The second time British Army Sergeant Emile Cilliers tried to kill his wife, the weather could have been better.
The early morning of Easter Sunday 2015 had been sunny but there was heavy cloud cover as Victoria Cilliers arrived at Netheravon Airfield on Salisbury Plain, Wiltshire. The Airfield was a 10-minute drive from her smart new home in Amesbury which she shared with her husband Emile, their three-year-old daughter and month-old son. Victoria was there to do a parachute jump.
Far from this being a one-off experience, Victoria was a seasoned skydiver, an accelerated free-fall instructor with 2,654 jumps to her name. Today’s jump was a treat from her husband after the birth of their son and was Victoria’s first jump after a year-long break. Victoria felt pleased that Emile had put her first: watching their children so she could enjoy her hobby.
Brunette, slim Victoria was a former Army Captain who now worked as a physiotherapist for the Ministry of Defence. Emilie, an instructor in the Royal Army Physical Training Corps, was originally from South Africa and the two got to know each other when she treated him for a skiing injury. Both previously married to other people, Emilie and Victoria had married in South Africa in September 2011 and had two children together.
What Victoria did not know is that the previous day — Saturday 4 April — whilst the family were at the airfield, Emile had taken a parachute suitable for her from the kit room and into the toilets inside the large corrugated iron hanger at Netheravon. Hidden from sight, he had sabotaged it by knotting the main canopy and removing vital pieces, called ‘slinks,’ from the reserve chute. He then re-packed the parachute so that his tampering would not be noticed. Emile stored the sabotaged parachute overnight in Victoria’s locker at the hanger.
The weather on the Saturday had been too poor to allow a jump and the weather on Sunday was little better. Shortly after Victoria had arrived at the airfield, the planned morning ‘lift’ (flight) had been cancelled. She messaged Emile:
Victoria: The weather is too bad for a jump. Don’t think it’s going to happen.
Emile: Hopefully it will pick up soon. Stay for a bit and see if you can get on a lift later.
As morning wore into afternoon, Victoria again messaged her husband:
Victoria: This is a waste of time. Maybe I should just come home.
Emile: No, you should stay.
By the afternoon, Victoria and the eleven others waiting to jump with her were restless. At 4.00 pm, they decided to do a ‘hop and pop’ — a low-altitude jump where they would open their parachutes within seconds of getting out of the plane — at around 4,000ft (1,200m), as the cloud cover was too low to go allow them to go any higher. Having felt anxiety about the jump all day, Victoria was now somewhat relieved: “I can do this” she thought “a hop-and-pop is easy.”
Whilst Emile was looking forward to pocketing Victoria’s £120,000 (150,000 USD) life insurance payout, an unsuspecting Victoria climbed aboard the Cessna light aircraft along with the other parachutists dressed in bright blue jumpsuits.
Victoria took her seat aboard the plane, just behind the pilot. Despite the thousands of jumps she had previously completed, this time Victoria felt an overwhelming sense of dread as the plane climbed higher: “Oh God” she thought, “I don’t want to do this.” She had a premonition of something terrible about to happen. But she also wanted to push through her fear: “I just need to get the jump over with and go home” she repeated to herself as they approached the drop zone. Swallowing her anxiety, she pulled on her helmet and visor to hide the tears filling her eyes, and, at around 3,800ft (1158m) above the ground, Victoria exited the plane. She was the last of the group to make the jump.
Victoria spread out her arms to control her fall, then, with one hand, she yanked the toggle which would deploy her parachute. Instead of the smooth slowing she expected she felt a jolt and looked up to see the lines of her chute were twisted. Being an experienced jumper, she knew what to do to untwist them, but the chute still failed to open properly and she was spiralling downwards fast. In a violent spin, Victoria made the split-second decision to cut away her tangled main chute. She held her breath and deployed the reserve chute, but it was only attached to her harness on one side and so it only partially opened. With the failed reserve chute doing little to slow her fall, she plummeted to the ground at over 60mph.
