Aristocrats and Demons
Persuaded they held the key to great treasure and were targets of a Masonic plot, members of the aristocratic de Védrines family turned over their lives, fortune, and ancestral château to a shadowy “grand master.” Then came captivity and torture—and a bizarre escape.
By Michael Joseph Gross
Culture > Crime
Left, Ghislaine de Védrines’s ex-husband, journalist Jean Marchand, at Château Martel, in Monflanquin, France, in 2003; right, anti-sect lawyer Daniel Picotin, in his Bordeaux office. Photographs: left, by Eric Bonnier/O.Medias/L’Illustration; right, by Remi Benali.
Far, far down the High Street, long past where Oxford’s golden spires give way to neon strip malls, you come to a dense residential zone of tidy town houses, row upon row. In one of these, in a small room, a woman sits immobile in a chair.
She has been held prisoner in this room for days. Eight? Ten? Hard to keep track, when they won’t let you sleep. In shifts, day and night, her captors take turns berating her:
We know you know the number.
You have to tell us.
Why won’t you tell us?
The woman is 58 years old. Not long ago she was the mistress of a château near Bordeaux—elegant, soignée, an aristocrat. Now she is fed a single meal each day. She is not allowed to bathe or use the bathroom. She is drugged, and sometimes she is beaten.
The captors include members of her own family. They say she knows the number because she is The One—the possessor of knowledge that will free her and the rest of them to fulfill their destiny. They want the number of a bank account in Brussels that will lead them to a secret that will save the world. They were selected for this mission by a global network of secretive grandees, whose head, named Jacques Gonzalez, is said to be a cousin of the Spanish king Juan Carlos, and reputed to be more powerful than the presidents of France, Russia, and the United States.
The woman believes all this, just as her captors do, which makes her inability to recall the number that much more awful. But she cannot. Finally, terrified and broken, she blurts something out—makes it up. A string of numbers. That’s it. That is the account.
Her captors are pleased. The door to the room swings open, and Christine de Védrines is permitted to resume the rituals of daily life.
Her relief is fleeting. Soon they tell her it is time to go to Brussels. Because she cannot recall the name of the bank that holds the account, they lead her up and down the streets, from bank to bank to bank. At each one she repeats the phantom number, asks for access to the phantom account—and is denied. At each one her dread grows, for it is only a matter of time before they come to the last bank in Brussels, and this bank, too, tells them no.
“Acts of Barbarism”The tale sounds like the invention of a Dan Brown, but it is the truth, according to the testimony of Christine de Védrines, as summarized by her lawyer and related by a confidant. Her captivity and torture, which is alleged to have occurred in January 2008, would prove to be a decisive moment in the collapse of the French aristocratic house of de Védrines, many of whose members over a period of several years had achieved a significant disconnection from what is commonly referred to as reality.
In late 2001, some of the de Védrines began to abandon the long-established routines of their lives. Gradually, 11 members of the family, spanning three generations, retreated into their ancestral home, a turreted manor called Château Martel, near the 13th-century village of Monflanquin, in southwestern France. Among them were respected members of the community: Guillemette, the matriarch, who was then 88 years old; her son Philippe, a 63-year-old Shell Oil executive; another son, Charles-Henri, 53, a gynecologist and local politician (and the husband of Christine); and her daughter, Ghislaine, 55, who ran a secretarial school in Paris. (Rounding out the group of 11 were Philippe’s girlfriend, Brigitte Martin; Charles-Henri and Christine’s three children, Guillaume, 24, Amaury, 21, and Diane, 16; and Ghislaine’s two children, Guillemette, 24, and François, 22.) Now they lived in isolation, maintaining few relationships with outsiders, aside from one trusted friend: a mysterious man named Thierry Tilly, who allegedly told them that they were targets of a plot by Freemasons, from which only he could protect them.
Two years later, in 2003, the first reports of the family’s strange behavior appeared in the regional newspaper Sud Ouest. The family won a lawsuit alleging infringement of privacy, but popular curiosity could not be suppressed. The de Védrines are a Protestant aristocratic family who trace their title back three centuries. They are one of those shabby-genteel families that everyone at Tir aux Pigeons or Le Polo knows of, though until recently few would have been able to say exactly why. (They are not related to Hubert Védrine, the former French foreign minister.)
At least partly to escape the mounting publicity, several of the de Védrines left France for England, where, eventually, nine of them would live, with or near Thierry Tilly, in Oxford. Apparently at Tilly’s direction, the de Védrines occupied modest rental properties, took menial jobs, and reportedly turned over virtually all of their income to Tilly.
