If you didn’t know it was a true story, you would think this was a missing chapter in the Harry Potter series or a Dan Brown novel. But this is no work of fiction. This is a strange but very true story about a rich – super-rich – family that managed to get conned – big time – to the point that they lost their relationships and everything they owned.
This is a story of a professional conman who looked as harmless as a teacher or accountant but seemed to be driven by some dark forces of evil. How on Earth could a family of heirs be duped so badly? Well, that’s the story…
The “Master Spy” Who Brought a Family to Its Knees
His name is Thierry Tilly and if he reminds you of someone, it’s probably because he looks like the French version of Bill Gates. Tilly might as well be considered as smart as Gates is considering he took down an entire aristocratic family and brought them to their knees.
Over the span of nine years, the Védrines family fell victim to Tilly’s lies. The family of aristocrats went from being one of the richest in the country to believing they were the lost descendants of an ancient society, and that their dear Tilly, a “master spy,” was their only friend.
Fooled Beyond Belief
Convinced that Tilly held the key to a profound treasure and that they were targets of a Masonic plot, the family turned over their fortune, their castle, and their lives to the guru – the grandmaster – who weaseled his way into their existence.
Soon enough, they were held captive and tortured by the man they believed was helping them. Eventually, they managed to make an escape, as bizarre as it was. Let’s begin back at the end, in early 2008, in Oxford. In a small suburb, in a small house, and in a small room, sat a woman in a chair…
From the Castle to the Torture Chamber
“We know you know the number. You have to tell us. Why won’t you tell us?”
She’s been there, held captive, for eight – maybe ten days. Deprived of sleep, it’s hard to keep track of the time. Day and night, her captors take turns entering the room to shout at her.
The 58-year-old woman in that chair wasn’t a terrorist or a spy. She wasn’t guilty of some underworld crime that would justify such torture. This was a woman who not too long ago was sitting in a much fancier chair in her lavish castle.
The Number! What’s the Number?
She was the mistress of a château, an elegant aristocrat, damn it! But now she was alone in a dark room being fed one meal a day. No bathroom breaks, no showers, just drugs and an occasional beating. Her captors? Some of them were members of her own family.
They said she knew a “number” – a number they so desperately wanted. Apparently, she was “The One.” In some twisted French version of the Matrix, this woman had all the answers. She was the one with the information that could free her and the rest of her family to fulfill their destiny.
A Secret Society?
The number they needed belonged to a bank account in Brussels, which would lead them to a secret that could save the world (I told you it sounds like a Dan Brown novel). If only this were fake, though. This family truly believed that they were selected for this mission by a network of secret VIPs.
The head of the secret society was a man named Jacques Gonzalez, who was said to be a cousin of the Spanish king Juan Carlos and more powerful than the presidents of the greatest countries in the world.
Give Them Something – Anything
The woman and her family believed all of this. But she couldn’t remember that darn number. Eventually, exhausted and terrified, she blurted something out. She made up a series of numbers. She gave them what they wanted to hear.
And just like that, the doors opened. (She could have done that days earlier, but whatever.) Christine de Védrines was free to go. However, “free” is a relative term. She had given them a number, but not the name of the bank. She had to head to Brussels now, to find the right bank.
On the Brink of Insanity
At each branch, she repeated the fake account number, asking for access to some phantom account, only to be denied every time. This was in early 2008, eight years after meeting Tilly, and a few years after she and her family completely lost touch with reality.
By late 2001, members of the Védrines family began to abandon the long-established routines that only noble families get accustomed to. It all began at the turn of the new millennium. Just before 2000, while we were dreading the infamous Y2K, Thierry Tilly had his sights set on the Védrines…
Meet the Védrines
It took time, but 11 members of this family, including three generations, retreated into their castle, Château Martel. They found themselves living in isolation – a far cry from their well-connected lives. These were highly respected members of the community, too.