How did she survive?
Victoria, who had lost consciousness due to the g-force of her fall, landed on a soft, newly-ploughed field and this is what saved her life. She had suffered multiple serious injuries including broken ribs, a collapsed lung, a shattered pelvis, and spinal injuries. But she was alive.
The first people on the scene of Victoria’s crash-landing were so sure that she could not have survived it that they brought a body bag with them. But lying in the dirt Victoria was able to open her eyes and wiggle her fingers and toes. Fading in and out of consciousness during the air ambulance ride to hospital she did not at first realise the extent of her injuries, and even felt embarrassed at all the fuss.
Coming to in hospital later that day Victoria, in a haze of pain medication, saw Emile beside her bed. “Vicky,” he said, “you’ve had quite a bad fall.” The sabotaging of her parachute was Emile’s second failed attempt to kill Victoria in the space of a week.
The first failed murder attempt: “Is the stove working?”
One week before the parachute jump, as Victoria and their toddler daughter and newborn son were sleeping, Emile had opened a gas valve at the family home in Amesbury, Wiltshire, hoping to cause a fatal explosion. He then left the house, having earlier told Victoria he would spend the night at his barracks an hour’s drive away in Aldershot, Hampshire in order to avoid the Monday morning traffic.
The next morning, Victoria smelled the gas that had been leaking into her kitchen. After opening the windows, she checked the valve in the kitchen cupboard next to their gas stove and saw blood on it. She messaged Emile. “That’s weird” he messaged back, “Is the stove working?” Victoria responded that she didn’t want to try the stove and mentioned a magazine article she had recently read called My Husband Tried to Kill Me. She later added: “Was only making a joke.” If she had ignited the gas stove, as Emile had suggested, this may well have caused a fatal explosion.
Realising that his first attempt at murder had failed, Emile then suggested Victoria might like to go parachuting at the weekend, his treat. Victoria had been feeling that she and Emile had become distant — he had recently ghosted her over New Year whilst away on a work trip — so she gratefully agreed.
“Things like this just don’t happen here”
Emile’s attempt to murder Victoria by sabotaging her parachute may have gone unoticed if it weren’t for one man. Mark Bayada was chief instructor at the Army Parachute Association at Netheravon. As reported in The Guardian, it was Bayada who decided to contact the police at a time when everyone else, including Victoria herself, assumed she had been the victim of a freak accident.
Bayada’s suspicion was sparked by seeing Victoria as she was being loaded onto a stretcher after her crash landing. There had been strange things about her kit: “All the lines on one side of the parachute were knotted up,” he remembered, “and…the two ends of the risers on the reserve parachute were unattached.” He later inspected Victoria’s kit more closely and he could find nothing to show a mechanical fault: “none of it added up.” He called the police.
At first, the police were sceptical: “Things like this just don’t happen here,” was the opinion of Detective Inspector Paul Franklin of Wiltshire police, who later led the investigation into Emile. “These are regular people with regular jobs who live in a nice house in a nice part of the country.”
Initially, from the police’s perspective, Bayada’s suspicion of sabotage did not seem to have the makings of a criminal case. After Bayada’s call, DI Franklin sent an officer to the hospital to question Victoria while the British Parachute Association took another look at her kit, but they didn’t expect much: “We thought they’d come back with some mechanical reason — very sad, very sorry, but nothing wrong here” remembers Franklin.
Then police received a call from one of Victoria’s friends. The friend said Victoria was in a coercive relationship. “There were domestic abuse issues…that weren’t obvious from the outside,” Franklin says. “We’re not talking about black eyes and bruises, we’re talking about unseen stuff.” Emile was manipulating and controlling Victoria, gaslighting her into believing her suspicions of infidelity were due to her own past issues, and frequently abandoning her to go on ‘work trips.’ He emotionally tormented Victoria by sending her messages such as “I need to decide whether I want to be in this marriage.”