Philippe de Védrines and Brigitte Martin disassociated themselves from Tilly in 2008, but it was not until the spring of 2009, when Christine finally managed to flee from England and tell her story to the French police, that a European warrant was issued for Thierry Tilly’s arrest on charges of “fraud, imprisonment accompanied by acts of barbarism and torture, extortion of funds, and abuse of weakness.” Swiss authorities arrested Tilly at the airport when he unwisely made a trip to Zurich, in October 2009, and sent him back to France to face prosecution.
Astonishing new revelations soon enriched the cultish aspects of the story. Christine de Védrines’s lawyer, Daniel Picotin, an avowed anti-cult activist, has described Tilly as a “guru” who brainwashed the family into believing they were a vital link to a sacred order, an offshoot of the Knights Templar, called L’Équilibre du Monde—“the Balance of the World”—which is activated at moments of extreme planetary peril. Jacques Gonzalez, identified as the group’s grand master, was said to have relayed instructions directly to Tilly, who then personally guided the de Védrines in their mission—the search for a trove of riches that Tilly described as “so large it could not fit in any room.” In this quest, the family ultimately lost its jewels, silver, furniture, art, and finally the château itself, and family members gave virtually all of their cash—an estimated $7 million—to Tilly.
Tilly is now being held without bail in Bordeaux. He has declined legal counsel, given no interviews, and, according to one court official, “ferociously” denied all charges. For a period after Tilly’s arrest, at least seven members of the de Védrines family remained in Oxford, supposedly still under his influence. Last November, Jean Marchand, a business journalist and the ex-husband of Ghislaine de Védrines, told reporters that he feared the Oxford group might commit mass suicide. He compared them to followers of Jim Jones or members of the Order of the Solar Temple.
To avert such a possibility, the lawyer Picotin led two “exfiltration” missions, as he called them, to Oxford. His Ocean’s Eleven style team, which included a psychoanalyst, a criminologist, and a chauffeur (along with Jean Marchand, Christine, Philippe, and Brigitte), set out to retrieve the rest of the family. Christine and Charles-Henri’s son, Guillaume, who for a time had served as Tilly’s right-hand man, was reportedly weaned away from his influence in November. In December, after another sortie, Picotin announced that the entire family had been saved—that the rest of the de Védrines had renounced Tilly and joined the case against him.
The headlines in France and Britain have been sensational, but the investigation is far from over. Two of Tilly’s alleged accomplices were arrested in June, and at press time, police were rumored to be closing in on one more. The legal process will move at a stately Gallic pace. However, exclusive interviews and previously unpublished documents obtained by Vanity Fair suggest that the nature of Tilly’s connection with the de Védrines family is far more bizarre, improbable, and complex than has yet been reported. Beneath the grotesque cult narrative lies a baroque con job whose culprits and victims have barely begun to be sorted out. Mysteries hang over many aspects of the case, including the possible complicity of certain family members in the ruin of their own noble house.
The Masonic ThreatWhen Jean Marchand fell in love with Ghislaine de Védrines—in a whirlwind romance that tore across 10 months of 1976—he also fell in love with her family. Marchand had been an only child. Ghislaine was the second of four. The eldest and most popular, Anne, died in 1997; her husband and children drifted away from the family. But the de Védrines otherwise enjoyed an extraordinary camaraderie, centered on the manor house, and Marchand experienced a sense of belonging that he’d never known before. There was always something happening at Château Martel—dancing in the grand salon, birthday dinners for 30 at an ancient oaken banquet table, the echoing footfalls of laughing children racing up and down the imposing round tower.
On the morning of September 1, 2001, Marchand looked forward to a grand moment. Four hundred guests would converge on the château to celebrate the wedding of his daughter, Guillemette, to Sébastien Driant, a promising young pianist from Nice. At the wedding Mass, voices from the Paris Opera and musicians from the Orchestre de Paris made joyful noise in Monflanquin’s Church of St. André.
But when the day was done? Tensions had been troubling the Marchands’ marriage for quite some time. Over the past few years, Ghislaine, who was director of Paris’s top secretarial school, La Femme Secrétaire (also known as the Institut de Formation Supérieure d’Assistant de Direction), had grown so close to one of her employees, the school’s jack-of-all-trades administrator, Thierry Tilly, that Marchand at first suspected they might be having an affair.
Ghislaine insisted that the bond was innocent, and when Marchand got to know Tilly, he believed her, at least as regards to romance. But Tilly filled him with concern nonetheless. The bespectacled 35-year-old had a raspy voice, a pasty face, and an unexpectedly strong handshake—a painful grip that felt less like a friendly greeting than an assertion of power. Tilly certainly had power over Ghislaine, and when she introduced her new friend to the rest of the family, his power grew. Ghislaine had the least formal education among the siblings, but she was credited with having the most common sense, and on the strength of her endorsement, the family accepted Tilly into its confidence.
