sky­dive sabo­teur

Vicky Cil­liers was a cham­pion sky­diver and a de­voted wife and mother, who feared her hus­band might be cheat­ing. Lit­tle did she know his du­plic­ity would stoop to at­tempted mur­der

Real Crime - - Contents - Words Robert Mur­phy

Vic­to­ria Cil­liers had no idea her hus­band had al­ready tried to kill her once, be­fore he talked her into a sky­dive...

Vic­to­ria Cil­liers was ner­vously ex­hil­a­rated as the plane left the ground on an over­cast April af­ter­noon in 2015. She had fist- bumped her fel­low sky­divers in greet­ing. She later said that be­hind her smiles, worry weighed heav­ily upon her as the aero­plane climbed above the fields near the army’s para­chute train­ing cen­tre at Nether­avon in Wilt­shire.

Vicky had good rea­sons for her con­cern. Just five weeks ear­lier she had given birth to her sec­ond child, a son. The

39- year- old had com­pleted more than 2,500 jumps in her life – she was a for­mer para­chute in­struc­tor – and this was the first ‘ hop ‘ n’ pop’ sky­dive since the birth. But it was not her new­born that con­cerned her. It was his father, her hus­band.

As she looked around in the back of the plane at her fel­low jumpers, then at the clouds out­side, per­haps she thought for a mo­ment about Emile’s un­usual be­hav­iour, the dis­tance in his eyes, his army trips abroad and nights spent in bar­racks rather than at home – more fre­quent now than usual. There was his debt, there had al­ways been a money prob­lem with him. What about his text mes­sages? The scent of a ru­mour? No, surely she couldn’t think of that. Not now.

The plane reached 1,200 me­tres. They were meant to fly at 3,650 me­tres, but there was too much cloud. Her co­jumpers were start­ing to leap. Per­haps Vicky made a cur­sory touch of the straps that held her para­chute on her back. It was her turn now, she was the last out. No need to worry. It was very safe. She was a pro­fes­sional, one of the best sky­divers in the coun­try. Vicky Cil­liers leapt from the plane into the gap­ing sky.

Just a few kilo­me­tres away, at her fam­ily home, Vicky’s hus­band Emile looked at his new- born son. He had tried to kill his wife a few days be­fore. That time he had failed. Now a new plan was in mo­tion, some­thing that would solve all of his prob­lems. At last: a new life, a new woman, no more wor­ries about money. And no more Vicky.

Mid- air mir­a­cle

When grav­ity is suck­ing you to­wards the ground at 190 kilo­me­tres per hour, the prospect of a com­plete fail­ure of your para­chute equip­ment is be­yond com­pre­hen­sion, even for an ex­pe­ri­enced jumper. You have sec­onds be­tween real­is­ing your fate and cer­tain death. “I was div­ing down, down to­wards the ground. An­noy­ance turned to anger and then fear, but pan­ick­ing gets you nowhere,” Vicky later told The Mail on Sun­day. “I told my­self, ‘ I have to fix this: fail­ure is not an op­tion.’ I’m a mother, I could not even let my­self think I might die. I had no sense of that earth ap­proach­ing be­cause I didn’t look down. I knew what I needed was some­thing func­tion­ing above my head so my sole fo­cus was above, not be­low. I had no idea about the time to im­pact.”

The cords of her main chute were tan­gled. Vicky had a mid- air, life- or- death choice. Should she try to get con­trol of her main canopy? Or should she cut it away and rely on her re­serve? She ejected her main chute, and now she had sec­onds for her re­serve to de­ploy to slow her fall.

The re­serve opened. Some­thing was cat­a­stroph­i­cally wrong with this too. Vicky had just scraps of ma­te­rial above her as she hur­tled down­wards “like a rag­doll” as one wit­ness de­scribed. She hit the ground at 97 kilo­me­tres per hour.

Emer­gency ser­vices were so sure that they had a fatality on their hands that the first on the scene brought a body bag. But some­thing mirac­u­lous had hap­pened. Vicky’s light body had landed in a newly ploughed field – soft ground. The point of im­pact was cush­ioned: not by much, but enough. “I re­mem­ber noth­ing about hit­ting the ground ex­cept a metal­lic bang,” she later said. “I came to and was able to wig­gle my fin­gers and toes, which made me think, thank God, my spine is in­tact. But I wasn’t proud of my­self be­cause I had never con­sid­ered not sur­viv­ing.”

