The little house of horrors

How did this aristocratic French family lose their chateau in Bordeaux… and end up in an Oxford semi, where they were tortured and terrorised by a sadistic con man? By Audrey Ward. Photographs: Tom Pilston

2 June 2013
The Sunday Times

Robert Pouget needed a cook. The kitchen of his business, Oxford Fine Foods, was one man down, and with his restaurant, cafe and four busy shops to supply, he had to fill the post quickly. When Christine de Védrines limped into her interview with her twentysomething son, Pouget was hardly buoyed by confidence. She was small, fragilelooking, and the first thing she told him was that she’d never worked before. There’s no way this woman is going to be able to run one of my kitchens, thought Pouget. But he took a chance on her anyway because, “like me, she was French and from a good bourgeois family”.

Once installed as manager in the kitchen, she took him by surprise. “She turned out to be very good, she got everybody motivated and working hard,” Pouget told me between gulps of coffee, in a quiet bar next to his deli in Oxford. He found her charming and over the next year they became friends. Yet as Pouget got to know Christine, he had a sense there was more to her background than she was letting on. Christine, 62, had received a good education, her husband had been a doctor in Bordeaux and was from the aristocratic “de Védrines” family, yet here she was working in his kitchen, while her husband shovelled dirt for the Oxford Garden Company.

“What on earth happened to your money?” Pouget blurted out one day. She told him that the family had sold their chateau and houses in Bordeaux, and that several of their millions had disappeared. “That really alarmed me,” he says. But when he pressed her for more details, Christine clammed up. “I kept saying to her, ‘I don’t understand. Where is your money? It can’t just disappear.’ But she wouldn’t answer. She seemed very vulnerable, and I had a vague suspicion that she was being ripped off, but I wasn’t sure by whom.”

Finally, almost a year later, and worn out by his persistence, Christine told him to search the internet for the “recluses of Monflanquin”. Pouget discovered the term had been coined by the French media for the de Védrines clan — a family of 11 who had retreated into their chateau in Monflanquin, in the south of France. He read of how they had cut contact with all who knew them, and sold their assets. The reports speculated that the family was part of a sect or victims of mental manipulation.

The next day he confronted Christine and got her to explain the full horror of what had happened to her family. They had fallen prey to a skilled con artist who had subjected her to extreme emotional and physical abuse and defrauded them out of their fortune. More shocking still was that the brainwashing and torment was still going on. As Christine told her story, Pouget realised she was being held in Oxford against her will. She said she had been tortured and deprived of food and sleep. One of her sons had been taken away, imprisoned in an empty office and forced to wash from a toilet bowl. In fact, the only reason she was allowed out to work as his cook was because Thierry Tilly — the man who she said had taken control of her family for a decade — had demanded she bring him more money.

During the 10 years the de Védrines spent under his influence, they sold their ancestral home and liquidated more than $4.5m (£3.6m) to give to him.

Last November Tilly was convicted of arbitrary detention, using violence against vulnerable people and abusing those weakened by “psychological subjection”. He appealed his sentence on the bizarre grounds that his “patron”, Jacques Gonzalez (with whom most of the family had no direct contact), had masterminded the whole affair. This week, on June 4, the court will give its verdict on his appeal.

Pouget was instrumental in breaking Tilly’s sinister hold over the family and helping Christine to escape. Yet even today, he struggles to comprehend how such a prestigious and well-educated family allowed themselves to be manipulated by a man who claimed to be helping them. “When Christine first told me what happened, I thought it was a joke. How could she and her husband — a doctor — be brainwashed like this? All I can think is, they are old gentry, they don’t understand the modern world, the profit motive. They were living with a different moral code and had been brought up a certain way. When a man came along and told them they were under threat, they felt worried and scared.”

I meet Christine in a shabby hotel in the centre of Bordeaux. She is an elegant, articulate lady, with neatly coiffed hair. Like Pouget, I find it hard to imagine how she fell for Tilly’s scam. She begins her story by telling me it was her husband’s sister, Ghislaine, who introduced Tilly to the rest of the de Védrines family 12 years ago. Ghislaine had hired the bespectacled 35-year-old a year earlier as an administrator to provide cleaning and IT services in her secretarial school.

Over three years the pair had grown close and Tilly realised that Ghislaine’s family had a fortune. “That caught his attention,” says Christine. At the time the de Védrines family were involved in a legal dispute: the owners of a property purchased from the family were threatening to sue them. Ghislaine introduced the rest of the family to Tilly and suggested they seek his advice, as he had studied law and was well connected. Tilly recommended them a lawyer and the dispute was resolved.

