'Da Vinci' of mental manipulation unfolded
October 4, 2012, the criminal court of Bordeaux: Thierry Tilly, 48, appeared almost priest-like as he peered over the edge of the dock and listened to the prosecution for nearly seven long hours.
A slight man with rimless glasses, he either stared at his shoes or gazed at the 41 boxes neatly arranged under a monumental painting of Christ on the cross.
In them were a decade's worth of evidence revealing how Tilly, now known as the "guru of Monflanquin", inveigled his way into the heart of one of France's oldest aristocratic families, the Védrines, and brainwashed its 11 members into handing over to him all their investments, jewels, furniture - even their ancestral chateau near the 13th-century village of Monflanquin in south-west France. It is a fortune estimated to be worth nearly five million euros (about NZ$7.9 million).
At his trial, which began on September 24, Tilly faced charges of emprise mentale (brainwashing), kidnapping and torture, including "acts of barbarism".
Although he had ferociously denied any wrong-doing, he faced many years behind bars if convicted.
As the prosecution remarked: "The affair is extraordinary for its time span and for the atypical form of the manipulation that was practised."
Tilly had been able to convince the family that they'd been targeted for death by a secret Masonic order that coveted their wealth, and that he alone was their saviour. But Tilly was no Scarlet Pimpernel.
Instead, as one of the lawyers representing the Védrines suggested, "Tilly is a rare mix of Rasputin and Machiavelli".
Presumably, Tilly was flattered by Benoît Ducos-Ader's comments: he told a stupefied courtroom: I gave a copy of Machiavelli to the Libyan ambassador, who gave me a version of the Koran that he dedicated to me."
But it was just another tall tale, of the variety Tilly specialised in.
As he himself told an investigator: "Everything I have told you is 80 per cent true; please forgive me for the 20 per cent that is fantasy."
But it is somewhere in this extraordinary 20 per cent that the enigma surrounding Tilly and the Védrines family lies: How is it that one man was able to convince 11 intelligent people that their lives were under threat from an unseen conspiracy of Freemasons, Jews and paedophiles and that only he, Tilly, a "secret agent" and descendant of the Hapsburgs, could protect them?
"Tilly touched their subconscious and drove the entire Védrines family to the threshold of insanity," explains lawyer Daniel Picotin.
"He is to mental manipulation what Leonardo da Vinci was to painting.
Like Leonardo, he constructed a huge painting and could cue in different elements at his leisure."
Every member of the Védrines family was present at the trial: The men in dark jackets, the women, all of them blonde, in light sweaters.
They looked as if they had mistaken the courthouse entrance for the doors to their bridge club.
There they were, the famous "recluses of Monflanquin", and yet their presence was unsettling.
This noble French family, with its evident sophistication, cultivation and education, seemed so very at odds with the collective lapse of judgment that had brought them here today.
At the heart of the family is 66-year-old Ghislaine de Védrines, who served as Thierry Tilly's Trojan horse.
It was she who first introduced the "guru" to the inhabitants of Chateau Martel in the northern hemisphere summer of 2000.
"He played us off one against another," Ghislaine said as the trial got underway.
"Each one of us kept what Tilly said to us to ourselves."
During the trial, Ghislaine's children, Guillemette, 35, and François, 33, sat next to her.
Her brothers, Charles-Henri, 64, a Bordeaux gynaecologist and local politician, and Philippe, 74, a retired Shell Oil executive, sat just behind with their wives, Christine and Brigitte.
Behind them were the children of Charles-Henri and Christine: Diane, 27, Amaury, 32, and Guillaume, 35.
There were 10 Védrines in all: The only one who was missing was the matriarch, Guillemette d'Adhemar, who had died in 2010.
According to one of France's leading psychiatrists, Daniel Zagury, Tilly had followed to the letter the unwritten guidebook of the master manipulator.
He listed the different "phases" for the prosecution: 1) Identify and prey on each family member's particular weakness; 2) Cultivate a paranoiac siege mentality; 3) Have an answer for everything; 4) Dismantle strong bonds so as to better enslave your victims; 5) Cause each member of the family to doubt their personal lives - for example, the fidelity of their spouse.
Present in the press gallery was Jean Marchand, a business journalist who, until recently, had been Ghislaine's husband. His interest in the case was personal.
In 1999, Ghislaine was looking for someone to help her update her Paris-based secretarial school's computer system.