Though the prime of the French aristocracy has long passed, some close to the de Védrines say this family took great pride in their noble status—a quality that made them vulnerable. Tilly seemed to discern a certain greatness in each of the three siblings, a greatness that others hadn’t recognized—Philippe, he said, you should be the president of Shell Oil!—which, Marchand figured, made it easier for them to accept Tilly’s claims about himself.
Tilly told them he had many important friends: wealthy, influential people who live a step ahead of the rest of the world. Connections like that must have been catnip to Ghislaine’s brothers—Charles-Henri, a beefy bon vivant and gourmand who had inherited Château Martel after his father died, in 1995, and savored the role of lord of the manor (he was a subscriber to the Annuaire de la Noblesse de France, the French version of Debrett’s peerage), and Philippe, whose courtly, stork-like bearing exuded an air of wounded pride. (As the elder son, Philippe felt he should have inherited Château Martel—and he would have, if only he had possessed sufficient income to maintain it.) Tilly reportedly told the brothers that, through people he knew, he could get spectacular returns on investments: 10 percent per month. Both had jumped at the prospect of easy money, and, for a time, Tilly apparently delivered on his promise—though where the money came from is unclear.
Marchand alone was skeptical, at first keeping his doubts to himself. In the two years before the wedding, though, Tilly’s hold on the family had grown alarming. To begin with, Tilly had dropped hints that a Masonic group had its eye on the prime real estate occupied by La Femme Secrétaire—a building on the Rue de Lille in the fashionable Seventh Arrondissement. Indeed, Tilly claimed, the Freemasons were so intent on acquiring the property that the lives of Ghislaine and her family might be at risk. To the de Védrines, this would all have sounded less far-fetched than it seems in retrospect or from outside. Freemasons are believed by many to be major players in Parisian real estate, and the group’s influence in southwestern France is said to be even stronger. And Tilly did seem to know something about the dark side. When asked what line of work he had been in, Tilly was known to answer “espionage”—adding, “I cannot discuss it,” and with one palm raised, “Do not ask”—though he also maintained that his chief affiliation was with an obscure humanitarian organization called the Blue Light Foundation. In social gatherings, when his cell phone rang, he always checked to see if the call was from the man he referred to as “mon président”—Jacques Gonzalez—and if it was Gonzalez, Tilly would find a private place to take the call.
Jean Marchand worried that Ghislaine’s prudence was curdling into paranoia. By the spring of 2001, Ghislaine was seeing Freemasons everywhere. Even longtime neighbors now looked like enemies to her. But he muted his criticisms, hoping that silence would starve the strangeness.
And for a moment it seemed to. On the day of the wedding, Tilly was nowhere to be seen. When Marchand, in morning suit, walked his daughter down the aisle, he saw contentment in the whole family’s eyes. Following the service, Guillemette and Sébastien climbed into a horse-drawn carriage that raced down the avenue between rows of oaks leading away from the château. After two more peaceful days in Monflanquin, Ghislaine kissed Marchand good-bye and set out for Paris to prepare for the school year.
She returned on the afternoon of September 7. As Marchand recalls, he was in the living room of his summerhouse when his wife stormed in, dressed as if for a cocktail party, carrying a handful of dried flowers and a gardening glove. According to early reports of the incident, she threw the flowers and glove in her husband’s face and screamed a nonsensical speech at him, which sounded like something she had learned by rote: she called herself a “weak” outsider with “no soul” and said that the flowers, which she’d cut from the garden at their home in Fontenay-sous-Bois, an eastern suburb of Paris, were a sign of Marchand’s “evil network.”
Marchand was dumbfounded. As his wife denounced him, Philippe and Charles-Henri took hold of him, gave him half an hour to pack, and put him on a train to Paris, as Marchand recalls. (Philippe and Charles-Henri de Védrines declined to comment for this story.) He soon discovered that the bank accounts he shared with his wife had been emptied. “It was a tsunami!,” Marchand says, eight years later, steering his Peugeot through Paris on a rainy afternoon. “I was a zombie! I was a ghost!” Eventually, in 2003, the couple divorced. Trying to explain what had happened to the family, Marchand says, “Thierry Tilly was a sort of brain burglar. He opened their heads, took out their brains, and put in a new one.”
A few weeks after his expulsion, Marchand went back to Monflanquin and searched the summerhouse he shared with Ghislaine near the château, hoping to find some clue that would help him make sense of what had happened.