88-year-old Guillemette was the matriarch. 63-year-old Philippe was her son and a Shell Oil executive. Charles-Henri, 53, was a gynecologist, local politician and Christine, the woman in the chair’s husband. Their daughter, 55-year-old Ghislaine, ran a secretarial school in Paris. The youngest of the group of 11 was a 16-year-old granddaughter.
The Védrines Are Acting Strange…
The Protestant aristocratic family’s title goes back three centuries, but in 2003, local reports started coming out about the family’s strange behavior. In an effort to escape the growing negative publicity, nine of the Védrines moved to England to live close to their only friend, Thierry Tilly.
Directed by their guru, they moved into modest rental properties, took on regular jobs, and turned over all their income to Tilly. Oil exec Phillippe and his girlfriend Brigitte Martin split from Tilly in 2008, but it wasn’t until spring 2009 that Christine finally escaped.
Tilly: The Guru With a Gift for Brainwashing
Only then did she tell her story to the French police, and only then was a European warrant issued for Thierry Tilly’s arrest. The charges included “fraud, imprisonment accompanied by acts of barbarism and torture, extortion of funds, and abuse of weakness.”
Christine’s lawyer, Daniel Picotin, was an anti-cult activist who described Tilly in a nutshell. He was a “guru” who brainwashed this family into believing they were the precious key to a sacred order: a branch of the Knights Templar, known as “the Balance of the World.” They supposedly had the power to unleash extreme planetary peril.
The Védrines: Superheroes Out to Save the World
In other words, the Védrines were the superheroes in this twisted tale – out to save the world from evil. Or at least, they hoped to be. Tilly made them believe it all. But Tilly himself had a master of his own: Jacques Gonzalez.
Gonzalez relayed his instructions directly to Tilly, who then told the Védrines what to do. The goal: to find a treasure trove of riches that Tilly told them was “so large it could not fit in any room.” The result: they lost their jewels, their silver, their furniture and art, and eventually the castle itself.
Jewels, a Castle, and Seven Million Dollars
Oh, and of course, all their money – an estimated $7 million – was handed over to Tilly. Even after he was arrested, at least seven (of the 11) stayed in Oxford, and were apparently still under his influence. Ghislaine de Védrines’ ex-husband, Jean Marchand, told reporters how he feared they might commit mass suicide.
With that, Christine’s lawyer sent out an A-Team (comprised of a psychoanalyst, a criminologist, and a chauffeur) to rescue the remaining members of the brainwashed family. Eventually, the spell was broken, and they turned against their captor. But the nature of Tilly’s hold over this family is way more bizarre and complicated than first meets the eye.
His intricate con job makes Charles Ponzi look like an amateur. It all started when he entered Ghislaine’s life. Jean Marchand fell in love with Ghislaine de Védrines in 1976 and became part of the family. He was welcomed by them and felt a sense of belonging for the first time in his life.
Unlike the Roy family (in Succession), the Védrines were a friendly and welcoming bunch. There was always something fun going down at Château Martel – dancing, birthday dinners, children laughing. By late 2001, tensions in Marchand and Ghislaine’s marriage were boiling.
And Then She Met Tilly
Ghislaine had met a man through work (she was the director of Paris’s top secretarial school). She grew close to the school’s “jack-of-all-trades” administrator, Thierry Tilly. Marchand suspected that they might be having an affair, but Ghislaine insisted that their relationship was platonic.
When Marchand got to know the man personally, he believed his wife was telling the truth about her connection to Thierry Tilly… But Marchand’s radar was blinking – he had a feeling about this Tilly fellow. The 35-year-old was pale, wore glasses, had a raspy voice, and gave a surprisingly strong handshake.
There’s Something About Tilly
Tilly’s handshake felt more like a show of power than a friendly greeting. Ghislaine was the first one to succumb to his spell, and once she introduced him to the rest of the family, the hex spread. Ghislaine was thought to have the common sense in the family, so they accepted Tilly without so much as a raised eyebrow.
The family’s pride in their own noble status made them a target. Tilly made Ghislaine and her siblings feel like they harbored greatness. He told Philippe that he should be the president of Shell Oil.