A lawyer friend had recommended the services of Tilly to her; he said he was well-versed in such matters. In fact, the friend had wanted Tilly to get the job because Tilly owed him money.
So one day, Tilly appeared at La Femme Secrétaire on the Rue de Lille in Paris's Seventh Arrondissement.
At first, Ghislaine was impressed with the clean-cut, apparently competent Tilly, and made the mistake of confiding in him: She told him her husband, Jean, was depressed and her son, François, a failure.
Other tensions were simmering in the family, to do with the inheritance of the chateau following the death of Ghislaine's father in 1995. Tilly was all
Says Ghislaine: "If we'd been a unified family, Tilly would never have gained a hold over us."
Soon Marchand suspected his wife and her "guru" of having an affair.
In mid-2000, Ghislaine invited Tilly to attend the Monflanquin Music Festival, of which she was the chief organiser.
Quite naturally, she asked him to dine at the chateau and meet the family.
It was during this visit that he revealed that his job at La Femme Secrétaire was nothing more than a cover.
Now presenting himself as a "special agent in the service of France", Tilly boasted to the Védrines of his Nato connections. They could call
upon his services whenever they needed him.
The chateau, which was, behind its genteel exterior, a hotbed of hidden rivalries and jealousies, was fertile ground for the plentiful and imaginative lies that Tilly spun, and the Védrines gravitated towards his energy.
When the young Amaury was caught smoking marijuana in the city, Tilly told him to retreat to the chateau for a few days where there would be no peer pressure to indulge.
When Christine started putting on weight, Tilly instructed her to start exercising in the forest surrounding it. To the Védrines, it
seemed that their new friend could arrange anything.
Then he struck. One day, he explained the family were in serious danger from sinister forces.
He told them they were the lost descendants of an ancient order, an offshoot of the Knights Templar, called "L'Équilibre du Monde" (the ‘Balance of the World’), an organisation only called into being when the world faces extreme evil.
All were taken in except one: Jean Marchand. When he tried to warn his wife that Tilly, who had been working for her since 1999, was a pervert and a charlatan, she divorced him on orders emailed to her by Tilly in the autumn of 2001.
Marchand was escorted to the edge of the family property, whereupon Ghislaine threw down on the lawn a glove and a bouquet of dried flowers, a sign that he had been recognised as an agent of "evil".
By the time Marchand had returned to his home at Fontenay, outside Paris, Ghislaine had emptied their joint accounts.
"From one day to the next I became a non-person," he relates.
(The pair eventually remarried in 2010, after Tilly's arrest.)
"Some couples have car accidents, others have health problems," says Marchand today.
"For us, it was a guru accident."
Says Dr Zagury, "However improbable the fabrication, if the guru or saviour says it, it must be true."
So when Tilly told the Védrines that they had to empty their accounts and sell off their belongings and then put the proceeds for safe keeping in a mysterious-sounding organisation called the Blue Light Foundation - the purpose of which, according to Tilly and his "grandpatron", 65-year-old retiree Jacques Gonzalez, was to build hospitals in China - the transfers began without the slightest protest.
Over the course of a decade, the Védrines' fortune was systematically dismantled by Tilly, the proceeds siphoned through various accounts in London and used to furnish both him and his accomplice, Gonzalez, with lavish lifestyles.
At the height of the scam, Tilly maintained two flats, one in London and the other in New York.
Gonzalez began to collect rare and fine wines and received a Rolex wristwatch as a gift from Tilly.
When Gonzalez was arrested in Paris, the police found €86,000 (NZ$136,200) stuffed in a trunk.
Between them, the men purchased a BMW 645 and rented three other vehicles to use from their bases in Paris (Gonzalez) and London (Tilly).
In the end, out of a family fortune of nearly €5 million (about NZ$7.9 million), only €220,000 (NZ$348,400) has been recovered and much more is suspected of being stowed in bank accounts in the Cayman Islands with, according to Picotin, very little hope of it ever being recovered.
But Tilly's real feat was organising the sequestration of the entire Védrines family from his home in the UK, where he resided throughout the affair. (Nobody in the
village of Monflanquin remembers even seeing le gourou.)
By 2003, all 11 members of the Védrines family had left the chateau and moved into Philippe's home at Talade, north of Monflanquin, where they lived with the shutters closed between 2003 and 2008.
Tilly forbade the use of all timepieces and calendars, says Marchand, to further disorientate his victims.
"He wanted to cut them off from the world."