On Ghislaine’s computer, he recalls, he found an e-mail from Thierry Tilly that included the following 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 …”
Victims or Victimizers?Thierry Tilly was born in 1964 in Bois-Colombes, northwest of Paris. He studied law but did not complete his degree. He is married to a woman named Jessica Diener, a striking blonde who is variously reported to have been a cosmetics or advertising executive, or a model. Over the years, Tilly has been involved in many dubious business ventures. At least two of his former associates claim that he fleeced them. The first man, Hugues Gosset, heir to the eponymous champagne house, introduced Tilly to the second man, Vincent David, a lawyer, who introduced Tilly to Ghislaine de Védrines. (David says Tilly hired him for legal work on a real-estate development but did not pay the attorney’s fees. As compensation, he says, Tilly promised him part ownership of the project, but never made good on the offer.) Ghislaine hired Tilly to undertake various services at the secretarial school, including installation of a new computer system. By 1999 he was the school’s highest-paid employee and Ghislaine’s most trusted adviser.
Over the next two years, according to Martine Gourdin, who was the head teacher at La Femme Secrétaire, large sums of money started leaching from the school’s accounts, and La Femme Secrétaire stopped paying its bills. Ghislaine dropped a worrisome amount of weight, wore sunglasses indoors and out, and warned the staff to watch out for Freemasons. Tilly moved into a room on the ground floor of the school. He arranged for 24-hour security in the form of a hulking Polish guard who patrolled his domain with a Rottweiler. One day, Tilly put the school on lockdown—keeping all the classroom doors closed—after announcing that Jacques Gonzalez, the president of the secret organization that, by now, they all had heard about, would be visiting him in Ghislaine’s office. No one got a good look at Gonzalez, though one teacher later told Jean Marchand that she had caught the merest glimpse of “a short man in a hat” walking quickly down the hall.
In March 2001, the school stopped paying most of the staff. The faculty soldiered on until the end of the term. Ghislaine spent most of that summer in Monflanquin. Then, with her daughter married and her husband banished, she shut down the school altogether. For reasons unknown, Ghislaine took up residence on the top floor of the empty building, which by now had no heat, light, or running water. Her brother Philippe and his partner, Brigitte, moved in with her. Only at Christmastime did the three move out.
Today, flakes of grimy paint hang from the stone façade of the vacant school. Martine Gourdin stands on the sidewalk outside, lighting a cigarette and narrowing her eyes. “I watch the news and see this business about the guru,” she says, wiggling her fingers to cast a mock spell, then contemptuously waving her hand in dismissal: “I do not say they are not victims. But before this story became about L’Équilibre du Monde and saving the world, it was about something else. And that something was making money.”
Banishing ClocksWhen Philippe de Védrines moved into the empty school building with Brigitte and Ghislaine, in the fall of 2001, his wife, from whom he had been separated for years, initiated divorce proceedings. She was concerned that Philippe’s erratic behavior and his involvement with Thierry Tilly would cause his assets to evaporate, which would hardly be in her interest. Her lawyer, Pascale Lalère, asked a French court to monitor Philippe’s finances. A subsequent inquiry revealed a pattern of suspicious transfers and led to a comprehensive audit of Tilly and the de Védrines.
According to lawyers involved with the family, many of the unusual transfers were made to a holding company called Presswell Enterprises Limited, whose officers include Thierry Tilly and several of the de Védrines. Some of Philippe’s money was used to build an apartment complex in Albiez-Montrond, in the Alps. The rest of the de Védrines’ money remains unaccounted for.
As their financial circumstances unraveled, the family severed its connections to the world at large. At Tilly’s behest, the de Védrines banished clocks and calendars from Château Martel. In their view, none of the normal rules of the world applied to them—not even time. Their isolation cut a devastating swath. The young bride Guillemette abruptly left her husband and gave her money to Tilly. Without notice to his patients or partner, Charles-Henri de Védrines one day walked away from his medical practice in Bordeaux. He and Christine sold their house there and a beach apartment at Le Pyla, and handed over the proceeds to Tilly. Christine also turned her back on a once vibrant social circle in Bordeaux, including her old friend the winery owner Marie-Hélène Hessel. For more than a year, by phone and by mail, Hessel tried to reach her. As Hessel told Le Monde in 2003, Christine answered the phone just once, and then only to say, “I can’t tell you anything. It’s a family business. It’s very serious. I may come back to Bordeaux, but in a different way. If I were you, I would be very worried.”
