IT all began on a pleasant, sunny autumn afternoon in 1999 when Ghislaine de Védrines, who ran a training institute for secretaries in Paris, was introduced to a charming young man in her office. Thierry Tilly had turned 36 that year but, with a wild shock of dark brown hair over his forehead, his innocent smile and his twittering talk, he appeared some 15 years younger.
Ghislaine immediately offered a job to the young man and, pleased with his performance, later introduced him to the rest of her family, extending him the privilege of spending some time with the ancient and noble de Védrines in their ancestral chateau not far from Bordeaux.
Soon Thierry Tilly, who himself claimed to be a descendent of the Hapsburgs, the distinguished monarchy that ruled over the Austro-Hungarian Empire from 1526 to 1804, had all the members of the family under his spell; he wasted no time in informing his admirers that his original purpose was not seeking a job but to save the de Védrines from an evil conspiracy, as in real life he was a secret agent, among so many other things.
Soon enough the de Védrines doubted no longer that Tilly was a master spy working for Nato, a confidante of the US and European presidents, a financial genius and the representative of an order called the Blue Light that was fighting the forces of evil all over the world.
The de Védrines, Tilly asserted, were the victims of a satanic plot concocted by the Free Masons and the ancient Rosicrucian order founded in 1604 with the purpose of establishing the supremacy of the Devil over the Christian community.
The first part of his mission thus accomplished, Tilly moved back to his residence in Oxford, England, and issued orders to the de Védrines through telephone and email messages. Soon enough he had eight members of the family shifted to Oxford. These were at his beck and call 24 hours a day, some even performing menial jobs for him like gardening, cooking and house-cleaning.
The other de Védrines who had resisted the pressure to move to Oxford fared no better. Totally brainwashed by Tilly, they gave up one by one their professional lives and careers and barricaded themselves inside the family chateau at Monflanquin.
This mind-boggling story could still have remained a secret had not, in March 2009, Christine de Védrines, wife of Ghislaine’s brother Charles-Henri, escaped from Oxford with the help of local people to return to France. She told the police she was physically and mentally tortured, beaten and kept for days in darkened rooms.
By this time Tilly had also deprived the family of some 5 million euros. He was arrested in Zurich the following October. His trial began in Bordeaux on September 24 this year on charges of kidnapping, premeditated violence, psychological subjection of unsuspecting people, fraud and abuse of confidence.
On the first day of the trial Tilly, now nearly 49, appeared smiling, wearing glasses and looking a bit like Bill Gates in his 30s. Two rows of the courtroom were occupied by members of de Védrines family. Tilly told the court he was a Catholic while the de Védrines were ‘mere’ Protestants. He further insulted them by calling them ‘a sticky lot.’
Outside the court Ghislaine de Védrines, who had originally introduced Tilly to her family, told the media: “He kidnapped us and turned us against one another. We were scared of everyone and everything and had become so paranoid that we could no longer think straight.”
Renowned Bordeaux psychologist Prof. Daniel Zagury says it might appear totally incomprehensible to an outsider why a highly educated, cultured and rich family like the de Védrines should fall into Tilly’s obviously simplistic booby trap; but instants of mental manipulations by a ‘guru’ of turning a wife against her husband, a father against his daughter and a mother against her son are unfortunately far from being infrequent.
The Thierry Tilly trial that has shocked the entire France is likely to last another two to three weeks. If convicted the accused may be given a 10-year hard labour prison term and a fine of 750,000 euros.
The writer is a journalist based in Paris. (ZafMasud@gmail.com)