Throughout their seclusion, Tilly telephoned, faxed or emailed the isolated family, on average, 40 times a day from across the Channel, demanding updates on their activities.
The presence of a few journalists already alerted to the story by Marchand only reinforced Tilly's assertions that the family were under close scrutiny by his conspiracy of malign forces.
As the story of the "Reclus de Monflanquin" started to gather momentum in the local press in 2008, Tilly decided to up the ante.
First the youngsters, and then the adults - including 96-year-old Guillemette - were moved to a £300,000 (NZ$584,000) rented house in Oxford, where Tilly kept a pied-a-terre and had two children with a woman, Jessica Diner. In this way, he planned to intensify the pressure under which he was making them live.
"Psychosis is a glass that fills every day, drop by drop," says Diane de Védrines today.
"In the beginning, it was the Freemasons; at the end, it was everybody who walked their dog. Tilly succeeded in putting a psychological pistol to our heads."
Yet, as she points out, the door was never locked: "To leave meant to betray the family."
Tilly, suspecting Diane's brother Amaury of having "paedophiliac tendencies", separated him from the rest of the family and installed him in an empty office on Regent Street in London that was being leased by the Blue Light Foundation.
The special treatment meted out to him by Tilly - this, despite Amaury's devotion to him - involved making him choose between eating and washing.
Amaury chose to eat and Diane supplied him with fruit and bread until he was evicted for non-payment of rent. (Investigations
would reveal that Tilly had never actually paid rent anywhere. The owner of the Oxford house where the Védrines were cloistered claims that he is owed about NZ$477,000.)
Meanwhile, their parents, Charles-Henri and Christine, had designated Tilly, on his instruction, as their children's tutor.
In this way, he was able to make Amaury believe that he'd been abandoned by them.
"Tilly was my friend, my confidante," says Amaury now, "and he brainwashed me for 10 years."
The straw that finally broke Tilly's hold over the Védrines - and added charges of torture and acts of barbarism to the prosecution's case - was the Brussels episode.
Once the family had assembled in Oxford, Tilly told them that a marvellous treasure had been deposited in a bank account there and that it was the task of Christine, whom he called "the chosen one", to locate it.
This treasure would lead them to a secret that would save the world; the family had been selected for this mission by a network of international VIPs, whose head, Gonzalez, was directly related to the king of Spain, Juan Carlos.
In Christine's absence, the rest of the family would survive by taking on menial jobs: the gynaecologist, Charles-Henri, worked as a gardener, the children as waitresses or shop assistants.
Diane was sent to wait on customers at Nando's and remembers scavenging outside supermarkets.
Not surprisingly, since she had no idea what she was looking for or even where to find it, Christine returned from Belgium empty-handed and distraught.
Why couldn't she remember the number of the bank account?
Tilly, looking to tighten his hold on the family even further, flew into a carefully orchestrated rage in front of the assembled clan, accusing her of being responsible for their penury.
He decided that she would be subjected to a particularly cruel and unusual punishment.
In her court testimony, Christine related how her husband, Charles-Henri, and Ghislaine were ordered to take turns in preventing her falling asleep by pinching her ear lobes as she sat on a stool, both hands folded in front of her.
"They gave me paper because it was absolutely necessary that I write down the information [the number of the bank account] they needed," she remembers.
Only there never was any information for her to convey.
She stated in her deposition: "At the beginning, I drank some tea and ate some biscuits. Then Tilly said that I no longer had the right to go to the toilet and so I stopped drinking. Thierry Tilly reduced me to the state of an animal.
Above all, I was forced to urinate in front of my sister-in-law and my husband. It was Amaury who cleaned it up. It was terrible.
"Tilly came regularly into the room, shouting and [being] very threatening. He said that I would never see my children again, that he would fire a pistol near my ears and hand me over to a regiment of Senegalese. One day he hit me very hard on my back."
According to Dr Zagury's analysis, the episode was a ploy conceived by Tilly to reinforce his hold over the family by setting them against one of their own. The Védrines
were now his slaves.
Christine would later reveal on French television that when the torture session was over, she'd forlornly asked Tilly, "Thierry, am I still one of the 11?"
Philippe, Christine's brother-in-law, was the first to abandon the Oxford townhouse.
He returned to France in July 2008, where he contacted Jean Marchand, Ghislaine's ex-husband, and Daniel Picotin, a lawyer specialising in cults. By March 2009, Christine, who'd been working in a cheese shop, had also abandoned the Oxford house - leaving behind her husband and children.
