PARIS - To his followers in a large suburban Oxford house, Thierry Tilly is a "super-man" - 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 brain-washing techniques and even torture to rob three generations of a wealthy French family.
Mr 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 3m euros ($6m) over the last eight years.
Eight members of the Vedrines family, aged from 16 to 68, are believed still to be hiding in Mr Tilly's Oxford base. His arrest concludes years of previously fruitless efforts by other family members to free their relatives - two brothers, a sister and five children - from apparently self-imposed reclusion, first in a family chateau east of Bordeaux and then in the house near Oxford.
Other members of the Vedrines family say that, from 1999, their relatives progressively fell under the influence of Mr Tilly, who claims to be a man of "superhuman powers" and the "secret agent" of an ancient sect which is sworn to save the world from destruction. Mr Tilly is alleged to have persuaded the wealthy and highly educated Vedrines that they are the lost descendants of a secret organisation, "L'Equilibre du Monde" (the balance of the world) which is called into being whenever the world is threatened by extreme evil.
For many years, other family members were unable to take action against Mr Tilly under French law because their relatives seemed to be acting of their own volition. Earlier this year, though, Christine de Vedrines, who had been sent out to work from the Oxford house as a chef, broke ranks and agreed to testify against Mr Tilly. Her husband, Charles-Henri, and three children , Guillaume, Amaury and Diane, are among the eight family members still believed to be living with the alleged "sect".
Ms de Vedrines has accused Mr Tilly of using brain-washing techniques n but also acts of extreme violence - to persuade the family to part with their property. She said that they had sold paintings and furniture and also the family chateau in Monflanquin (Lot-et-Garonne), 100 miles east of Bordeaux, in which they had barricaded themselves for seven years from 2001.
On the basis of her testimony, Mr Tilly was arrested in Switzerland last month and has been extradited to Bordeaux, where he is formally accused of "fraud, abuse of weakness, extortion, kidnapping and acts of torture and barbarism".
Daniel Picotin, the lawyer for two family members, said: "Everything has gone: jewels, silver, furniture. There is nothing left." Maitre Picotin, who is also the head of an anti-sect group, said that Mr Tilly had managed to take control of three generations of a wealthy, aristocratic family, including a doctor, an oil-industry executive and a local centre-right politician. "We had to stand and watch these people being systematically fleeced," he said.
Mr Tilly is accused of infiltrating the Vedrines family from 1999. In September 2001, it is alleged that he persuaded the matriarch of the clan, Guillemette de Vedrines, 85, her daughter, Ghislaine and two sons, Charles-Henri and Philippe, to take refuge in their chateau with their wives and children and to cast out other relatives, including a son-in-law and the recently married husband of a grand-daughter. Jean Marchand, the banished husband of Ghislaine, said he was accused by his wife and brothers-in-law of belonging to a "network of evil" and has been denied access to his two grown-up children for the last eight years.
Mr Marchand said: "Tilly's arrest would be a great relief if only I knew what was happening to the other eight members of the family in Oxford."
Last night, at a semi-detached house on the outskirts of Oxford where Monsieur Tilly and the Vedrines are thought to have lived, a Spanish woman answered the door and said she had moved in three weeks ago. She said she had never heard the names Tilly or Vedrines.