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PARIS (AP) — An alleged modern-day Rasputin was convicted Tuesday of brainwashing three generations of an aristocratic French family for nearly a decade, swindling them of their fortune and their turreted manor.
Thierry Tilly, who was sentenced to eight years in prison by a court in Bordeaux, became a confidante of the landed Vedrines family in 2000 in a case has both riveted and shocked the nation.
Over nine years, the man who local media dubbed "the guru" used manipulation techniques to convince the family of 11 — aged from 16 to 89 — of a secret plot against their lives, according to court testimony.
The family was so convinced of his story that they locked themselves inside their chateau for several years, terrified they would be killed. They sold off their possessions — including the family manor — and handed over €4.5 million ($5.7 million).
French media reported that the money was poured into a fake Canadian charity that Tilly claimed was set up to pay the Vedrines' "protectors."
The French-born Tilly was convicted of arbitrary detention, using violence against vulnerable people and abusing people weakened by "psychological subjection."
"Eight years is a small price to pay for what he did to our family and children," Christine de Vedrines, who first alerted police to Thierry's actions, told the Sipa news agency on Tuesday. "The trial is behind us and we will do everything to rebuild."
His accomplice, Jacques Gonzalez, was sentenced to four years in prison.
Despite the conviction, Tilly remained defiant, invoking his right as a British citizen and saying he would take his case to the European Court of Justice, Sipa reported.
Tilly's lawyer had argued that the family from 13th-century village of Monflanquin in southwestern France had acted willingly.
"These 11 family members aren't ill, have their feet on the ground, a level of self-awareness. Eleven people manipulated by mysterious forces by a single man? The legal basis for case is weak," lawyer Alexandre Novion told The Associated Press.
Although Tilly was deemed mentally stable during his trial, French media have reported that he has a history of lies and exaggerations. Tilly claimed before the Bordeaux court that he was a member of the Habsburg dynasty, that he once almost played football for Marseille and that he knew former French President Francois Mitterrand.
"(The trial) has only just begun," Tilly declared.
His lawyer, meanwhile, said he was not aware that his client was a British citizen.
The case raised echoes of another controversial trial involving France's richest woman, 90-year-old L'Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt, who was swindled by a French tax lawyer into handing over a private Seychelles island to him.
Thomas Adamson can be followed at http://Twitter.com/ThomasAdamsonAP