Presumably under Tilly’s influence, the de Védrines even stopped paying taxes—an evasion that brought consequences they could not escape. In 2003 the fisc, the French equivalent of the I.R.S., seized Château Martel’s furnishings and had them auctioned off. With the château now empty, family members moved into a house Philippe owned in the town of Laussou. Meanwhile, according to one family lawyer, Guillemette, the matriarch, made a large loan to Philippe, Charles-Henri, and Ghislaine. It is assumed that this money, too, eventually made its way into Tilly’s hands.
Oxford SagaThierry Tilly started shifting his base from France to England sometime near the start of the last decade, when he ran into significant legal problems in France. In 2000, a French court found him guilty of “misusing SARL”—using corporate assets for personal reasons. Tilly was barred from managing a company for 10 years. By 2003, he and his wife had rented an apartment in London. What they did there remains unknown, as does the nature of Tilly’s relationship with the de Védrines for the next few years.
But by 2005, Tilly and his wife, their two young children, his wife’s teenage daughter from a previous relationship, and Guillaume de Védrines—the elder son of Charles-Henri and Christine—were all living in Oxford together, in the first of a series of rental properties where they would entangle the owners in webs of litigation and, while the litigation was pending, live rent-free.
Their third landlord in Oxford was a man named Andrew Scully, a 49-year-old Irish carpenter. In 2006, Scully rented the Tillys and Guillaume the three-bedroom town house attached to his own, and the families became friends. When more of the de Védrines began to flock across the Channel, Scully rented to them too. Charles-Henri and Christine came first, joining their son; they took a house across the street. When the younger ones came—Guillaume’s siblings, Diane and Amaury, and Ghislaine’s son, François—they rented some of Scully’s other small properties around the city.
“Tilly said they were aristocrats,” Scully says. They weren’t like any aristocrats he’d ever seen. Diane made sundaes at an ice-cream parlor and waited tables at a chain restaurant called Nando’s. François swept floors at a Burger King. Christine worked in a shop kitchen. And if Charles-Henri was a doctor—what were he and Amaury doing out there digging in the dirt for the Oxford Garden Company? Within the space of five years, virtually the entire de Védrines family had pulled up stakes, moved to Oxford, and elected in effect to trade nobility for a form of serfdom.
Outwardly appearing as common folk, inwardly they shared a millennial sense of their own significance. It was nurtured by Tilly, who spoke of the family’s special destiny—its connection to L’Équilibre du Monde—and warned of gathering threats involving not only Freemasons but also Rosicrucians, homosexuals, and journalists. Ghislaine and Guillemette, the matriarch, lived with Philippe and Brigitte in Laussou, but all four of them were nevertheless under Tilly’s spell.
Guillaume, the only one of his generation of de Védrines in Oxford who had a university degree, was also the only one with a professional job—he worked at an archaeological-survey company. In addition, he called himself Tilly’s “personal assistant,” helping with the work of the Blue Light Foundation, whatever that was. As for the foundation’s elusive president, the Oxford years yield one or two clues. At the house Guillaume shared with Tilly and his family, Andrew Scully recalls seeing a bank-account statement and a utility bill addressed to one “Jacques Gonzalez.”
Eventually, relations between Scully and his tenants went very, very bad. He claims they offered to pay to renovate one of the houses in exchange for a long-term lease, then trashed the place and, for good measure, reported him to the Department of Public Health for making them live in a pigsty. Scully found himself enmeshed in no fewer than 19 lawsuits, and he, like the former teacher Martine Gourdin, believes that at least some of the de Védrines have as much to answer for as Tilly does.
A Family ShowdownThierry Tilly certainly has a lot to explain. Of all the crimes that he has been charged with, the physical abuse of Christine is the most serious. Allegedly, Tilly persuaded Christine and other family members that Christine’s maiden name—Cornette de Laminière—meant “transmission of metals,” which was a sign that she held the key to some great treasure. Although Tilly is the only person who has been charged with abuse, people close to the case, including an attorney and one of Christine’s confidants, say they would not be surprised if certain family members were also tainted by the episode. Speculation has flourished in the absence of court documents available to the public. Last December, the French newspaper Libération reported that Tilly had used one family member to inflict abuse on Christine. Christine’s lawyer, Picotin, will not elaborate on the situation, except to maintain that his client was held hostage in her own Oxford residence twice—for a total of about six months, from November 2006 to spring 2007 and then again in January 2008—and that she was tortured during the second sequestration.
Whatever the details may be, it is striking that the abuse allegedly took place just as the family was undergoing a major shift in its balance of power. The de Védrines had by this time transferred to Tilly the bulk of their assets. As the pie shrank, the portions that remained grew ever more precious, and when mounting debts made it clear that the family could lose Château Martel, some of the de Védrines began to consider their options. By this time, the circumstances of the two brothers, Charles-Henri and Philippe, had been reversed. Charles-Henri had given most if not all of his money to Tilly. Philippe, owing to legal restrictions related to his divorce, had not. As Philippe became the richer, he seems to have been more inclined to assert his independence.