Vicky had just scraps of ma­te­rial above her as she hur­tled down­wards ‘ like a rag­doll’... She hit the ground at 97

kilo­me­tres per hour

The case opens

One of the rea­sons the avi­a­tion in­dus­try – in­clud­ing sky­div­ing – has such a re­mark­able safety record is that it is open and trans­par­ent when there are fail­ings. Un­like other pro­fes­sions, when mis­takes might be cov­ered up to save a rep­u­ta­tion, parachut­ing has a cul­ture of be­ing hon­est when there are ac­ci­dents. It is a life- or- death ac­tiv­ity so they must learn from er­rors. A dou­ble fail­ure sim­ply does not hap­pen. There is a one- in- 750 chance of a main canopy failing. But for a re­serve to also not de­ploy is one in a mil­lion, and maybe even lower odds than that.

As Vicky Cil­liers was air­lifted to Southamp­ton Gen­eral Hospi­tal, drugged up, be­ing treated for a bro­ken pelvis, bro­ken ribs and a frac­tured spine, the Army Para­chute As­so­ci­a­tion con­tacted Wilt­shire Po­lice. The head of Sal­is­bury’s CID, De­tec­tive In­spec­tor Paul Franklin, took the call. It was Easter Sun­day 2015. “We knew noth­ing about parachut­ing,” he told Real Crime. “We got a call ( from the APA) to say there had been a para­chute ac­ci­dent, some­one was se­ri­ously in­jured and had gone to hospi­tal, and they were con­cerned. They didn’t make any al­le­ga­tions. We needed to have a pre­lim­i­nary look to see if there was ev­i­dence of crim­i­nal ac­tiv­ity, me­chan­i­cal fail­ure or a per­fectly ra­tio­nal ex­pla­na­tion.”

De­tec­tive In­spec­tor Paul Franklin di­vided his small team up. One would seize the para­chute, an­other would speak with Vicky in hospi­tal to hear her ac­count. “To be fair, there was noth­ing that flagged up im­me­di­ately that this was go­ing to be an at­tempted mur­der in­ves­ti­ga­tion,” he said. The para­chute ex­perts main­tained that some­thing was crit­i­cally wrong with Vicky’s rig. Main canopy fail­ures are un­usual but not sus­pi­cious. But the re­serve chute should have had links – known as ‘ slinks’ – at­tached. Two were miss­ing. Without these, it would never have worked prop­erly. And a re­serve para­chute is never without these. Vicky’s miss­ing slinks have never been found.

“We ini­tially called slinks ‘ slinkies’ we were so naïve,” Franklin told us. The rig was sent to the Bri­tish Para­chute As­so­ci­a­tion for ex­am­i­na­tion. And Franklin started ask­ing him­self ques­tions: could this be some­thing per­sonal about Vicky? The de­tec­tive knew Vicky was mar­ried, that she had two chil­dren, but he had lit­tle knowl­edge about her hus­band. That would change.

The way­ward hus­band

Wed­ding pho­tos showed Emile Cil­liers down on one knee, be­sot­ted by his bride. He was wear­ing an ivory suit, a yel­low car­na­tion and kneeled be­fore her un­der a white lace canopy. Be­hind them the Sun was set­ting, cast­ing hues of or­ange and peach in the sky, reflecting over the At­lantic Ocean. They had mar­ried at the five- star Twelve Apos­tles ho­tel in Cape Town

in 2011. Could a man who adored his bride so much re­ally be ca­pa­ble of hurt­ing her?

Emile had re­turned to the coun­try of his birth to marry, but Eng­land had been his home for years. After grow­ing up in South Africa, he moved to the UK in 2000. He grifted, work­ing on farms, in bars and night­clubs be­fore join­ing the army in 2005. He had dreams of mak­ing the SAS. Emile Cil­liers made his way up the ranks, be­com­ing a sergeant in the Royal Army Phys­i­cal Train­ing Corps.

He cut a charm­ing fig­ure in the mil­i­tary com­mu­nity based around Sal­is­bury Plain. A re­ced­ing hair­line didn’t de­tract from his charisma, and he had a twin­kle in his eyes, a rogu­ish smile and was al­ways dressed im­mac­u­lately. He had met Vicky in 2009 after he suf­fered a knee in­jury on a ski­ing trip. She was an army phys­io­ther­a­pist. There was a spark. She was di­vorced – her ex had cheated on her, but Emile was mar­ried. His wife Carly was the mother of his two young chil­dren.