As the police were about to uncover, behind the facade of being a family man Emile was having an intense affair — which he covered for with ‘work trips’ — and was also still sleeping with his ex-wife, who lived close by. He was at least £22,000 (30,000 USD) in debt to payday loan companies, former colleagues and Victoria. Victoria had lent him more than £19,000 (26,000 USD) ‘to pay off his debts’ over their seven-year relationship. In 2013 Emile had also taken £6,000 (over 8,000 USD) from Victoria’s savings account and, when she discovered the missing money, he claimed her account must have been hacked. Police later found that ‘the hacker’ was using the same IP address as Emile.
Emile was also a member of a website called Fabswingers. Through the site, he had invited himself to Donkey Dick’s Swingers’ Party (yes, really) at a terraced house in nearby Salisbury. Emile however did not respect the code of conduct the middle-aged swinging couples attending upheld and was banned for sexually harassing female attendees.
Not content with sex with his wife, ex-wife, long-distance girlfriend and a couple of other semi-regular hook-ups, all whilst exploring the local swinging scene, Emile also used the website Adultwork to hire sex workers. Victoria found out about one affair but she was otherwise unaware of Emile’s varied and active sex life outside their marriage. Victoria shared childcare with Emile’s ex-wife and was unaware that this woman, the mother of two of Emile’s other children, was still sleeping with him.
Emile often multitasked: messaging sex workers to agree on a price to ‘do bareback’ at the same time as messaging Victoria about the food shopping. He also sent his girlfriend — who he’d met on Tinder in November 2014 whilst on a month-long Army ski trip to Austria — 100s of messages a day. On Boxing Day 2014, for example, they exchanged over 700 messages.
In late 2014, whilst Victoria struggling to pay the bills and to put food on the table, Emile was using her credit card to pay for holidays with his long-distance Tinder lover, telling Victoria he needed to go away for work. In February 2015 his girlfriend came to stay with him at his barracks an hour away from the family home and the two took a dance class together on Valentine’s Day. After Victoria gave birth to Emile’s son on February 24, Emile sent a fake DNA test result to his girlfriend saying the child was not his. He was deceiving both women.
Emile wanted to start a new life with his girlfriend. But first, he needed to get rid of Victoria. Doing so would also fix his money problems: he had made sure Victoria had the maximum possible life insurance cover.
Building the case against Emile: “He displays all the traits of a psychopath”
Soon, the British Parachute Association confirmed Bayada’s suspicions: there was no mechanical reason for the failure of Victoria’s parachute. This, along with the allegation of coercive control against Emile from one of Victoria’s friends meant the police began to investigate. They needed a motive for why Emilie, to the outside world a responsible family man, would have tried to kill his wife.
Emile is arrested and questioned
On April 28 2015 Victoria had been out of the hospital and back home with Emile for six days. Emile left for work that morning not knowing that the police would later arrest him at his office at Aldershot Army Garrison in front of his subordinates. When he was placed under arrest Emile was quiet. There was none of the horrified denial police might have expected from a man accused of trying to kill his wife.
When questioned, Emile calmly told police about his affair with his Tinder match and his financial problems, his hook-ups with strangers and his use of sex workers. He talked for six hours and covered everything he knew police were going to find out when they examined his phone. He also admitted to having handled Victoria’s parachute. His manner was confident, even arrogant. He showed contempt for Victoria and talked at length about how he wanted to leave her for his girlfriend.
As DI Franklin got to know Emile he realised that “He displays all the traits of a psychopath. (He’s a) psychopath, sociopath, narcissist…He only cares about himself.” Psychopathy is considered a personality disorder, and it to some extent explains why Emile had attempted to kill Victoria. It was not, however, a defence: “He’s not mentally ill, that’s just his character” concluded Franklin.