It was around this time Tilly began spinning an alternative story. He told Ghislaine that his job at the school was just a cover — that he was, in fact, a secret agent with connections to Nato and 200 men under his command. He even said he had once been received at the Elysée Palace by the former French president François Mitterrand. Ghislaine had no reason to disbelieve him. She was impressed, not just by his story, but also by his detailed knowledge of the de Védrines’ 300-year noble history. He also claimed to be distantly connected to the family via his ancestors. Ghislaine shared this information with her family, who also accepted it at face value. Tilly weaved his way further into their circle of confidence.

I asked Christine to describe her impression of Tilly at this time. “He wasn’t very tall. He had clear eyes. He was always dressed in navy blue, sometimes in a suit. In a way he had this choirboy look. He would inspire trust.”

Then one day, Tilly announced he had grave news. Through his undercover work he had learnt that the de Védrines were in imminent danger from an international plot by Freemasons and Jews to acquire their wealth. “He said the family was under threat,” said Christine. “He said we should pay attention to our investments, our stock portfolio, because nothing was safe.” Tilly assured the family he could offer physical and financial protection. His surveillance team could watch them day and night, and he recommended that they liquidate their properties and assets so he could safeguard everything on their behalf.

“He said there were people who wanted to take [our assets] from us, so it was necessary to put everything in a secure place. At the beginning I was against it, but little by little I let myself be persuaded,” says Christine.

The fact that there were Freemasons in a branch of the de Védrines family made the claims seem plausible. “It was very well played,” adds Christine’s brother-in-law, Philippe, who also fell under Tilly’s spell at the beginning. “Many times I asked myself, why believe? But at the same time, why not? We all had a blind, unwavering faith in Tilly.”

The family began to live in fear that their phones were being tapped and they were being watched by Freemasons. Tilly stoked their paranoia. “He told us if we didn’t do what he said, we’d be in serious trouble, our children could be at risk,” says Christine. He gave them new mobile phones and computers and told them he would need to know their whereabouts at all times. The whole family — including the widowed matriarch, Guillemette, her three children, Ghislaine, Philippe and Charles-Henri, and their partners and children — began to spend all their time in their turreted castle.

After some time Tilly instructed the family to move to Philippe’s home, north of Monflanquin. On occasion Tilly would call and tell them not to go outside, that his team had received intelligence about an external threat. For days at a time they would live in darkness with the shutters closed. They believed him when he told them the reporters seen wielding cameras outside their home were enemies in disguise, rather than hacks trying to get a new angle on the story of the “recluses of Monflanquin”.

With his dominance established, Tilly relocated to Oxford with his own family, on the orders of his mysterious boss, Jacques Gonzalez, to set up a British branch of the Blue Light Foundation — a sham organisation moonlighting as a humanitarian charity. He left the de Védrines behind in France, but would call them up to 40 times a day, demanding details of their activities. Ghislaine would write daily reports and send these to Tilly, but the family did little other than watch TV, garden and go grocery shopping. “We didn’t even think of leaving,” says Philippe. “Quite the opposite. We’d close the doors, reject the outside world.” Between 2005 and 2006, Tilly persuaded nine members of the family to travel to Oxford for what Christine thought would be three days, but turned into three years. He told them they could resolve the issue of access to their finances once in Oxford, but there was always a new delay. He rented pebble-dashed properties on the Cornwallis Road to house them while they waited. “He was still nice to us, was happy to see us, we ate our meals with him,” says Christine. Meanwhile, Philippe and his girlfriend — whom Tilly had accused of being in league with the Freemasons (the first of many rifts he would create within the family) — decided to stay in Philippe’s home, and Tilly’s influence over the pair waned.

After a year in Oxford, Tilly’s lies took on a whole new, fantastical dimension. Christine remembers him cornering her one day.

“Christine, we need to work,” he said. Then he told her how she was “the chosen one” and that she held a key to the lost treasure of the Knights Templar. Legend had it that in the 1400s, members of the medieval order, who were being persecuted by King Philip, hid their treasure in an unknown location.

When Christine said she didn’t understand what he was asking her to do, Tilly explained that a bank account number had been passed down from generation to generation in her family and she must retrieve it from her memory via a process called a “transmission”. “He got really angry when I told him I didn’t believe it,” she said.

