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'Leonardo da Vinci' of fraud

Over a 10-year period, Thierry Tilly convinced a French family they were threatened by freemasons and paedophiles, defrauding them of more than $5 million.

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A French con man dubbed the "Leonardo da Vinci of mental manipulation" was jailed for eight years on Tuesday for brainwashing a family of aristocrats in Bordeaux and Oxford and defrauding them of their £3.6 million ($5.47m) fortune.

Thierry Tilly, 48, was found guilty of pulling off a "Machiavellian plot" to convince 11 members of the de Vedrines family that they were in mortal danger from Freemasons, a European secret society and paedophiles.

Judge Marie-Elisabeth Bancal said Tilly brainwashed the family through "group paranoia" by "excluding opponents", "exploiting family weaknesses" and remaining omnipresent either "physically or via phone or emails".

"Machiavellian plot" ... Thierry Tilly.

"Machiavellian plot" ... Thierry Tilly. Photo: AP

For a decade, Tilly kept the de Vedrines under his "mental spell" in their chateau in south-west France and in a semi-detached house in Oxford, fleecing them of all their savings and property.

He claimed he was a secret agent whose job was to protect them from their enemies. But a Bordeaux court found him guilty of abuse of weakness of people under psychological control, arbitrary imprisonment and violence against vulnerable people.

Jacques Gonzalez, 65, the man Tilly claimed was his "boss", was jailed for four years for complicity and deception.

Members of the Vedrine family, the victims of the "guru" Thierry Tilly in the so-called "reclus de Monflanquin" case.

Members of the de Vedrines family, the victims of the "guru" Thierry Tilly in the so-called "reclus de Monflanquin" case. Photo: AFP

Tilly's many spurious claims during the trial included that he was a descendant of the Hapsburgs and the son of a combat swimmer and an Olympic ice skater. His lawyer had described him as being "twenty thousand leagues under the real world".

During the trial, the court heard that Tilly became the family's "guru", ingratiating himself with three generations, including Guillemette de Vedrines, the family matriarch who died in 2010, her three children Philippe, Ghislaine and Charles-Henri, the two brothers' wives, Brigitte and Christine, and five adult grandchildren.

Tilly managed to convince the family that they were the lost descendants of an ancient society called "The Balance of the World", urging them to lock themselves in the family chateau in Monflanquin.

Funds from their property, savings and jewellery were funnelled into a Canadian "charity" run by Gonzalez.

As French authorities started homing in on Tilly, he convinced most of the family to move to Oxford, where they took up menial jobs. He was finally arrested in Switzerland in 2009 after a complaint by Christine de Vedrines, 62. She escaped after confiding in her Oxford employer that she had suffered abuse.

The Daily Telegraph, London