A skydiver's parachute failed; prosecutors say her husband sabotaged it

U.S. soldiers prepare to participate in a jump exercise over Stuttgart, Germany on July 13, 2017.


By DEREK HAWKINS | The Washington Post | Published: October 5, 2017

The skies were cloudy over southern England on the morning of April 5, 2015, and Victoria Cilliers was having second thoughts.

The veteran skydiver had planned to go up for a jump above an airfield in Salisbury Plain, but the weather was foreboding.

Her husband, Emile Cilliers, told her to hold out. "It will be worth it eventually," he said, according to court proceedings reported by the Guardian.

Sure enough, the weather improved, allowing for a medium-altitude jump. So up Victoria went.

Moments after she dropped out of the aircraft, her main parachute failed to deploy. She cut it away and activated the reserve. It, too, malfunctioned, and Victoria was sent spinning downward - 4,000 feet, according to British media.

People on the ground rushed out, expecting to find her dead. Incredibly, she was still breathing. Her bones were broken, but she had survived the fall, the BBC reported.

The harrowing account was laid out by British prosecutors on Wednesday in the trial of Emile Cilliers, who is charged with attempted murder in connection with Victoria's crash-landing and another incident days earlier.

Prosecutors said Cilliers, a 37-year-old sergeant in the Royal Army Physical Training Corps, removed parts of his wife's parachute in hopes that she would die in the jump, according to British media. They said he wanted to leave Victoria, 40, to start a new life with a woman he met on Tinder, the Guardian reported. He was also intimate with his former wife, the court was told.

And Cilliers was tempted by the prospect of collecting a roughly $160,000 life insurance payout on his wife's death, an amount that would have helped him clear some $30,000 in debts, the prosecution claimed.

Cilliers has denied any wrongdoing.

Senior prosecutor Michael Bowes told jurors in the Winchester Crown Court that a different attempt on Victoria's life came shortly before the skydiving incident. The week before the jump, Bowes said, Cilliers loosened a gas pipe in the couple's home, figuring Victoria might light the stove and trigger an explosion, British media reported.

In court, Bowes read from text messages the couple allegedly exchanged that day. Cilliers had arranged to spend the night in an army barracks about an hour away, the prosecutor said. According to the Guardian, Victoria had smelled gas and texted her husband: "Are you trying to kill me?" When he asked what she meant, she told him she was just joking.

A short time later, Cilliers offered to take Victoria on a skydiving trip as a "treat." Victoria had served as an army officer and had completed thousands of parachute jumps before.

"Would love to," she responded, according to the Guardian.

The couple traveled to the Netheravon Airfield, home of the Army Parachute Association. When they arrived, the cloud cover was too heavy to jump. But prosecutors alleged, according to the BBC, that Cilliers managed to sneak his wife's parachute into the men's bathroom, where he tampered with it.

When Victoria went up the next day, she was the last to jump out of the aircraft.

"Straight away she realized something was not right," Bowes told the court, according to the Guardian. "The reserve parachute went into a spin and she could not gain control over it. She remembered fighting to take control, and then everything went black."

The fall broke her pelvis, ribs and vertebrae. She was rushed to the hospital.

Airfield staff immediately noticed that key components of her parachutes were missing, including equipment that helped fasten the harness, the BBC reported. Bowes suggested she survived because of her small frame and because she landed in the soft soil of a plowed field, according to the Sunday Herald.

Cilliers is charged with two counts of attempted murder. The trial is ongoing.