Although she was sure the story was untrue, she couldn’t bring herself to revolt in case it meant alienating herself from the rest of the family in Oxford, who now trusted Tilly completely. “He first raised the idea of ‘a transmission’ in 2006, after six years of brainwashing. Even though I understood there was no such thing, I knew that by saying it I’d turn my entire family against me. We were like puppets,” Christine says bitterly. Instead, Christine invented a random bank account number, which she hoped would pacify Tilly’s demands.

In October 2006 Tilly sent her and her eldest son, Guillaume, to Brussels, where they were instructed to take the false account number to 15 banks and ask for the treasure that Tilly assured them was left in the de Védrines family name. Of course, nobody could make sense of what she was looking for. “I must admit that that was the first time I thought about suicide,” she says softly.

Christine’s nightmare worsened when she returned to Oxford empty-handed. Tilly erupted in a rage. He ordered her into the living room, forced her to sit on a stool and keep her hands on the table. She wasn’t to get up until he said so. He left her there for 15 days. “At the beginning I was given tea to drink and biscuits to eat. Then Tilly said I no longer had the right to go to the toilet, so I stopped drinking.” She was forced to urinate in front of her family and her son Amaury had to clean up after her. “Tilly reduced me to the state of an animal,” she says.

During the night-time, a different form of punishment was meted out. Ghislaine and Charles-Henri were ordered to prevent her from sleeping by pinching her as she sat on a stool. Tilly regularly left, then returned to the room shouting threats. At one point he told her she would never see her children again. Then he became violent. “He hit me on my back. It was horrible, barbaric,” she said.

The abusive treatment came to an end just as the family agreed, on Tilly’s insistence, to put their chateau up for sale. Afterwards Christine was sent to her room, where she remained with the door locked from November that year until the following spring. Tilly wanted her out of the way until the castle was sold. Food was brought to her twice a day. “After being confined for so long in one room, I couldn’t walk any more. I had to learn how to walk again,” she says.

Christine wasn’t the only one to suffer such cruel treatment. Tilly accused Amaury of having paedophiliac tendencies and moved him to an empty office in London’s Regent Street. “He played with him, making him believe things that weren’t true,” says Christine. From July 2004 until April 2005 Amaury slept in a sleeping bag on the floor of the office. Having been told to choose between eating and bathing, he opted for the former and washed with water from the toilet bowl. Then in January 2008, Tilly ordered Christine out of the house to get a job so she could bring in more money. It was shortly after this that she hobbled into Pouget’s office looking for work.

Pouget believes it was a meeting between himself and Tilly a year later that helped Christine to admit what was happening to her family. “[Christine’s husband] Charles-Henri knew I was planning to expand my business and he thought Tilly could help me, given his great financial contacts,” he says. “Several times he said, ‘You must meet Mr Tilly,’ he wants to meet you.” Pouget had no idea who the “influential” Tilly was or why Charles-Henri held him in such high esteem, but he agreed to meet him. When Pouget first clapped eyes on Tilly, he was unimpressed. “In walks this little man in a shiny suit, nylon quick dry shirt, a cheap tie and cheap shoes. He waffled away about all the money available ‘to French aristocrats like myself’. Instantly, I smelt a rat.”

Afterwards, when Christine inquired how the meeting had gone, Pouget didn’t mince his words. “This man’s a crook,” he told her. Christine did a double take. Later that day she told him to search online for the recluses of Monflanquin, and the following day she broke down and told him everything.

Once Christine finished her account, Pouget asked if she still had her passport. She did. “Thank God she’d hidden it. She’d taken that little precaution, which is interesting,” says Pouget. The pair tracked down the phone number of Christine’s sister, who lived in Paris, and a cousin and female friend who lived in Bordeaux. They were overjoyed to hear her voice after several years. She said to them: “The scales have fallen off my eyes. I know now what’s happening. I have to escape.”

The three women said they would fetch Christine from London the next week and accompany her back to France. Pouget told her to carry on as normal that weekend, and to carefully retrieve her passport from her bedroom. His driver would whisk her away to London as soon as she arrived to work the next Tuesday. “I was concerned that they might get wind of it, that they [Tilly and her family] might be watching her or something,” Pouget says. “I thought it was potentially dangerous. I didn’t want her getting bumped off.”

