A French artist was the first to take the stand Wednesday in the trial of 10 people accused of exploiting elderly L’Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt, just days after one of the accused tried to kill himself.
The high-profile trial had been due to start Monday but was delayed over several procedural issues, just as the judge revealed that Alain Thurin, a former nurse for France’s richest woman, tried to hang himself in the woods near his house.
On Wednesday, a suicide note written by the 64-year-old — who is currently in a coma — was read out to the courtroom in the southwestern city of Bordeaux.
He wrote that he had not wanted the help of a lawyer and thought he would be able to explain himself.
But “being faced with all these hotshot lawyers would be very difficult, especially without any proof,” he added.
Altogether, 10 members of Bettencourt’s entourage are accused of taking advantage of the 92-year-old billionaire’s growing mental fragility in an explosive legal and political drama that even at one point dragged in former president Nicolas Sarkozy.
AFP / Mehdi Fedouach
French photographer François-Marie Banier (R) speaks to journalists at the Court House in Bordeaux on January 28, 2015, on the third day of the trial of ten people charged with exploiting France’s richest woman Liliane Bettencourt
A bitter mother-daughter feud, a butler’s betrayal, advancing dementia, unscrupulous friends and politicians: these are only some threads of the complex web surrounding the world’s 12th biggest fortune that the court will have to untangle.
Francois-Marie Banier, an artist who became a close confidant of Bettencourt, was the first to take the stand.
The heiress, worth an estimated $39 billion (34 billion euros) according to Forbes magazine, showered Banier with gifts, such as paintings by Picasso and Matisse, life insurance funds and millions of euros in cash.
Bettencourt also made him her sole heir, a move she would later revoke.
Her daughter Francoise Bettencourt-Meyers filed charges against Banier in 2007 for exploiting her mother’s growing mental fragility — which the matriarch staunchly denied.
In his first comments to the court, Banier said he had assets and money “well before knowing Liliane Bettencourt.”
Others due to take the stand later include Patrice de Maistre, who managed Bettencourt’s fortune.
He is accused of getting Bettencourt to hand over envelopes of cash to members of the UMP party, such as his friend, Eric Woerth, a former minister and campaign treasurer for Sarkozy in his 2007 run for office.
The affair tarnished the latter half of Sarkozy’s presidency and when he lost the 2012 election he was placed under formal investigation for illegal campaign financing and taking advantage of Bettencourt.
However the charges against Sarkozy were dropped in October 2013 due to lack of evidence.