A Series of Grand Lies
His grand claims about others made the lies he told about himself sound real. Tilly told them about his important friends – the rich, powerful people who were always a few steps ahead of the rest of the world. These said connections were like chicken feed to the Védrines; they ate it up.
Ghislaine’s brothers, Charles-Henri and Philippe, believed Tilly when he told them he could get them remarkable returns on investments (10 percent a month). The brothers jumped at the opportunities and Tilly actually pulled through for a while. But where was the money coming from? No one cared to ask.
Where’s the Money Coming From? Who Cares?
Marchand was the only skeptic of the bunch (he wasn’t a blood relative, after all), but he kept his doubts to himself. Tilly’s hold on the family grew more and more alarming. Slowly but surely, he started hinting at a Masonic group that wanted some prime real estate.
Tilly said that since the Freemasons were so intent on getting the property, Ghislaine and her family’s lives were at risk. Why would they believe him? Because his mysterious past helped his story. When asked what he did for a living, he answered, “espionage” and said he “cannot discuss it,” with his palm raised.
Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell
“Don’t ask” is the vibe he gave and that stuff, sadly, works. On paper, he was affiliated with a vague humanitarian organization called the Blue Light Foundation. When he was around people and his cell phone rang, he would see if it was from Jacques Gonzalez, and if it was, he would take the call in private.
Marchand started to think his wife was becoming paranoid. Within a year of meeting Tilly, Ghislaine was seeing her enemies everywhere. She believed her long-time neighbors were now Freemasons. Even her own husband became the enemy.
How Dare You!
One day, she stormed into the room to accuse Marchand of being part of an “evil” network. Marchand recalled being completely dumbfounded. Right then and there, his wife denounced him, and her brothers took hold of him.
They gave him 30 minutes to pack and sent him on a train to Paris. He saw that the bank accounts he shared with his wife were now empty. Just like that, Marchand was out. “I was a zombie! I was a ghost!” he said eight years later.
Tilly, the Brain Burglar
By 2003, the divorce was final and, in retrospect, it was a godsend. “Thierry Tilly was a sort of brain burglar,” he said. “He opened their heads, took out their brains, and put in a new one.” He tried to make sense of what happened, searching through his and Ghislaine’s summer home for some clues.
On her computer, he found an e-mail from Tilly that included specific instructions: “Throw the flowers and the glove at him. Tell him that these are the signs of his evil network. Give him half an hour to pack.”
Tilly, the Master Swindler
Tilly, born in 1964, was a Paris native who studied but never finished his law degree. He married a woman named Jessica Diener, who was either an advertising executive or a model (depending on various reports).
Over the years, people have claimed that Tilly swindled them, including at least two of his former associates. Ghislaine hired Tilly to do all kinds of services at the secretarial school, such as installing a new computer system. By 1999, he was the best-paid employee in the school and Ghislaine’s right-hand man.
By 2001, the school was bleeding money, and Ghislaine was getting thinner by the day. She started wearing her sunglasses indoors and warned her staff about the Freemasons. Tilly moved into the school, in a room on the ground floor.
He had a Polish guard on 24-hour security, patrolling his territory with a Rottweiler. Tilly put the school on lockdown one day, with all the classroom doors closed. Why? Because the notorious Jacques Gonzalez – the head of the secret society that everyone has heard of by now – was coming to visit.
Who Was the Short Man in the Hat?
No one saw the man, except for one teacher who caught glimpse of a “short man in a hat.” By March 2001, the staff stopped getting paychecks. With her daughter off and married and her husband exiled, Ghislaine decided to shut down her prestigious school.
She started living on the top floor of the abandoned building, which had no heating, lighting, or running water. Her brother Philippe and his girlfriend Brigitte moved in with her in the fall. The trio only moved out when Christmas rolled around. At the time, Philippe and Brigitte were in the middle of a divorce.
