10/04/2012 12:19 EDT | Updated 12/04/2012 05:12 EST

The Leonardo da Vinci of Mental Manipulation

A trial still unfolding in Bordeaux, France is already attracting lurid headlines as a man is facing prosecution over his nine-year domination of an aristocratic French family. Thierry Tilly of Oxford, England has been described by prosecutors as the "Leonardo da Vinci of mental manipulation."

A trial still unfolding in Bordeaux, France is already attracting lurid headlines as a man is facing prosecution over his nine-year domination of an aristocratic French family. Thierry Tilly of Oxford, England has been described by prosecutors as the "Leonardo da Vinci of mental manipulation."

The 48-year old Tilly has been charged with kidnapping, premeditated violence, "psychological subjection," fraud and "abuse of the vulnerable." Prosecutors maintain that Tilly and his accomplice Jacques Gonzalez managed to ingratiate themselves with three generations of the Vedrines family and eventually gained complete mental dominance over them. They would eventually defraud them of millions of euros and much of their family property.

According to courtroom testimony, Tilly first met Ghislaine de Vedrines in 1999 when he went to work at her Paris secretarial college. Although she initially considered him to be "uncharismatic," Ghislaine eventually introduced Tilly to other members of her large extended family.

The family members that Tilly met included matriarch Guillemette de Vedrines (who died in 2010), her three children Philippe, Ghislaine, and Charles-Henri, the wives of the two brothers, and five adult grandchildren. The Vedrines family is one of the oldest Protestant families in France with a seat in the 13th-century village of Monflanquin in southern France.

Tilly apparently impressed the family members with his stories of being descended from the royal Hapsburg family, of being friends with prominent politicians, and being a professional athlete. Despite all of these stories being false, Tilly's talent as a confidence man managed to win over his audience.

At some point, Tilly was able to convince the Vedrines that they were descendants of an ancient society called L'Equilibre du Monde (Balance of the World) and that their lives were in mortal danger from a cabal of freemasons and pedophiles. He also told them that he was a member of an ancient order of secret protectors and that the head of this order, "Mr. Gonzalez" was a cousin of the king of Spain.

Believing Tilly's story, the Vedrines family retreated to their chateau in Monflanquin in 2001 and almost completely cut themselves off from the outside world. Over the next nine years, they would funnel millions of euros worth of property, savings and jewelry to Tilly. He then supposedly passed these funds on to a Canadian "charity" to help support the protectors keeping the family safe.

Despite media reports circulating about the once-prominent Vedrines family shutting themselves off from society and even leaving former jobs to take on low-paying work as gardeners or kitchen workers, Tilly's domination over the members of the family seemed complete.

When Ghislaine de Vedrines's husband Jean Marchand denounced Tilly as a charlatan, his wife and two children denounced him as an "agent of evil." While Marchand attempted to lay a complaint against Tilly, police said they were powerless to act since no other member of the Vedrines family had reported abuse. Ghislaine de Vedrines then divorced her husband and he had no contact with his wife or children for nearly nine years.

In media statements against Tilly, Jean Marchand accused him of using "extremely complicated" brainwashing techniques on the Vedrines. "From 2000 onwards, my wife and two children all had identical language and behaviour -- often vindictive -- as if they were indoctrinated, under control, under permanent threat or drugged," he claimed. "They accused their entourage and former friends of belonging to pressure groups, sects or being mentally ill or guilty of the worst misdeeds." An anti-cult activist and jurist, Daniel Picotin, is acting as Marchand's legal counsel and stated that Tilly "ruined an entire family -- three generations."

Likely out of fear of the growing media attention in France, Tilly managed to convince the Vedrines to move to his home city of Oxford, England. Much of the family fortune was gone by then and the Vedrines were often seen in court over non-payment of rent. A former landlord described Tilly as "very clever and manipulative" but he was declared insolvent in 2006.

According to one family member, Tilly maintained control by turning family members against each and punishing anyone who failed to obey him. In her own testimony, Christine de Vedrines stated that she was confined in one room for months while being starved and beaten. Family members took part in the abuse, allegedly over Christine's refusal to provide the "key" to the family fortune that she supposedly had. The ordeal only ended when Christine finally confided with an employer in Oxford who advised her to lay a complaint with police in March 2009. A police team including a criminologist and a psychoanalyst persuaded the Vedrines family to return to France.

Thierry Tilly was arrested in Switzerland that same year and extradited to Bordeaux to stand trial. His accomplice, Jacques Gonzalez is accused of masterminding the scheme. Gonzalez, a 65-year old double amputee, is denying all charges despite police finding him in possession of an expensive BMW with 86,000 Euros in the trunk and "an opulent wardrobe." Despite the charges and evidence against Tilly, members of the Vedrines family continued to defend him as a "good friend" and that many of the stories about them in the media were exaggerated.

Ghislaine de Vedrines has since remarried Jean Marchand and now openly admits to being "taken in" by Tilly. The trial is continuing and both Tilly and Gonzales face lengthy prison sentences if convicted.