It sounds like something out of an Agatha Christie novel: a cheating husband with a string of lovers, a wife with a love of skydiving, a valuable life-insurance policy, a sabotaged parachute—and an extraordinary escape from death after a 4,000-foot free fall.
But this was the incredible story that unfolded in a British court this week in the trial of a man who, having run up huge debts living a double life and vacationing with his girlfriend, was found guilty of attempting to murder his wife, six weeks after she had given birth, by tangling the lines of her parachute and disconnecting key links on the reserve chute.
Victoria Cilliers, herself a parachute instructor, miraculously survived after a single thread opened enough of her canopy to partially break her fall. She landed in a recently plowed field. Horrified onlookers were so convinced the outcome would be fatal that a body bag was taken to the scene of impact at the Army Parachute Association at Netheravon, Wiltshire, on Easter Sunday, April 5, 2015.
It emerged in court that the husband, Emilie Cilliers, an award-winning athlete and army physical-training instructor, had spent five minutes in a toilet stall at the airfield interfering with her main and reserve chutes, causing both to fail, something that has never happened in British parachuting history. Two “riggers” are required to sign off each time a parachute is packed.
Mrs. Cilliers, perhaps, should have been more suspicious when her husband walked off to a restroom with her parachutes casually slung over his back—just the previous week she had survived another murder attempt after smelling cooking gas in her kitchen.
She texted her husband, after she discovered his blood on a loose gas valve, joking, “Are you trying to bump me off?”
Cilliers failed to see the funny side, responding, “Why are you saying that so often?”
However, Mrs. Cilliers had no confidence in her hunches after suffering years of gaslighting.
She later told police: “All the time over the years when I have had little niggles and suspicions, he made me feel bad and said it was because of my insecurities. But I now know my intuition was right… I have literally in the past had my life in his hands while rock climbing, so I wouldn’t think he could do something like that [try to murder me]. But the person I thought I knew doesn’t appear to exist.”
Cilliers, who was born in South Africa, joined the British Army in 2004 and was awarded “best recruit” in his initial training. He then met his first wife, Carly Cilliers, with whom he had two children. They split up in 2008, but he apparently continued to have sexual relations with her.
After becoming an instructor with the Royal Army Physical Training Corps, he met Victoria, an army physiotherapist, when she treated him for a skiing injury.
The court heard that while Victoria was pregnant with their second child, Cilliers was still having sex with his first wife, and was also conducting an affair with Stefanie Goller, an Austrian skydiver he had been seeing since November 2014.
He ran up £22,000 ($29,000) in debts to pay for secret holidays with Goller.
Even after his murder plot had failed, Cilliers was apparently still looking for ways to profit from his wife’s “accident,” bringing papers to the hospital where she was being treated for horrific injuries—including broken vertebrae and a punctured lung—for her to sign so they could “get the ball rolling” on claiming insurance money.
While awaiting trial, Cilliers was allowed to represent England in the European Rowing Indoor Championships in Paris. In March, an Army Twitter account praised an “amazing effort” by Cilliers, who was living in military barracks during his trial.
Speaking outside court, Det. Insp. Paul Franklin, of Wiltshire Police, described Emile Cilliers as “cold, calculated [and] deliberate” and said he had acted from financial and sexual motives. He said there was “absolutely no consideration of his wife or anyone else, he serves his own needs and that makes him a very dangerous man.”
Describing the affect on Mrs. Cilliers, who has staged a remarkable recovery from her injuries and stood unaided in court, he said: “I don’t think we can underestimate the ordeal that she has been put through. Physically, she is well, but obviously she is still traumatized.”