“When he’s in the moment with you, you’re the best thing in the world. You’re the only person in the world. I think that’s part of his charm. You forgive the bad things because you remember these good things, and the good things are so good that you manage to… forgive the bad. When I did have a female friend, he’d run off with her.” – Nicolene Shepherd, Emile Cilliers’ childhood sweetheart and mother to two of his children
In this documentary for ITV’s Crime & Punishment season, Fiona Bruce gains exclusive access to never seen before police tapes from the investigation into army sergeant Emile Cilliers, who attempted to murder his wife by tampering with her parachute.
On Easter Sunday 2015, Cilliers’ wife Victoria, a highly experienced parachuting instructor, jumped out of a plane at 4,000 feet, but both her main and reserve parachutes failed and she crashed to the ground, causing near-fatal injuries.
Over the following months, the police investigated the circumstances around the sabotage and became certain that her husband Emile had tried to kill her – not once, but twice. His first attempt came a week before her skydive, when he tampered with the gas valve at their home in Wiltshire. The plan failed when Victoria smelled the gas and reportedly joked with Cilliers by saying, ‘Are you trying to bump me off?’
Fiona interviews key contributors, many of whom have never spoken before, including police officers at the heart of the case who provide vivid insights into Cilliers’ motives and background before he was arrested for attempted murder for sabotaging the parachute.
Some pivotal elements of the case they describe to Fiona include the fact he was having multiple affairs, and accumulating out-of-control debts. He increased his life insurance policy, so that he would benefit if his wife was to die.
Yet the case he had actually tampered with Victoria’s parachute was extremely difficult to prove, says senior investigating officer Det Insp Paul Franklin. He says: “At that time, I think many people thought we wouldn’t prove he was guilty.”
Prosecution barrister Michael Bowes QC says: “This wasn’t a case where somebody actually saw him do it. There was no direct evidence, and so that’s quite different from a case where you’ve got direct DNA evidence; it’s pretty straightforward. This wasn’t.”
Detective Sargeant Mark Lewis talks about the rare nature of the crime as well as the challenge he and his colleagues faced in trying to prove the case against Cilliers. He says: “In my 18 years of police experience, I’ve never had a case quite like it.”
Fiona also finds out how Cilliers sought to use his extraordinary charm to evade justice, and explores what the case tells us about the hidden epidemic of domestic violence.