Christine made it safely to France, where she filed a complaint against Tilly and made contact with her brother-in-law Philippe and his girlfriend, who had also started questioning Tilly’s motives. “I knew if I wanted to get my family back, he had to be behind bars,” Christine says. She gave a statement to the police about her physical and mental torture. With the help of Scotland Yard, the Cornwallis Road property Tilly lived in was wiretapped.

During their years under Tilly’s control, most of the family had heard him speak of Jacques Gonzalez, his “patron” or boss, but only a few of them had met him. Gonzalez, a short, grey-haired man in his sixties, was head of the Blue Light Foundation. In the end it was the daily phone conversations between Tilly and Gonzalez that enabled the police to arrest Tilly in Zurich nine months later and implicate his accomplice. When Gonzalez was arrested, police found $86,000 in his car and discovered that between 2004 and 2008 he bought four cars with the de Védrines’ money. It transpired that Gonzalez had been in daily contact with Tilly while the family lived in Oxford, often telling him to stop making mistakes in his work concerning the de Védrines and insisting he “put them under pressure” to release their money. Some wondered whether the manipulator had himself been manipulated.

Christine returned to Oxford in November to visit the rest of her family, who were still unaware that Tilly had been arrested. She was accompanied by Philippe and a team of experts, including their lawyer, a psychoanalyst and a criminologist. They embarked on an exit counselling session and retrieved one of Christine’s children, Guillaume. “When the criminologist told my son that Tilly had been arrested, I saw a ton falling from his shoulders,” says Christine. A month later the rest of the family was retrieved.

Last September the family gathered in court for Tilly’s trial, all except Guillemette, who died in 2010. Tilly’s lawyer argued that the de Védrines had acted willingly and he accused Gonzalez of manipulating Tilly, but the court sentenced Tilly to eight years in prison. Gonzalez was jailed for four years for complicity and deception, but has since been released due to health complications. He lives in Paris, where he wears a security tag.

Tilly is an enigma, but a few facts are known. He was born in March 1964 in Bois-Columbes, west of Paris, and is a law-school dropout and failed businessman with a conviction for fraud. Tests revealed him to be highly intelligent with an excellent memory. He was described in court as a “fine psychologist and first-class manipulator”. His father attended the trial to refute some of his son’s boasts: Tilly Sr was never a diver and his son’s mother was no skating champion. In fact, his father is a retired army driver and his mother was a midwife.

The court-appointed psychiatrist tried to shed light on how Tilly brainwashed the de Védrines. He said Tilly used classic techniques, such as creating paranoia within the group and isolating the members from each other. He claimed that people who undergo the sort of brainwashing practised by Tilly suffer a form of suspension of critical intelligence. Philippe supports this view. “People’s intelligence is not affected but it ‘lies fallow’,” Philippe told me, quoting the psychiatrist. “That’s exactly it. As soon as you get out of it, the whole mind comes back. Like a curtain has dropped.”

Christine struggles to explain how she was duped. “We’re educated people, so you’d think we’d have been prepared to face what happened, but it turns out we weren’t. You might think I was naive, but I wasn’t armed against lying. I wonder how I could have been so stupid.”

She thinks the hierarchical structure of the family was also a factor. “The fact there were so many of us in the family didn’t help us in the end, because when my mother-in-law [Guillemette], who was a sort of leader, and Ghislaine, a strong character, fell under his spell, they dragged everyone in.”

More than three years have passed since the family were freed from Tilly’s control, and some are still receiving psychiatric treatment. Christine and her husband, Charles-Henri, live in a council estate in Bordeaux and he has returned to work as an obstetrician.

“Charles-Henri, the children and I are very close again,” says Christine, who has written a book about her ordeal, Nous n’étions pas armés [We Were Not Armed], which was published last week. Philippe and his girlfriend divide their time between the French towns of Rouen and Monflanquin, where his house is. Meanwhile, Ghislaine has remarried her husband, whom she divorced at Tilly’s insistence. The grandchildren, like their parents, have been scarred by the experience.

So what now of Tilly? This week he will find out if his appeal has been successful. Meanwhile, his incarceration doesn’t seem to have stopped him from doing what he does best. Since his arrest, Christine has heard that he has had to be transferred from cell to cell because of the influence he is wielding over the other prisoners. A visitor to the prison told the family she had met one of Tilly’s inmates.

“The inmate told her, ‘We have this poor guy in here,'” says Christine tartly. “Tilly has told the others he has no money, that he was ruined by some bad people. He’s got them feeling sorry for him so they become generous, they buy him goods in prison. A fund was set up in his name.”

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