It could be ripped from the pages of The Da Vinci Code : Three generations of a noble family hide in their castle after learning from a purported secret agent that a Freemason conspiracy is targeting them because they know the password to an ancient treasure.
For nearly a decade, 11 members of an aristocratic clan in southwest France lived in fear of occult forces, taking orders from a man who eventually relocated them to England, where they took menial jobs and gave him their wages.
In a bizarre trial that began on Monday in Bordeaux, a nerdy-looking 48-year-old named Thierry Tilly is accused of defrauding the Védrines family of more than $6-million.
A co-accused, Jacques Gonzales, 65, the president of a foundation registered in Quebec, is alleged by the prosecution to have been Mr. Tilly's boss, which his defence denies.
The 133-page indictment alleges members of the Védrines family lost their grip on reality and sank into paranoia and squalor while Mr. Tilly plundered the clan's money and lived in plush parts of London and Manhattan.
"The investigation revealed the mental control Thierry Tilly had for years over the de Védrines family. ... It is an extraordinary affair by its length and the unusual type of manipulation it involved," the indictment says.
Mr. Tilly was 35 when he first approached Ghislaine de Védrines, then 53, who ran a secretarial school in Paris. Mr. Tilly was only offering cleaning services when he contacted her in 1999. But he soon made himself indispensable.
The Védrines, who included an oil executive and a gynecologist, were not a tight-knit clan.
According to the indictment, Mr. Tilly pretended to be a secret agent, and played them off against each other, feeding their insecurities, jealousies and resentments over inheritance feuds.
The indictment says Mr. Tilly persuaded the clan all their problems stemmed from a plot by Freemasons, Jews and the secret order of the Rosicrucians. "Gradually, he created a climate of terror within the family, explaining that their every activities were watched and that their phones were under wiretap."
Friends and relatives who were suspicious of Mr. Tilly were gradually cut off. Ghislaine, for example, broke up with her husband, Jean Marchand, because Mr. Tilly persuaded her Mr. Marchand was a threat to her children, the indictment said.
For seven years, three generations of Védrines, including the matriarch in her 80s, her three grown children and the teenaged grandchildren, dwelt like hermits behind the shuttered windows of their ancestral Château de Martel, near the old town of Monflanquin.
Even though Mr. Tilly spent time in Britain, he kept a hold on the family with daily phone calls and e-mails.
"They were so fearful for their safety and that of their relatives that they complied with everything he asked them to do," the indictment said.
Around 2004, the indictment said, Mr. Tilly took some of the younger family members to London, where he controlled their money and they were dependant on him to feed them. One, Diane de Védrines, told the judges that she and her cousins were so famished they spent their Sundays at local supermarkets waiting for expired food to be discounted.
After wiring their cash to Mr. Tilly's bank accounts, the family gave him the proceeds of the sale of their furniture, jewels and silverware – even wedding rings because they believed the stones had hidden Freemason signs.
The indictment alleges that Mr. Tilly reported to Mr. Gonzales, the president of the Blue Light Foundation.
Incorporated in 1999 in Quebec, the foundation's address is the Richelieu, Que., home of Valérie Saunier, a French-born yoga instructor.
In an interview, Ms. Saunier said she met Mr. Gonzales through a common acquaintance and had agreed to volunteer as the foundation's treasurer. But she said she never heard back from Mr. Gonzales, so the foundation was not active in Quebec.
The indictment does not indicate that any money reached the foundation in Quebec.
Mr. Gonzales's lawyer, Frédérique Dantin, said the foundation was just "an empty shell" waiting for his bonds to mature.
Ms. Dantin said her client received some money but didn't realize it could have been gained fraudulently. "Gonzales doesn't know what Tilly was telling the de Védrines," she said in an interview.
The indictment says the Védrines's money paid for four cars used by Mr. Gonzales – a BMW 6 Series and a Mini Cooper bought in London, a BMW X3 sport-utility vehicle purchased in Switzerland and a Ford Fusion leased in France.
Mr. Tilly kept flats in Manhattan near the United Nations headquarters, and in the affluent Chelsea area of London, the court document says.
From July, 2004, to April, 2005, Mr. Tilly sent Amaury de Védrines, then in his 20s, to London, where he was instructed to keep watch night and day inside the Blue Light Foundation's London office. Fed only once a day, he had to sleep on the floor and wash in a communal sink with no hot water.
By 2008, the indictment says, Mr. Tilly got the clan to sell Château de Martel and relocate to Oxford.
Roger Pouget, a French expatriate who owns a café near Oxford University, said one family member, Christine de Védrines, sister-in-law of Ghislaine, worked for him as a cook, although the frail, older woman didn't look like she could toil at the stoves.
He was also intrigued to learn that her husband, once a gynecologist, worked as a gardener in Oxford.
"Something a bit odd was going on. She told me she had inherited great wealth and her husband had a family mansion that was now gone," Mr. Pouget said in an interview.
In January, 2008, the indictment says, Christine was locked up and deprived of sleep to get her to remember the password to a purported bank account holding an ancient fortune.
For a week, she was forced to sit on a stool, facing a wall. She had to stay awake and soiled herself because she wasn't allowed to go to the toilets.
After seven days, Christine was led away, limping and bruised.
Horrified when he learned of that episode, Mr. Pouget persuaded Christine to break from the group and whisked her to a train station to return to France, where she filed a complaint with police.
Mr. Tilly was arrested in October, 2009.
The indictment details the massive financial losses the family faced. But there was an emotional impact too. For example, Christine's daughter, Diane, was 15 when Mr. Tilly met her family. The indictment said she felt that "Tilly stole 10 years of her life."