The minutes of a family meeting held in Oxford in April 2008, obtained exclusively by VANITY FAIR, reveal growing divisions. The document is peppered with melodramatic flourishes and the archaic language of aristocratic privilege. Its condemnations of “traitors” within the family recall the maledictions of the Inquisition. Guillaume, who acted as secretary, writes that family members had taken loans from Philippe. The minutes say that the family was unable or refused to pay back those loans, and that, in January 2008, Philippe, “venal, self-centered, and violent (simply his usual self),” issued a threat: if they did not settle their accounts, he would “bring us to our knees”—that is, he would force Charles-Henri to sell Château Martel at public auction. According to the minutes, the family had devised a counterplan: Charles-Henri would authorize Guillaume to sell Château Martel to a holding company, on the condition that, five years later, the family would have the option to buy the manor back. This showdown over Château Martel, according to the minutes, had led to a horrific family breach. Guillaume writes that on February 7, 2008, the conflict nearly took on mortal stakes.
What is known for sure is that the police that month were called to Philippe’s home in Laussou, where Ghislaine was living, to investigate a domestic disturbance. Following this clash, Ghislaine and Guillemette uprooted themselves and, overnight, joined everyone else in Oxford. Philippe, for his part, spent the next two weeks in a mental hospital.
The Man in the MaskBy the fall of 2008, Château Martel had indeed been sold to a holding company. Guillaume served as intermediary, with the same agent acting for both seller and buyer, which is unusual for the sale of such a valuable property. What Guillaume did with the proceeds remains a matter of much speculation and great dispute. Without question, his handling of the sale drove a wedge between him and the rest of the de Védrines.
His ambitions seemed to lie beyond the family. He told one acquaintance, for instance, that he wanted to “take over” Tilly’s job at the Blue Light Foundation. His relationship with Tilly was apparently cooling—to the point of nonexistence—but there are signs that he was growing close to Tilly’s boss, the mysterious Jacques Gonzalez.
On October 16, 2008, a bizarre incident at a motor-vehicle registration center in Croydon, South London, revealed just how close. On that day, a man attempted to take a driver’s test under an assumed name while wearing a $1,600 latex mask of the sort used by characters in Mission: Impossible to transform their identities. He had paid a professional makeup artist to glue it to his face at a nearby hotel. Officials at the testing facility were struck by the man’s extraordinary appearance, and they asked police to come and question him. The name used by the man for his driving test was Jacques Jean Pierre Gonzalez. He had given his age as 60. When the police arrived, the mask came off, revealing the face of Guillaume de Védrines. Guillaume said simply, “Oh, my little trick hasn’t worked.” When an investigator asked him who Gonzalez was, Guillaume maintained that they shared a house. So why hadn’t Gonzalez just taken the test himself? Guillaume answered, “I think he’s gone traveling.” The local police deemed the offense a minor one, and levied a small fine.
Guillaume’s transfer of allegiance, if such it was, could not have been better timed: Tilly’s luck was about to run out. In the spring of 2009, a man named Robert Pouget de Saint Victor found himself increasingly curious about one of his workers, Christine de Védrines. Pouget, who owns a popular cheese shop in Oxford’s Covered Market, is known around town as “Baron Bobby.” (His family’s baronetcy was bestowed by Napoleon.) Tall, barrel-chested, a Falstaffian font of wisdom, Pouget employed Christine at his shop’s vegetarian kitchen. When she had applied to work for him, he thought she might be too old for the job, and with that limp—she said she had hurt her hip, but didn’t say how—he had doubts about her stamina. She proved to be industrious and meticulous, and the pair enjoyed speaking French to each other. But her language and mannerisms suggested high station, which made Pouget wonder why someone so well bred would be working in a place like his.
From hints and slips, he gathered that she had once been rich, but had fallen on hard times. Finally, one day in the kitchen, he asked—he’s the type who just asks—“What happened to your money? Who has your money?” She answered, “My son Guillaume.” Then she became vague. There had been trouble in the family. Her son, though he lived in Oxford, wasn’t speaking to her. “Someday I will tell you all about it,” she said. “I can’t tell you today.”
Pouget pushed, and finally Christine broke down and told him everything: about the torture, the trip to Brussels, the endless list of family possessions that had been lost, and Guillaume’s estrangement from Tilly. At that point, Pouget recalls, she still felt guilty for not having been able to remember the bank-account number. “I told her, ‘You don’t remember because there isn’t any memory. That’s all made up.’ ”
Pouget told Christine that she should reach out to Guillaume. She said she was afraid to call; she thought the phone was probably bugged. “Bobby, be careful, you don’t know,” she said. “Thierry Tilly is an all-powerful man.”