But Emile was get­ting tired of Carly. He told Vicky his mar­riage was in trou­ble. They both loved ad­ven­ture sports – he was a rock climber and a skier, while she was a sky­diver, some­thing he had not tried be­fore. They started dat­ing in March 2010, and as their re­la­tion­ship grew over ex­treme sports, he di­vorced Carly and pro­posed to Vicky.

But per­haps there were a few signs of trou­ble to come. Soon be­fore their wed­ding, Vicky dis­cov­ered Emile had fa­thered an­other two chil­dren with a girl­friend back in South Africa, be­fore he had moved to the UK. He had been 17 when he met Ni­co­lene, she had been just 13, and was 16 when she gave birth to their el­dest.

He also had money wor­ries and al­ways seemed to be in debt. Vicky was care­ful with cash, she had sav­ings, but Emile was al­ways bor­row­ing money from friends, credit cards and pay­day loan firms. And then came their daugh­ter. Vicky was preg­nant for a sec­ond time in 2014. It was dur­ing this preg­nancy that some­thing hap­pened to Emile, Vicky no­ticed. He went on a ski­ing trip and re­turned “a dif­fer­ent man”. Emile was more dis­tant and started spend­ing more time at his bar­racks and away from the fam­ily home in Ames­bury.

De­tec­tive In­spec­tor Franklin was to find all this out in the course of his in­ves­ti­ga­tion, but in the early days of the in­quiry he was keep­ing an open mind about Vicky and her hus­band. “At that time you think that 60- 70 per cent of all mur­ders tend to be do­mes­tic- re­lated so we will need some ac­count from the hus­band.” Then came two phone calls that would change the shape of the in­quiry. One was from a friend of Vicky’s. She told po­lice that the Cil­liers’ mar­riage “wasn’t bril­liant” and they should look more closely at Emile. And then the BPA fin­ished ex­am­in­ing Vicky’s para­chute and told the po­lice that there was no ra­tio­nal ex­pla­na­tion why the slinks were miss­ing.

“We needed an ac­count from Emile and I made the de­ci­sion to ar­rest him. Be­cause that way you get it on au­dio and he would get a solic­i­tor with him and there would be no al­le­ga­tions fur­ther down the line that maybe we in­flu­enced him or had been a bit un­fair, so I pre­ferred do­ing it that way,” Franklin told Real Crime.

Emile Cil­liers was ar­rested and taken to Guild­ford po­lice sta­tion. There, over six hours, he gave an ex­plo­sive in­ter­view, but he swerved ques­tions about the para­chute fail­ings. He ad­mit­ted that he had not been faith­ful to Vicky. He had an Aus­trian girl­friend, Ste­fanie Goller, and he planned to leave Vicky for her. “He talked about fi­nances, he talked about him be­ing poor with fi­nances, he talked about Stef, he talked about ca­sual sex. It was a very open in­ter­view.

He replied, en­cour­ag­ing her to light the flame that would set off the blast: ‘ That is weird. Is the stove work­ing?’

When we re­viewed it and we went back he did speak about the para­chute, but what he did was de­flect or go round the cru­cial is­sues. At that time, we had no knowl­edge. We gave him free run to say what­ever he wanted. We didn’t rein him in or nail him down,” said Franklin. Emile Cil­liers was un­faith­ful, but it didn’t make him a killer. They bailed him, but one of the con­di­tions was that he had to stay on camp, away from his fam­ily.

Vicky had re­turned home from hospi­tal. She had a new­born son and a three- year- old daugh­ter, and she had just sur­vived a ter­ri­fy­ing para­chute fall and didn’t un­der­stand why po­lice were keep­ing her hus­band away from her at this time of need. De­tec­tive In­spec­tor Franklin then made a de­ci­sion that would change the face of the in­ves­ti­ga­tion and lead ex­pe­ri­enced de­tec­tives on a path that none of them could have ex­pected. “We went to see Vicky, and the dis­clo­sure I gave her was Emile was go­ing to leave her, he had a se­ri­ous girl­friend, and he de­nied that their son was his.

