tortured, physically and mentally – beaten and kept for days in darkened rooms. The ill-treatment, she said, was supposed to force her to reveal the hiding place of a lost treasure.
Mr Tilly was arrested in France the following October. He is accused of, amongst other things, kidnapping, premeditated violence, "psychological subjection", fraud and "abuse of the vulnerable".