Be aware of groupthink and your lack of critical thinking skills
Author: Daniel J Bockman
As many of you know, I am a huge history buff when it comes to the royal courts of the 16th to the 18th century European Kings and Queens. I love the old royals and how they worked for power courting the King and trying to earn his favor. The murder, beheadings, the aristocrats, and the seedy maneuvers to gain more power, It’s all fascinating to me and can be very relevant to modern day life when contrasted.
Conmen, swindlers, charlatans, snake oil salesman and counterfeiters are as old as time itself. History is littered with stories of a great con. But this story is not about the royals or even takes place in mid-renaissance era of Europe. This story starts in the late 1990s in France.
The Main idea
The central theme of the con is to get your victims to do things they normally would not do for your benefit. This is best done by disarming your victims critical thinking skills with tools of fear and establish a strong foothold of groupthink among your victims garnering your philosophies. In this story, you will see how one man duped an entire family out of millions of dollars by using fear and groupthink.
Thierry Tilly conned the 3 generation French, wealthy aristocrat de Vedrines family out of their entire family fortune in a span of just under 10 years. Like a snake oil charlatan of years gone by, Tilly disguised himself as an IT consultant contracted to help one of the family’s businesses, but in the end, spent a decade pilfering out all of their money while at the same time making it look like he was their savior.
The de Vedrines family was not a bunch of uneducated dupes that happened to have some money. They were generational money from years of cunning business in France. Philippe 64, was a high ranking executive at Shell Oil, Charles-Henri 54, was a propionate obstetrician in France and Ghislanie 65, ran a secretary school (what we in the US would call a private business school.) The matriarch of the family, Guillemette 90, was semi-retired but living very well on her fortune while supporting her children’s successful endeavors.
The younger kids of the siblings were all in successful businesses, private schools and careers as well.
Tilly managed to set his trap by infiltrating Ghislanie secretary school. Posing as a computer guru, Tilly really sold the part. He was computer smart and wore glasses as you would expect a computer geek to wear. He was not all that good looking so he was not going to attract a lot of attention. He used his average geeky looks at a tool for his con. Tilly claimed he was a descendant of the Austro-Hungarian Habsburg nobility and that his communist grandmother had known the former socialist president Francois Mitterrand. This posturing really played well into the family’s liberal ideologies. (establish a common idealog)
Over the years, Tilly gradually got in well with the de Vedrines family to the point that he was a common among all of them like family. With comfort in speaking freely with the family he made his initial move by telling them that a secret masonic plot was being waged against the family and he had connection to how to protect them. Somehow, Tilly was able to convince the entire family to barricade themselves into the sister’s secretary school. Tilly told them that they needed to get rid of all the clock and calendars so they didn’t know what day or time of day it was. He also told them to shut off the power.
Interestingly enough, the teachers at the school kept teaching even though there was no power and they paychecks had been discontinued (advised by Tilly). Eventually all the teachers were dismissed with full retirement and severance packages. Tilly told them to cut all ties with work and outside contact with others because the masonic group would be able to tack them. All the family members conceded to his wishes.
Completely held up in the school building and cut off from the outside world, Tilly controlled the de Vedrines familys every move including what they ate. A strict vegetarian diet was implemented because Tilly had researched that most cult leaders remove meat products from their follower’s diets. Red meat proteins enhance a person’s reasoning and critical thinking skills and by removing red meat from the diets helped aid the con. Tilly also implemented a strict work schedule for the family in the building designed to deprive them of sleep. With sleep deprivation and the lack of red meat in their diets, he became the puppet master over a group of loyal followers.
After a few months of being sequestered, sleep deprived, and lacking meat proteins, Tilly made his ultimate move. Tilly came to the building and told them he had news from the masonic group that if they paid a stiff stipend to the group they would leave them alone. They could pay for their safety as long as the money kept coming. The family immediately agreed. They emptied their bank accounts and began selling off all of their assets, including their ancestral family château giving the money to Tilly as regent representative to the masonic group.
Not only was Tilly holding hostage the original four people but also the spouses and the grandchildren ages 17-25. From 1998 to 2007, Tilly kept the family withdrawn from the world which included the family not paying their taxes. French government authorities seized all the furnishings and other belongings including valuable paintings, china, and collectibles and sold them off at auction.
Tilly then convinced the family they needed to move to Oxford England and get low level inconspicuous jobs. The heat was starting to come down from the masonic group and more money needed to be paid to keep them safe. Tilly got them all jobs at fast food restaurants, grocery stores and Charles-Henri (the gynecologist) was working nights as a janitor in a warehouse on the outer edge of Oxford. The place they lived was Tilly’s old house in a rough neighborhood. These once very wealthy people were now living in a bad part of town in a small house working low-level jobs and giving all of their wages to Tilly.