The next day, police visited Victoria at home. Dealing with life in a body brace and on crutches whilst struggling to care for a tiny baby and a toddler, Victoria was not co-operative. She was devasted by her husband’s arrest, asking the officers: “How do you expect me to cope without Emile?” “Please,” she begged, “I just want to speak to him.”
As police were wrapping up their talk with Victoria they asked her if she had anything else she wanted to tell them. To their astonishment, she told them that a week before the jump there had been a gas leak in her kitchen. Having been shown the gas valve by Victoria, the two officers quickly realised that ‘the gas leak’ had in fact been another failed murder attempt.
After his six-hour taped interview with police, Emile had been bailed to his Army barracks in neighbouring Hampshire. He was not allowed to contact Victoria. Victoria continued to plead with police for contact with Emile, even when she was confronted with the evidence that Emile had planned to start a new life with his girlfriend, who lived abroad. Victoria was, however, angered enough by the extent of Emile’s betrayal — especially that he had told his girlfriend he was not the father of Victoria’s baby son — that she agreed to give a new, more detailed, statement to police.
A few days later, Victoria gave a long recorded interview at Salisbury Police Station. The officer taking her statement — Detective Seargent Nick Bailey — had been chosen for his gentle manner; police wanted Victoria to co-operate with the investigation. Three years later, in 2018, DS Bailey would be poisoned and almost die during the Salisbury novichok attack.
“The person I thought I knew does not appear to exist” Victoria concluded about Emile during her interview. Finally, the realisation dawned on her that her reserve parachute failing could not have been an accident: “Slinks do not break, they really do not.” But, as she left the station she was still asking: “When can I speak to Emile?”
Denied contact with Emile, during sleepless nights at home with her children, as she slowly recovered from the worst of her injuries, Victoria thought about the ‘two Emiles’ she knew. There was the Emile she had fallen for: a caring, loving, dynamic family man, and then there was the cold and detached Emile she had witnessed in the months before her fall. Still, it didn’t seem possible to Victoria that either of these Emiles could have tried to kill her. In her subconscious mind, however, doubts had crept in: she had nightmares of Emile standing over her in the dark as she slept, and she woke with her heart pounding.
The two trials
After the police had completed their investigation, including going through tens of thousands of pages of data extracted from Emile’s phone, and had handed the case over to the Crown Prosecution Service, Emile was formally charged with two counts of attempted murder and one count of reckless endangerment in September 2016. The case went to trial in January 2017.
The charge of criminal damage recklessly endangering life referred to Emile’s tampering with the gas valve in the family’s kitchen as part of the first murder attempt. The court heard that marks left on the gas valve matched pliers owned by Emile. A forensic scientist then told the court that the gas valve had only been opened, not closed or tightened as Emile claimed and that blood found on the valve belonged to Emile.
Defending himself on the second charge of attempted murder, Emile, exuding relaxed confidence, carrying himself with military bearing and dressed in a smartly tailored 3-piece suit, told the court that a “random killer” must have sabotaged his wife’s parachute. He also suggested that Victoria had tampered with the parachute because she wanted to kill herself.
When Victoria, determined to walk and stand unaided despite the ongoing effects of her injuries, took the stand as a witness for the prosecution she was declared hostile. To the dismay of the three detectives who had doggedly investigated the case, Victoria criticised police and said that she had lied and exaggerated during her 2015 police interview because she was angry with Emile. She also claimed that police wouldnʼt let her change her story later on.
With the police detectives ordered out of the court room, the prosecution played the 2015 video interview to the court and to Victoria and asked her about what she had said in 2015. The jury then had to decide: which version of Victoria’s account — the one she was giving now in court, or the one she had given in 2015 — was the truth.
Victoria was also asked what the chances were of both a main and reserve parachute failing: “One in a million” she answered. In fact, experts told the court, no parachuting equipment anywhere in the world had ever failed in this particular way.
The messages Emile had sent his girlfriend were also damning: “I will sacrifice and give up so much for you” he promised her. “From April onwards I can do random and spontaneous,” he wrote in January 2015, “to be with you, I would do anything.” Victoria’s failed jump happened on April 5 2015.
