'Guru' accused of cruel con

The Independent, New Zealand/November 11, 2009

Paris - To his followers in a large suburban house on Oxford, England, Thierry Tilly is a "superman" - a secret agent for a centuries-old, Da Vinci Code-style secret society, sworn to protect the world from evil.

French investigators, though, take a different view. To them, he is a vulgar - and violent - con artist, who has used brainwashing techniques and even torture to rob three generations of a wealthy French family.

Tilly, 45, is now in custody in south-western France. He is accused of using "acts of torture and barbarism" to persuade 11 members of the aristocratic Vedrines clan to hand over furniture, jewellery, paintings and property worth 3 million ($6 million) over the past eight years.

Eight members of the Vedrines family, aged from 16 to 68, are believed to be still hiding in Tilly's Oxford base. His arrest concludes years of previously fruitless efforts by other family members to free their relatives from apparently self-imposed seclusion, first in a family chateau east of Bordeaux and then in the house near Oxford.

This year, Christine de Vedrines, who had been sent out to work from the Oxford house as a chef, broke ranks and agreed to testify against Tilly. Her husband, Charles-Henri, and three children are still believed to be living with the alleged sect.

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