Victoria Cilliers was still bleary-eyed from sleep as she made her way downstairs one morning – only to be hit by the unmistakable smell of gas.
It was coming from a valve in the kitchen cupboard – right next to the oven – so Victoria texted her husband Emile, who was already at work.
He replied suggesting she see if the stove was working.
Things had been tense between them for a while, so in a bid to lighten the mood, she tapped out a cheeky message to sign off: ‘Are you trying to kill me?’
‘Seriously, why are you saying that?’ he replied, adding he was coming straight home.
Opening all the windows, Victoria didn’t really believe her husband was trying to hurt her.
‘I just thought it was one of those things,’ she tells New Idea.
Yes, Emile had his flaws. But he would never harm her or their two young children. Or so the UK mum thought...
They’d first fallen in love five years earlier when former army captain and skydive instructor Victoria was working as a physiotherapist.
Emile was a sergeant in the army and he sought treatment from the 42-year-old after he was injured during a skiing trip.
The lovebirds married a year later in South Africa, Emile’s home country. By that time, Victoria was already pregnant with their daughter.
‘Emile was a doting dad and three years later, I was pregnant again, this time with a boy. I couldn’t have been happier, and Emile was thrilled we were having a son,’ she tells New Idea.
‘But as my bump grew, I noticed a change in Emile. He was argumentative and glued to his phone, even taking it to the bathroom.’
Victoria suspected her husband was cheating. She’d found messages on their computer indicating he belonged to some kind of sex club. Then there was the condom she discovered in his car – along with a receipt for a dinner for two on a night he told her he’d been working.
‘When I confronted Emile that evening, he was calm. “One of my colleagues must have left them in my car,” he said.
‘I wasn’t sure what to believe but – heavily pregnant – I knew I wanted my son to have a father, so I buried my suspicions.’
Emile had been especially distant ever since he’d returned from an army skiing holiday to Austria in November 2014.
Victoria hoped they could work through the issues in their marriage, but it seemed Emile – who was in a tremendous amount of debt – had already checked out.
In April 2015, just five days after the gas leak, Victoria was all set to do her first skydive since giving birth.
‘I’d done thousands of jumps over the years, but this one was to be my last. As a mum-of-two, I felt it was too risky,’ Victoria explains.
Emile and the children accompanied Victoria to the skydive centre. When the couple’s little girl announced she needed the toilet, Emile went with her, slinging the parachute over his shoulder.
Due to bad weather the jump was postponed until the next day, and this time Victoria went alone. But she was filled with a terrible sense of foreboding.
‘As I got the parachute from my locker, I felt a strange knot in my stomach. Having done more than 2000 jumps, I never got nervous – but now I had a sick feeling in my stomach.
Even as I boarded the plane, I was desperate for it to be over and be back on solid ground.’
However, Emile had suggested the jump and perceiving it to be some kind of olive branch, Victoria didn’t want to disappoint him.
Pushing her fears aside, the mum-of-two flung herself out of the plane at 1219 metres.
That’s when things took a terrifying turn.
‘I opened my parachute, but rather than it fanning out in a canopy above me, it was twisted. I remained focused and didn’t panic. This had happened before. I cut the parachute loose and deployed my reserve. But the reserve parachute was twisted too, forcing my body to spin uncontrollably.
‘The faces of my children appeared in my mind. This might be it. I could die.
‘I tried to straighten out my parachute as quickly as I could. The wind was loud in my ears and the ground was getting closer, everything began to spin and blur. Suddenly there was a huge bang and everything went black.’
Miraculously, Victoria survived after landing on a soft patch of freshly ploughed field. But she’d suffered horrific injuries, including a shattered pelvis, many broken ribs and a punctured lung.
‘It wasn’t until I returned home two weeks later, that I noticed how strange and cold Emile was behaving. He seemed annoyed to have me home,’ she says. Victoria assumed it was shock – until two police officers turned up and told her Emile had been arrested.
‘I told them every detail of the dive, hoping to convince them of Emile’s innocence.
‘But when I explained that he’d been alone with my parachute when he’d gone to the toilet, they seemed to pause,’ Victoria explains.
Police investigations had revealed sordid messages between Emile and a woman called Stefanie Goller, who he’d met via Tinder when he was skiing in Austria.
He was also sleeping with his ex-wife Carly and chasing prostitutes.
Victoria was gobsmacked when police told her they suspected Emile wanted her dead in order to claim her $214k life insurance money to start a new life with his girlfriend.
But all of a sudden, everything started to make sense to Victoria.
‘I thought back to the texts and the receipt I found. I was devastated. The man I loved had betrayed me.
‘The months that followed were a living hell. I hated
Emile for what he’d done to me, but still couldn’t believe he’d try to kill me,’ she says.
However, the police thought otherwise – suspecting the gas leak was an attempt by Emile to cause an explosion when his wife lit the stove.
The 38-year-old, who was released on bail and banned from contacting Victoria, was charged with two counts of attempted murder, among other offences.
The first trial failed to reacha verdict. But in May this year, Emile Stolz Cilliers – described by the prosecution as a ‘charmless, unfaithful, penniless scoundrel’ – was found guilty of two counts of attempted murder and recklessly endangering the lives of his two children, at Winchester Crown Court.
The court heard the 38-year-old had tangled the lines of Victoria’s main chute while taking their daughter to the toilet. He’d also removed two vital parts of the reserve.
Emile was sentenced to life in prison – to serve a minimum of 18 years – on June 15.
Victoria is still reeling.
She told Good Morning Britain recently: ‘I’m struggling to accept he tried to kill me. It’s such a massive thing to accept.
‘It’s hard to conceive someone so close to you would want to cause you some kind of harm.
‘I never had any indication that there was another side to him.
‘I hope he didn’t hate me. I really don’t know.
‘I love the husband I had and I’m grieving for that marriage.’
Although her ordeal was harrowing, Victoria added: ‘He was a kind and loving husband.’