“Nonsense,” sniffed Pouget. “He’s just a little creep,” and he dialed Guillaume’s number.
Christine spoke to her son on speaker-phone, in Pouget’s office, with Pouget listening in. Guillaume’s immediate reaction to his mother’s voice, as Pouget recalls, was hostile and profane: “He told his mother in French that she was an old bore, a nightmare. ‘Mind your own business. Don’t worry—things are under control. Just fucking leave me alone.’ Very, very rude.”
Pouget himself interrupted: “Listen, you little shit, 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?”
“None of your business.”
“I’m making it my fucking business.”
“I don’t have to speak with you.”
Pouget said, “You may not have to speak with me. But you will have to speak to the police.”
Pouget slammed down the phone. Aghast, he spent that night online, reading old French newspaper stories about les reclus de Monflanquin, and he resolved to persuade Christine that she had to escape Oxford.
The next day, he asked whom she might call for help. She named her old friend Marie-Hélène Hessel, in Bordeaux. They called her. Christine said, “I want to come home,” and Hessel agreed to meet Christine in London a few days later and take her back to France. Once there, Christine met Daniel Picotin, the lawyer who, since a chance meeting with Jean Marchand in 2004, had been working to bring Tilly’s activities to light. When Christine arrived in Bordeaux, in March 2009, Picotin took her to the courthouse, where she told her story.
Arrest in ZurichProvoked by allegations of torture and abuse, the French government pressed charges against Thierry Tilly. From the moment of Christine’s testimony, he was a marked man.
Around the same time, the civil war that had been building within the de Védrines family broke into the open in the English courts. Charles-Henri initiated divorce proceedings against his wife and filed suit against Guillaume to reclaim the proceeds from the sale of Château Martel. Ghislaine and François also filed statements claiming damages from Guillaume. Reportedly, some of the de Védrines sent a letter to Guillaume’s employer in Oxford, alleging that Guillaume had embezzled millions from the family, and warning that he might try to do the same to someone else.
For several months the story of the de Védrines went cold.
Then, on October 21, 2009, Tilly made the fateful trip to Zurich—and found himself under arrest, setting off a chain of events that re-united the de Védrines family in very short order. First, Guillaume—who had spent years at Tilly’s feet—made an extremely timely move, allowing himself to be “exfiltrated” by a team sent over from France. This was reported in French newspapers as a triumph for Picotin, the anti-cult crusader. News reports did not explain how, exactly, Guillaume could be liberated from the influence of a man with whom, according to several accounts, he had not been in touch for a year. A month later, Picotin exfiltrated the rest of the family, en masse. They all signed on as plaintiffs in the case that Christine had originally brought against Tilly. Guillaume, too, has joined this case. Charles-Henri, meanwhile, has formally dropped his suit against Guillaume and reconciled with Christine. And in February, Ghislaine moved back in with her ex-husband, Jean Marchand—who says that, astoundingly, his wife “had no trouble readjusting to normal life. She is not different in any way. At all.”
“This sect bit is quite handy,” says Andrew Scully, discussing the family’s case against Tilly. Like Martine Gourdin, he makes a scoffing imitation of the de Védrines—“We’re all crazy!”—and then comes down to earth: “Money needs to be paid, and this is just a way of them getting out of it,” says Scully, who is still awaiting payment from the family for back rent and damage. “Prove me wrong.”
Under the protective wing of Daniel Picotin, the family is answering no questions. Picotin has positioned the case strategically, within the intense debate about the role of sects and cults in French society. Last year witnessed a highly publicized trial in Paris involving the Church of Scientology. (The church was found to be an “organized fraud.”) Bordeaux, whose population may be the most secular and “Enlightened” in all of France—Montesquieu is the city’s favorite son—makes for an ideal setting. In a fist-pounding press conference in November, Picotin told reporters that the de Védrines’ ordeal demonstrates the urgent need for a law outlawing “mental manipulation”—which the government is now considering.
The Mysterious J. GonzalezPicture seven egg-shaped wooden objects that look like spaceships, five stories tall, sitting on bright-yellow metal structures that look like launchpads, and poking up through the top of a glass box. This is the Palais de Justice, the Bordeaux courthouse designed by the architect Richard Rogers, who is best known for the Pompidou Center, in Paris. The egg-shaped structures are courtrooms, in one of which Thierry Tilly may face trial before the Tribunal de Grande Instance on charges that could put him in prison for life. The date of the trial remains uncertain because of the extreme complexity of the investigation now being conducted by Stéphane Lorentz, a juge d’instruction—a hybrid of detective and judge—who, according to French newspaper accounts, is working “jour et nuit.”