A Pattern of Suspicious Money Transfers
Brigitte was worried that Philippe’s behavior and his connection with Tilly would lead to a loss of his assets. That wasn’t in her interest. So, she had her lawyer request an inquiry into Tilly’s finances, which revealed a series of suspicious transfers.
Soon enough, an audit of Tilly and the Védrines was set in motion. The suspicious transfers were going to a holding company (Presswell Enterprises Limited), whose officers included Tilly and some of the Védrines. While some money was used to build an apartment complex, the rest was unaccounted for.
A Whole Family in His Grip
Slowly, the family was cutting off its connections to the world, which is exactly what Tilly wanted. He told them to remove all clocks and calendars from Château Martel, which they did. They changed their lives around for this man.
Ghislaine and Marchand’s daughter, the young bride, suddenly left her husband and gave Tilly all her money. Then Charles-Henri walked away from his medical practice, after which he and Christine (the one with the number) sold their house and gave the proceeds to Tilly.
The Castle Was No More
Under his spell, the family stopped paying their taxes, which brought consequences they wouldn’t be able to escape from. In 2003, their assets were auctioned off. The castle was now empty, so the family moved into a home Philippe owned.
Guillemette, the family matriarch, loaned Philippe, Charles-Henri, and Ghislaine a large amount of money, but it too found its way into Tilly’s pockets. In the early 2000s, Tilly found himself knee-deep in significant legal problems, so moved his base to England. A French court found him guilty of using corporate assets for personal reasons, so he was barred from managing a company for 10 years.
Too Close for Comfort
By 2003, he and his wife were living in London. All the while, he had been married with two kids. Whether or not he and Ghislaine were more than friends is unclear. In 2005, the Tilly brood (including his wife’s teenage son) and Guillaume de Védrines (the son of Charles-Henri and Christine) were all living under one roof in Oxford.
By 2006, more of the Védrines came to join them, but they started renting out separate houses on the same street. Charles-Henri and Christine came first, then the younger ones joined, Guillaume’s siblings Diane and Amaury. Ghislaine’s son, François, rented another property in the city.
Waiting Tables and Sweeping Floors
These aristocrats were far from their silver-spooned upbringings. Diane made sundaes at an ice-cream parlor during the day and waited tables by night. François was sweeping floors at Burger King. Christine found work in a shop kitchen.
It took five years for nearly the entire Védrines family unit to move to Oxford and voluntarily trade their gold for pennies. To the British, they seemed like regular folk, but behind closed doors the family still felt noble, thanks to Tilly, who stroked their egos. They were doing the right thing – this was their destiny.
Collecting More and More Enemies
The Freemasons weren’t their only enemies; so were homosexuals and journalists. Guillaume, the only one of Tilly’s generation, was the only one with a university degree and a professional job. He worked at an archaeological-survey company and proudly called himself Tilly’s “personal assistant.”
The landlord of the Oxford home, Andrew Scully, noticed the oddities of the two families, and eventually things went badly. Scully claims they trashed the house and then reported him to the Department of Public Health for forcing them to live in a “pigsty.” The poor guy was dragged into a total of 19 lawsuits.
Becoming “The One”
Of all the crimes Terry was guilty of, the physical abuse of Christine was the worst. Tilly convinced the family – and Christine herself! – that her maiden’s name, Cornette de Laminière, meant “transmission of metals,” which was a sign that she was The One.
Christine was “clearly” the holder of a key to some mythical treasure. Tilly was the only one charged with abuse, but it’s safe to assume that members of the family were involved. The fact that court documents regarding this were kept from the public means speculation ran wild.
Held Hostage in Her Own Home
Christine’s lawyer confirmed that she had been held hostage in her own Oxford home on separate occasions, first from November 2006 to spring 2007. The “opening scene” with the numbers? That was the third time, in January 2008.
By then, Tilly had most of the family’s assets, and the little money they had left was precious. The debts were piling on and the castle in France was in jeopardy. The Védrines needed to consider their options. But the two brothers – Charles-Henri and Philippe – were reversing their roles. Charles-Henri gave everything to Tilly, but Philippe, thanks to his divorce, didn’t.