Emile’s first trial lastest eight weeks but, after three days of jury deliberation, the trial broke down at the end of 2017 due to alleged juror-on-juror bullying and the jury was discharged after failing to reach even a majority verdict. Emile was released on bail.
At his second trial in April 2018, Emile again stood accused of two counts of attempted murder and one of criminal damage recklessly endangering life. He denied all the charges. Victoria was again declared a hostile witness: she again refused to say anything against her estranged husband.
The prosecution’s case was roughly based on Emile having the means, motive and opporunity to carry out attempted murder-by-parachute:
Means: Emile knew how to check and pack parachutes. His words and deeds suggested he was capable of trying to kill Victoria.
Motive: Emile had finacial problems which would be solved if Victoria died. Emile wanted out of his marriage.
Opportnuity: He had been alone with Victoria’s parachute and had booked the jump for her.
Verdict and sentencing: “in cold blood”
On May 24 2018, over three years after Victoria pulled the cords on her main and reserve parachutes only to have both of them fail, Emile showed no emotion as he was unanimously convicted by a jury on the two counts of attempted murder and by a majority of 10 to two on the criminal damage charge. He received a life sentence.
Sentencing Emile at Winchester Crown Court on 15 June 2018, Mr Justice Sweeney described Emile as: “a person of quite exceptional callousness who will stop at nothing to satisfy his own desires.” He concluded that Emile had carried out the two attempted murders “in cold blood for (his) own selfish purposes which include financial gain.”
On the day Emile was convicted, DI Paul Franklin, who led the case for Wiltshire police, told the media:
“Emile Cilliers has shown nothing but contempt for his wife. On two separate occasions, he made serious attempts to murder Victoria. He has failed to accept any responsibility for his actions, which reinforces our view that he is a cold, calculating and callous man.”
During a national TV interview a month after Emile was sentenced, Victoria refused to accept the guilty verdict: “He’d been unfaithful, he’d had issues with money, but that is not attempted murder…can I see him as capable of murder? No.”
What happened next?
When Victoria visited Emile behind bars, he tearfully maintained his innocence and told her “you’re all I’ve got left.” He bombarded her with letters and daily phone calls from prison, ordering her to visit him more often. Gradually, however, Victoria came to accept her husband was indeed manipulative, coercive and dangerous and that their relationship was toxic. He had twice attempted to kill her, had caused her grave injuries, and had put their young children in mortal danger. It was time for her to move on.
In October 2018, Victoria took her first parachute jump since that fateful Easter Sunday. With her sponsored tandem jump, she raised £5,000 (7,000 USD) for Wiltshire Air Ambulance. Her children, now six and three, were there to watch her, waving and shouting as she descended from a height of two miles, and running to hug her when she touched down. “When I landed I felt the most incredible sense of relief and release,” says Victoria.
Where are they now?
Emile Cilliers is serving life with a minimum of 18 years for his wife’s attempted murder. In mid-2020, he was still refusing to sign the divorce papers which Victoria filed in December 2018 and was maintaining his innocence. He is considering appealing his sentence.
Victoria Cilliers lives in Amesbury with her two children. She still suffers from the after-effects of her injuries. Last year, Victoria published her first book: I Survived: I married a charming man. Then he tried to kill me. A true story. She ends the book by writing: “My husband’s twisted behaviour almost killed me, but I survived. I’m not a victim.”
Thanks for reading! This story is part of the ‘Weirdshire’ series — strange, incredible but true stories from the county of Wiltshire, England.
Victoria Cilliers (2020) I Survived: I married a charming man. Then he tried to kill me. A true story. Pan books. Pages used /quoted from (Page numbers are for the e-book): 5, 88–90, 94, 114, 116–119, 127–128, 140, 159, 164, 168.
ITV podcast: No Strings Attached (2020).