After Tilly’s arrest, investigators began searching for his accomplices. Speculation about his co-conspirators focused largely on the figure of Jacques Gonzalez, grand master of L’Équilibre du Monde, the cousin of a king, a man whose power was trumpeted as being greater than that of three major world leaders—and who seemed as evanescent as the Cheshire Cat, existing only as a name on envelopes, and as a squat figure glimpsed momentarily from behind in a hallway of a school.
I encounter odd reactions when his name, which has been mentioned only in passing in the newspapers, comes up in conversation. One attorney involved with the family looks startled when I ask about Gonzalez. “How did you know that?” he snaps. But eventually he offers the information that “Guillaume left a suitcase with that name on it” at Philippe’s house. Jean Marchand says that juge d’instruction Lorentz told him that the court was close to charging Tilly’s accomplices, and that Lorentz specifically said, “Jacques Gonzalez is next on the list.”
One day a Sud Ouest reporter mentions that he has a possible address for Gonzalez, in Paris, but hasn’t pursued it. (The name “Jacques Gonzalez” is not uncommon in France.) On a blustery afternoon, I decide to pay the man a visit. Emerging from a Paris Métro stop, I walk to the address, a very fancy, ostentatiously secure building in a very unfancy, possibly dangerous neighborhood. The lobby is a blaze of hectic geometries in brass and marble. When told that I am here to see Jacques Gonzalez, the concierge gives directions to his apartment. He makes no further inquiries and does not call ahead to announce my visit.
The door of the apartment is freshly painted red and emblazoned with the name “J. Gonzalez” in big letters. I ring the bell. A short, gray-haired man who looks to be in his early 60s cracks the door open about six inches and, peering out through gold-rimmed spectacles, says “Yes?” Which is odd: a Parisian would no more greet a visitor with that word than a Chicagoan would answer the door with “Oui?” I introduce myself in French, and he interrupts: “You can speak English.” He disclaims knowledge of every subject I raise. “When did you first meet Thierry Tilly?” Smiling, he says, “I don’t know him.” “When did you start working for the Blue Light Foundation?” Smiling, he says, “I do not know the Blue Light Foundation.” “L’Équilibre du Monde?” … “Oxford?” … “The de Védrines?” He knows nothing, he says. Gonzalez’s manner is equable, patient, resolutely incurious. The replies are not “Thierry who?” or “Blue Light what?” or even “Who are you? Why are you asking me these things?”
I leave the apartment building not knowing what to think. Had I simply been speaking with the wrong Jacques Gonzalez? Or had I indeed met the real Gonzalez, as wily as ever? Or was the Jacques Gonzalez in this story nothing more than a chimera?
Six months later, police knocked on the same door. The man I met was arrested, his home searched and, according to a Bordeaux court statement, his property seized: 34,000 euros in cash, “along with numerous objects … including lithographs, watches of great value, bottles of fine vintage wines … an opulent wardrobe,” and a BMW 645—with another 86,000 euros in the trunk. That same day, also in Paris, police arrested a second man who has been identified only as Pascal and was described by a court spokesperson as a go-between who received money and other property from the de Védrines for delivery to Gonzalez. Both Gonzalez and Pascal were taken to Bordeaux, jailed, and charged with “possession of criminally obtained property and complicity in the crimes of taking advantage of the weakness of a person in a state of psychological or physical subjection, extortion, fraud, and money laundering.” Gonzalez, who had no previous criminal record, was also charged with “failure to report assets by a person in ongoing collusion with a perpetrator of extortion.”
The trials of Tilly and his alleged accomplices will not only decide justice. They will also sort myth from fact. But certain realities are already known and will not change. The relationship between the de Védrines and Thierry Tilly has devastated the family. It has also demonstrated the family’s aristocratic indestructibility. The events of the past decade have damaged or scarred many other people—the teachers, the landlords, the family’s friends and associates—and not all of these sins can be hung on Thierry Tilly. For all that, neither the courts of law nor those of public opinion have gone out of their way to recognize any victims in this tale except for the de Védrines. As the saying goes, they still have their name.
Yet nothing can restore to the family what has been lost. The château is irretrievable. It was sold again last year to a couple with a small boy. In Château Martel’s driveway, the boy’s mother, wearing a red fake-fur coat, waved her small, pale fist at a reporter and shouted, “There is nothing to see here! The château is mine now! Voilà!”