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
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