Chute to kill: Hubby 'hoped to send her hurtling to her death'
SA-born man's attempts to kill his wife were stranger than fiction, says the maker of a new documentary
When Victoria Cilliers went skydiving at an airfield in Oxfordshire this month, she did so against all the odds.
Three-and-a-half years earlier, she’d performed her last parachute jump, one that her SA-born husband had intended would kill her. Yet, despite plummeting to the ground at top speed, strapped to a parachute that had failed to open after he’d sabotaged it, Victoria survived, and her husband is now behind bars.
In a new documentary, The Parachute Murder Plot, I explore the incredible story of a man who tried to murder his wife not once but twice, within days.
His name is Emile Cilliers. If you found his tale in the pages of a novel you would never believe it was plausible. For his wife to then refuse to give evidence against him would stretch credibility further, but that is exactly what happened.
On the face of it, Cilliers, an army sergeant who lived with his wife and two young children, led a respectable life. But as the Wiltshire police discovered, and as I found while making the film, his life was far from what it seemed. We gained access to police tapes from the investigation into Cilliers’s crimes that had never before been made public, and they give a fascinating insight into someone leading multiple lives.
It was the events of Easter Sunday 2015 that led to his duplicity unravelling. Victoria, who became his second wife after working as his physiotherapist, was an experienced skydiver. Five weeks after giving birth to their second child, her husband organised a “treat” for her to skydive on April 5, at the Army Parachute Association in Netheravon. However, the day before, under the pretext of taking their toddler to the toilet, Cilliers had tampered with both his wife’s main parachute and her reserve parachute in the cubicle, hoping to send her hurtling thousands of metres to her death.
Victoria, then 39, survived, landing unconscious in a freshly ploughed field. With no death to report or investigate, her improbable escape from the fate her husband had planned meant he might well have got away with it. But knowing it was nearly impossible for both the main and reserve parachutes to fail at the same time, the parachute club reported their suspicions to the police.
It took some time before it became an investigation into attempted murder. On first interviewing Emile Cilliers, the police decided they could not risk him returning home to the woman they suspected he had tried to kill. They therefore had to tell Victoria, who was in a body brace recovering from terrible injuries, with a toddler and a newborn to care for, why her husband would not be coming back.
It was telling that she did not protest – “it’s not possible, my husband would never do such a thing”. But she was, understandably, distraught. And as the officers were leaving, she dropped a bombshell: “I suppose I’d better tell you about the gas.”
This was how police learnt that only days before the near-fatal skydive, Cilliers had tampered with the gas in their home in another attempt to kill his wife. The problem was, no one had seen him do it, just as no one had seen him tamper with her parachute. So when the trial came to court it was hoped that Victoria’s evidence would fill in the gaps, and secure a conviction.
What prosecutors held back, in an effort to protect her from some of the more sordid details of her husband’s secret life, was the full extent of an extraordinary dossier of more than 30,000 texts, WhatsApps and other digital messages that laid bare the extent of Cilliers’s deceit. Not only was he cheating on his wife with a girlfriend he had met on Tinder, he was also seeing other women and sex workers behind both of their backs, and frequenting the sex clubs of Salisbury.
In the film I visit a former swingers’ club, which Cilliers had been thrown out of for “inappropriate behaviour”. Other than that, he was utterly in control, juggling numerous relationships with a cold precision and never once making a mistake, despite often sending messages to different women within seconds of each other. Cilliers kept this up for years. None of this was presented fully in the first trial. So when Victoria, to the astonishment of the police, became a “hostile witness” and backtracked on key parts of her story in support of her husband, the case crumbled.
The result, last November, was a hung jury. Fearing their man might strike again, the police persisted, working towards a second prosecution. Everything uncovered about Cilliers’s private life, they determined, should be exposed: the moment for sparing Victoria had passed. So when the retrial came to court, the jury heard he was leading a series of parallel lives so extensive that even as he travelled to the hospital to visit his gravely injured wife, he was texting an escort and his lover.
Another chilling detail emerged: just days before Victoria’s skydive, her husband had been searching for a wet nurse online. Because, with a newborn to feed, who would provide milk once the mother was out of the picture? It was this cold-blooded, cool-headed planning, perhaps more than anything else, that shocked me – and the jury, second time around.
As is the case in so many murder trials, his character was his undoing. I went to meet Nicolene Shepherd, the mother of his first two children, who Cilliers had abandoned when he moved to the UK and started a new life with another woman. His mother had been left to break the news to her. I also met his eldest daughter, Cilene, who told of a father who’d deserted her, despite her desperate desire to be loved by him. Victoria did not wish to speak, and I can’t say I blame her.
The second time Cilliers was tried, he was no longer able to escape justice. A jury at Winchester Crown Court found him guilty in May of two charges of attempted murder and a third count of recklessly endangering life by damaging the gas fitting in his home, a crime that could have killed not just his wife but his young children, too.
Cilliers’s plots were almost baroque in their extravagance; a husband attempting to murder his wife with their two children close by smashes apart the family ideal more brutally than anything imaginable. It’s sadly not all that uncommon for a man to try to kill his wife, but to do it in this way is unheard of. I’ve reported on crime for many years, but can’t think of another case like it.
That Cilliers wanted a way out of his marriage, and believed he would gain financially through a life insurance policy, was one thing. But what motivates a person to commit a crime so horrific is something I will never understand.
• As told to Rosa Silverman.
– © Telegraph Media Group Limited (2018)