In 2007, Tilly stepped up his game by introducing a psychological mission and creating focus on one of the individuals in the family. It was brilliant way to keep the families already stressed out and sleep deprived minds occupied and not focused on reality. A con is best kept up by giving the victims something to do with a call to action. An idle mind can think and reason. Missions and rituals keep people working and focused on the task and not on reality.
Tilly said that one of the granddaughters had a secret code to a bank account in her head that she had forgotten about. A completely made up tail Tilly likely got from a Dan Brown mystery novel. The bank account was full of more money than they had before and all they had to do was get Diana to remember the code. For months the family turned their focus on Diana, 17 years old, pressuring her to remember the code. She went from bank to bank all over Oxford trying every code she could possibly think of to access the bank accounts riches. This keep everyone working and supporting Diana creating a family dynamic to complete a mission.
Eventually Ghislaine’s husband, Jean Marchand expressed his skepticism of Tilly and this whole thing they were doing for the last several years. Tilly knew exactly what to do with an agitator to the con. He convinced the family that Jean had been exposed to a network of evil somehow and was trying to endanger the family by upsetting all the work they had done to stay safe. You would think that when one person started to see what was going on that it would domino to the others imploding the whole con. But exactly the opposite happened. The family believe Tilly and turned against the husband. Group think had taken a deep hold.
While Diana was out visiting banks one afternoon, she stopped by a cheese cart. An England cheese cart is a lot like a hotdog cart you would see in New York. As she was ordering her cheese, Diana inadvertently started talking about her family and how they were hiding from this masonic plot against them. For some reason she started opening up to the cheese guy about everything, even about her mission to find a bank code. Oddly enough, she wasn’t talking to the cheese guy to get help and get her family out from under Tilly’s spell, in fact, the family talk to a lot of people as they worked but never revealed the circumstances they were under. This was the fear component at work.
Diana just needed to talk to someone else not realizing that she was giving away Tilly’s con. The Cheese guy just listened to everything she was saying and then finally said, “That’s crazy!” The Cheese guy got as much information as he could about her and her family and went to the police. In late 2007 Tilly was arrested and the family was rescued from the confines and the elaborate con that Tilly had them in.
But this story is not a Walt Disney story were the villain gets captured and the kingdom of Aragon magically goes from a grey dingy color to full brilliant colors and everyone lives happily ever after. This is real life and in fact, the colors of this story get even greyer after Tilly was caught. Sure the villain is in jail and the con is over but harder times are about to descend on the de Vedrines family.
The saying, “It’s easier to con someone than it is to convince them that they have been conned” is truer than ever in this story. It has taken years of counseling and hostage off-boarding therapy to really help these people. Tilly’s con was so convincing to them that even professional psychiatrists, councilors, psychologists, and hostage care professionals have had a hard time getting the family back to reality. Embarrassment plays the biggest role in this. It’s bad enough to get conned but it’s even worse to be seen as inept and look like you were dumb enough to get conned. Remember, these were very successful people. Appearances are everything and that doesn’t change after they had been conned. This is why it’s so hard to counsel them back into society.
The good news is Charles-Henri is practicing medicine again and the rest of the family is starting to adjust back to a normal life with professional careers. They have moved back to France and are living in average homes with good average lives. But the family’s money is gone and they will never get it back! Their entire family wealth, their ancestral chateau, their luxury homes, belongings, and their legacy was swept away by Tilly’s incredibly thought out and long lasting con game. For nearly 10 years, Tilly swindled millions of dollars out of the family leaving them with virtually nothing in the end. In this case, there is no claw-back as there was in the Madoff scandal where authorities can get the money back from people who made money on Madoff’s scam.
The de Vedrines family will just have to get justice in the courts. Tilly faces multiple charges of fraud, kidnapping, extortion, and abuse of weakness. But he will never be able to pay back the multimillions he scammed out of the family.
This story does not have a happy ending, only that the villain is behind bars and the family is trying to readjust to their new life. If there is anything to take away from this, is that you need to be on your game when it comes to con games. It is so sad that this prominent family was reduced to an average status with just the words and mind games of a master con man. Most of us would think, “How were they so stupid” but we have to consider that more and more people are buying into cons like this as a result of groupthink and the lack of critical thinking skills.
When Jean spoke up and expressed his skepticism, the family attacked him like a bunch of rabid dogs. He was right to be skeptical but the con was so strong that groupthink had more control over the situation. Practice your critical thinking skills and most of all, trust your instincts! Your instincts are older than you are and are rarely wrong. Avoid groupthink whenever you see it rear its ugly head and be the one to speak up!
I will do more stories on con men like this so that you can learn the ways of the con so to not fall under the evil spells of the Tillys of the world.