“Those three spe­cific items were picked be­cause they were quite im­pactive, but they told her why we thought there was a risk. Some­thing here was not right. And as a de­tec­tive, and as a po­lice force, we needed to pro­tect her, be­cause there was some­thing here that wasn’t right and I wanted to give her a flavour of that. But we didn’t want to re­it­er­ate ev­ery­thing. We didn’t want to hu­mil­i­ate her. She was very up­set, but when she calmed down she opened up and told us about the gas leak. She took us to the kitchen and she showed us where the tap was and she told us what had hap­pened.”

Un­cov­er­ing his first at­tempt

No one had known any­thing about a gas prob­lem in the fam­ily home, but Vicky told po­lice that the week be­fore her para­chute fall, she had awo­ken one morn­ing and could smell gas. Emile had been at home the day be­fore but had spent the night in camp. He told Vicky he’d wanted to get to the camp overnight “to avoid traf­fic the next morn­ing”. As her daugh­ter and new- born son slept up­stairs, Vicky went down to the kitchen and re­alised that gas was leak­ing from a valve in the cup­board next to the cooker. Their house was just two years old, there shouldn’t be a prob­lem with the sup­ply.

She mes­saged Emile: “Did you al­ter the gas lever into the cooker this AM and there is dry blood around the lever.” He replied, en­cour­ag­ing her to light the flame that would set off a blast: “That is weird. Is the stove work­ing?” She then an­swered: “No, I did not want to try. I’ve opened back door.”

“I was re­ally shocked when Vicky told me about the gas,” said Franklin. “When she told me, ‘ that was a week ago’, with the two in­ci­dents that close to­gether, as an in­ves­ti­ga­tor the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. That’s just not right, that doesn’t hap­pen… I knew I was in for the long haul.”

Franklin ex­plained, “I think he is gen­uinely the most dan­ger­ous per­son I’ve dealt with as an of­fender. He’s not the ob­vi­ous vi­o­lent type. There’s some­thing about him that’s very cold and dan­ger­ous. I have no doubt that he would be a dan­ger to the pub­lic, hav­ing trawled through his life.”

he sat by Vicky’s hospi­tal bed as she re­cov­ered from the near- fa­tal fall he’d caused, send­ing horny mes­sages to Stef

That trawl through the life of Emile Cil­liers re­vealed a sex- ob­sessed cheater who ig­nored those wed­ding vows he made on a Cape Town evening to in­dulge in a crazed ar­ray of car­nal en­coun­ters. Yes, there was his girl­friend. De­tec­tives spoke with Stef Goller. She was – and re­mains – a well­known and re­spected sky­diver. She ad­mit­ted she had met Emile on a ski­ing trip in Novem­ber 2014. He went there to ‘ clear his head’ and while abroad logged on to the dat­ing app ‘ Tin­der’. It had started out as fun but was be­com­ing more se­ri­ous. Over New Year, as 2014 be­came 2015, Emile spent a week­end in Ber­lin with Stef – paid for by money he had taken from Vicky. As his preg­nant wife stayed up, wait­ing for a Happy New Year text that would never ar­rive, he was hav­ing sex with his lover.

Stef had even come to Eng­land, stayed in his room in his bar­racks, quite openly, in front of his col­leagues. But more was to come for in­ves­ti­ga­tors. It emerged that Emile was also hav­ing sex reg­u­larly with his ex- wife Carly. She lived a kilome­tre away from Emile and Vicky and even helped them with their child­care.

A typ­i­cal evening for Emile would be to kiss Vicky good­bye at about 8pm, to visit Carly for sex, to drive to the bar­racks in Hamp­shire and What­sapp flirty mes­sages to his girl­friend Stef.

And there were more ad­mis­sions. Emile said he used pros­ti­tutes, pay­ing for un­pro­tected sex with them. He had an on­line dat­ing pro­file on the site ‘ Fab Swingers’, call­ing him­self ‘ Hot For It’, and he de­tailed that he wanted sex with sin­gle women and cou­ples aged 18- 55. He listed his in­ter­ests as “group sex, spank­ing, dog­ging, three­somes and S& M”. He was also a client of the ‘ Don­key Dicks’ sex club in Sal­is­bury. When de­tec­tives spoke to the man­ager, he said he had Emile’s num­ber pro­grammed into his phone, and the only rea­son he’d have it would be if Emile Cil­liers was a client.

