Hunted by Freemasons: French Con Man on Trial for Bizarre Scam of Aristocratic Family

Thierry Tilly is accused of bilking three generations of one French family out of millions by convincing them that the Freemasons were out to murder them.

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Jean Marchand (L), victim of the "guru" Thierry Tilly, answers journalists' questions as he leaves the courtroom.

In the courtroom of the Palais de Justice in Bordeaux, a trial is unfolding this week that seems more fitting in a Dan Brown novel or a Baroque age drama than something that occurred in modern day France.

Thierry Tilly, described by The Guardian as a 48-year-old law school dropout and failed businessman, is facing charges of duping 11 members of France’s aristocratic De Védrines family out of nearly $5.8 million — by convincing them for nearly a decade that they were in mortal danger from freemasons.

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Dressed plainly in a black polo neck and frameless glasses, Tilly claimed before the court that he is a descendant of the Habsburgs, once almost played soccer for Marseille and had himself been held hostage by freemasons at one point.

The bizarre tale began in 1999 when Tilly became acquainted with Ghislaine de Védrines, the second of four children in a family whose Protestant aristocratic roots go back nearly three centuries.

Ghislaine, who is said to have become increasingly close to Tilly, then introduced him to her family at their seat in the 13th century village of Monflanquin, in southwestern France. Investigators say that Tilly’s tales of his connections in high places – he claimed to know the former French president François Mitterrand – and money-making schemes convinced three generations of de Védrines to trust him.

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Soon, prosecutors say, he had allegedly convinced them that they were targets of a Masonic plot: that they were lost descendants of an ancient society called L’Équilibre du Monde — “the Balance of the World” — and that freemasons were out to kill them,

The family claims that in 2001, having come to believe Tilly’s stories about the dangers they were facing and their destiny to fulfill the goals of L’Équilibre du Monde, the Védrines retreated permanently to the turreted safety of their Monflanquin chateau. Reports began emerging in the local papers about the family’s strange behavior soon after: they had left their jobs to take poor paying roles as gardeners or kitchen workers, the stories went, and had shut themselves off from society.

Tilly was not present throughout these years, but the family send money to him at his home in Oxford, England, which he allegedly  funneled into a Canadian charity that was supposed to fund the family’s ‘protectors’. Tilly would issue instructions to the Védrines via phone and e-mail — including allegedly telling Ghislaine to leave her husband, Jean Marchand, who told Vanity Fair in 2010 that  he was skeptical of Tilly from the start.

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In an in-depth interview with the magazine, Marchand spoke of discovering an e-mail from Tilly to his then wife (the couple divorced in 2003) instructing her to throw flowers at him and give him half an hour to pack. He said: “Thierry Tilly was a sort of brain burglar. He opened their heads, took out their brains, and put in a new one.”

Outside the courtroom earlier this week, Ghislaine de Védrines said to journalists that Tilly “is a liar and a storyteller.” She also accused him of effectively kidnapping her relatives, “telling one us one thing and another something else, and set us against one another.”

Things began to unravel when the Védrines eventually left France to join Tilly in Oxford. He moved the family from place to place, putting them up in various rented properties. It was during this time, in 2008, that one family member, Christine de Védrines, was allegedly taken captive by her family members and tortured, according to the testimony she gave to her lawyer. Christine claims that her relatives were torturing her to reveal the code of a bank account in Brussels which they believed would lead them to a secret that would save the world.

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Christine de Védrines eventually escaped from England back to France, and went to the French police. Tilly was arrested by Swiss authorities in Zurich in October 2009. But it took more than Tilly’s arrest to erase his influence among family members: authorities had to send a team of hostage experts, including a psychoanalyst and a criminologist, to effectively deprogram them.

With the exception of matriarch Guillemette de Védrines, who passed away in 2010 at age 97, the entire Védrines family was on hand Monday to see the trial commence against their former alleged tormentor as well as his alleged accomplice Jacques Gonzalez.

Tilly denies all charges, which include “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.” If convicted, he would face a ten-year prison term as well as a fine of $973,000. The trial is set to continue for the next two weeks.

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