The “Traitor” Makes His Threats
Philippe was now the richest one of the bunch and he grew more independent. Words like “traitor” were being thrown around during family meetings. The family was taking loans from Philippe, and when they refused to pay him back, Philippe started making threats.
If they didn’t settle their accounts, he would “bring us to our knees,” as was written in a minutes’ meeting document. He was going to force Charles-Henri to sell Château Martel at a public auction. It got so dramatic that lives were nearly taken. The police were called to Philippe’s home in France, where Ghislaine was living.
We Got a Call About a Domestic Disturbance, Ma’am…
The cops came to investigate a “domestic disturbance.” After that, she and Guillemette moved to Oxford to join the hopeless bunch. As for Philippe, he spent the next two weeks in a mental institution. By the end of 2008, Château Martel was sold off to a holding company.
The jig was almost up for Tilly. In the spring of 2009, someone by the name of Robert Pouget de Saint Victor couldn’t help but be curious about one of his cheese shop workers, Christine de Védrines. When she applied for the job, he admittedly thought she was too old for the job.
There’s Something About Christine
Plus, she had a limp. She said it was a bad hip… However, Christine proved to be a good employee and the two spoke French to each other. Pouget didn’t get why this woman would be working in a shop like his. He heard that she had once been rich.
One day he finally asked her, “What happened to your money? Who has your money?” She told him her son, Guillaume (Tilly’s “assistant”), but then stopped talking much after that. “Someday I will tell you all about it,” she told him. “I can’t tell you today.” But Pouget pushed on, knowing something was wrong.
Christine Confesses All
Eventually, Christine broke down and told him everything. She poured out her story, about the torture, the bank accounts, everything she and her family lost. What struck Pouget was how she said she still felt guilty for not remembering that damn bank account number.
Christine called Guillaume on speaker, in front of Pouget. “He told his mother in French that she was an old bore, a nightmare,” he recalled. He told her to mind her own business. “Don’t worry, things are under control. Just fuc%$^g leave me alone,” her son said. That’s when Pouget chimed in: “Listen, you little sh**…”
“How dare you speak to your mother like this? She’s a kind lady. She’s trying to contact you. Where are your manners? And where is her money?” Guillaume responded with, “None of your business.” Pouget then threatened to call the police before hanging up.
After reading the stories online about the family, he made it his mission to convince Christine to escape. He started by asking her who she can call for help. Christine named an old friend named Marie-Hélène Hessel. They called her and Christine told her, “I want to come home.” Hessel met her in London a few days later to take her back to France.
She Tells Her Story; He’s Under Arrest
Back home, Christine met her lawyer, Picotin, who knew all about Tilly after a chance meeting with Jean Marchand in 2004. In March 2009, Christine told the court her story. From the moment Christine testified, Tilly was a marked man.
In October 2009, Tilly was arrested in Switzerland at the airport and was sent back to France to face prosecution. By then, the Védrines were in a civil war with each other, involved in too many lawsuits to list here. After Tilly’s arrest, the search for his accomplices began.
The Search for Jacques Gonzalez
The almighty Gonzalez – was he even a real person? As it turns out, Gonzales is a real person, but when approached by reporters, he claimed to know nothing about anything and anyone. Mum’s the word.
But the police eventually knocked on his door and he was arrested. His home was searched, and his property seized. The next day, another man named only as Pascal was arrested too. Both men were taken to jail and charged with many things, including criminally obtained property, extortion, fraud, and money laundering.
The Damage Was Done
The men were arrested but the damage was done. Tilly was sentenced to eight years in prison in November 2013. “Eight years is a small price to pay for what he did to our family and children,” Christine stated. “The trial is behind us, and we will do everything to rebuild.”
As for Gonzalez, he was sentenced to four years in prison. Tilly denied all accusations, despite having been convicted. His lawyer made the case that the Védrines acted willingly. “Eleven people manipulated by mysterious forces by a single man? The legal basis for the case is weak,” the lawyer announced.