Emile was run­ning a dou­ble life. Vicky had seen emails on his lap­top, his flirty text mes­sages and even dis­cov­ered con­doms in his car. She said she was “dev­as­tated” but gave him one more chance. “He was con­stantly on his phone, it was ridicu­lous, I wasn’t al­lowed any­where near it; he even took it to the toi­let, which made me sus­pi­cious.” She took the pre­cau­tion of chang­ing her will so he would not ben­e­fit from her £ 120,000 life in­sur­ance if the worst hap­pened to her. But Vicky had no idea her hus­band har­boured plans to kill her.

De­tec­tives ques­tioned how he could have sab­o­taged Vicky’s para­chute. In an in­ter­view with po­lice, she gave some clues. Vicky re­vealed that the day be­fore her jump the en­tire fam­ily had gone to Nether­avon. Her own para­chute rig was away for its six- monthly in­spec­tion, so Emile booked her out a loan kit. Then, as she chat­ted to friends, he went to the toi­let for “five to ten min­utes” with the para­chute over his shoul­der. When he re­turned, the para­chute looked the same, but now it was a method of mur­der. Emile was foiled again though, this time by the weather. It was too bad to jump, so Vicky stored the sab­o­taged chute in her locker.

The next day was Easter Sun­day and Vicky did not re­ally fancy jump­ing. She told Emile she’d rather stay at home with the kids and “eat my choc”. But he said she should go parachut­ing: “Why not do a cou­ple of jumps?” he urged her. Vicky drove off alone, leav­ing Emile and their chil­dren at home. Later she made her fate­ful leap.

But would a jury re­ally buy this fan­ci­ful the­ory? “I had a dou­ble- headed in­ves­ti­ga­tion,” said De­tec­tive In­spec­tor Franklin. “I had the para­chute – I needed to learn about para­chutes. To know why it failed, what failed, where do you go to get the ev­i­dence to prove that? Then I had the sec­ond in­ci­dent of the gas leak and I had to prove, ‘ was that de­lib­er­ate? What was the ex­pla­na­tion for that?’ So I had two strands run­ning. At the same time, I didn’t have an eye­wit­ness. I didn’t have a con­fes­sion, I didn’t have any of the usual cru­cial stuff that makes in­ves­ti­ga­tions easy: the DNA, that ad­mis­sion. So I was go­ing to have to build the case brickby- brick with cir­cum­stan­tial ev­i­dence.

Long road to jus­tice

It would take two tor­tu­ous years of in­ves­ti­ga­tion to bring the case to court. The trial be­gan in Au­tumn 2017. Emile Cil­liers ar­rived in his three- piece suit, look­ing as im­mac­u­late as he did on his wed­ding day and ap­pear­ing con­fi­dent. And he had greater rea­son for his con­fi­dence half­way through the trial.

above In hap­pier times,Vicky en­joyed life as an army phys­io­ther­a­pist and a mother. She now faces telling her young daugh­ter and son why their father isn’t around at home

be­low Nether­avon Air­field is the base for the Army Para­chute As­so­ci­a­tion, which is a char­ity that sup­ports sky­div­ing for serv­ing, re­tired and in­jured ser­vice­men and women

above- left Emile Cil­liers dreamed of be­ing in the SAS, but was a sergeant in the Royal Army Phys­i­cal Train­ing Corpsabove- right Emile met Stef Goller on a ski­ing hol­i­day. He planned to leave Vicky for her, even ly­ing to her, telling Stef his new­born son wasn’t his

above Vicky Cil­liers smelt gas at the home where she lived with her young chil­dren. A jury agreed that Emile Cil­liers had tam­pered with a valve, which he hoped would cause a gas blast and kill her

above- in­set The gas valve in the Cil­liers’ kitchen. It was found by gas en­gi­neers to have been loos­ened, and foren­sic sci­en­tist Mark Kears­ley re­vealed dur­ing the trial that marks on the nut were a match for a pair of pli­ers, and that scratches on both the tool and nut re­vealed it had been used in a “loos­en­ing and not tight­en­ing mo­tion”

be­low De­spite her hor­rific in­juries at the hands of her hus­band, Vicky be­came a ‘ hos­tile’ wit­ness dur­ing the trial, re­fus­ing to ac­cept that Emile had at­tempted to kill her

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