"If it hadn't been for Philippe," she says now, "I would have wound up in a common grave in Oxford."
With Philippe pressing charges, the French police were finally prepared to act. (Jean Marchand's testimony hadn't been enough to spur them into action because he was no longer married to Ghislaine.)
Despite the early recalcitrance of the UK authorities, the telephone at the Oxford address was tapped.
In this way, an unsuspecting Tilly revealed to French police that he'd soon be making a trip to Switzerland.
An international arrest warrant was signed and Tilly was finally apprehended in Zurich on October 21, 2009.
But Tilly's hold over the Védrines didn't end with his arrest.
In November and December 2009, Daniel Picotin had to lead two separate "exit counselling" missions to try to break the spell under which the remaining nine Védrines languished.
Using "exit counselling" - the technique pioneered by American cult expert Steven Hassan in 1978, after he freed himself from the influence of Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church - Picotin attempted to provoke a psychological "disconnect" in each family member.
He discussed details of their lives prior to their "enslavement".
By evoking simple memories, the hope was that the web of influence would disintegrate.
During the first trip to the UK in November 2009, only Guillaume could be approached.
"One of the specialists entered the house and succeeded in talking to him," relates Christine.
The spell was broken. Her husband, their two children and the rest of the clan were "exfiltrated" one month later.
Daniel Picotin hopes that, in the future, a new law will be written into the French penal code making "subjection to detrimental brainwashing" a crime that can be denounced by a third party.
"I think that it is far more dangerous to perform a mental hold-up than the hold-up of the corner bank," he says.
In this way, treatment of the trauma can be quantified and compensation sought.
As Picotin points out, three years after they recovered their freedom, five members of the Védrines are still receiving psychiatric treatment. And to add insult to outrage, it's possible that Tilly will try to recoup some of the "lost" money in the Cayman Islands once he is released.
On November 13 this year, Tilly and his accomplice, Jacques Gonzalez, were found guilty of "brainwashing" the Védrines family between 2001 and 2009.
The court also found the pair guilty of kidnapping and torture with acts of barbarism. Judge Marie-Elisabeth Bancal sentenced Tilly to eight years and Gonzalez to four years behind bars.
"Tilly and Gonzalez were the authors of a Machiavellian conspiracy," she told a packed courtroom.
"Over nine years, [Tilly] was able to exploit the fissures in a family by taking advantage of their history and situation."
In addition, the two men have been ordered to reimburse more than €5 million (about NZ$7.9 million) to the family.
Included in that sum is €505,000 (about NZ$800,000) to be paid in damages to the Védrines.
Tilly's lawyer, Alexandre Novion, launched an appeal on November 21, saying: "The sentence was far too harsh and could be the start of a freedom-killing jurisprudence. We cannot allow psychiatrists and psychologists to sit in the seats of judges."
As for Tilly, he remains defiant and unrepentant; when the sentence was announced, he roared: "It has only just begun. We will expose your responsibility in front of the European Court of Human Rights."
Given Tilly's florid courtroom antics - far from the image of a cool, calm arch-manipulator - many who followed the story were shocked that a family such as the Védrines could have been collectively taken in by such a person.
Yet, when preliminary psychological tests were carried out, they revealed Tilly to be extremely intelligent and gifted, with an astonishing memory.
Novion maintains that his client is the victim of a witch-hunt and accuses Jacques Gonzalez of actually manipulating the manipulator.
"It is difficult for me to believe," says Dr Zagury, "that the puppeteer could be a puppet for such a long time."
In jail for the past three years, Tilly receives few visits.
He has refused to see his father, who came to the trial to set the record straight regarding a number of his son's key boasts.
A retired army driver, Tilly senior was never the "commando diver" that his son had said he was, and his mother was a licensed midwife, not a skating champion.
Sitting beside Ghislaine in their apartment in Fontenay-sous-Bois, Jean Marchand said recently on French television: "This man whose profession is mental manipulation will start again. We are hoping that his sentence will put him out of action for a while. But the scars of this affair will be with us for the rest of our lives."
The various members of the Védrines family see each other rarely now. Guillaume still lives in Britain, where he works in a bank.
Amaury regularly consults his psychiatrist, who is helping him to find his feet again in the real world. Charles-Henri has been reinstated as a gynaecologist.
Sydney Morning Herald