Murder at 4,000ft: skydiver accused of killing love rival

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The Independent Online

A female skydiver goes on trial today accused of the mid-air murder of her close friend and alleged love rival.

Els Van Doren, 37, fell to her death after her parachute failed to open during a dive, in which she had held hands with her friend Els Clottemans, 22, and the pair's skydiver instructor Marcel Somers.

Ms Van Doren, who was married with two children, is said to have been having an affair with Mr Somers. But Ms Clottemans had also had a romantic liaison with Mr Somers.

After a two month investigation, Ms Clottemans was charged with tampering with the dead woman's parachute.

The two women were members of the same Flemish Parachute Club and dived each week with Mr Somers. In November 2006, the three went for their weekly sky dive, but Ms Van Doren plunged to her death, tugging frantically at her parachute. Its strings had been cut through. Her final moments were caught on video by her own head-mounted camera.

Luc Deijgers, who piloted the Cessna plane, told Belgian television: "Els tried to everything to try to save herself. She tried to open the reserve parachute but it wouldn't open. That never happens."

Residents of a terraced house in the village of Opglabbeek heard a loud thud in their back garden when Ms Van Doren's body landed, having hurtled 4,200ft.

Shortly after the fall, Mr Somers arrived at the house, still wearing his parachute gear. He told investigators that the three had wanted to make a formation dive and then land safely together. When he saw Ms Van Doren was in trouble, he had tried to come closer to her to help. But he could not do so in time.

Police ruled out suicide, as the dead woman had visibly tried to save herself. They also found that the pilot-chute – a mini-parachute which is automatically deployed before the main parachute billows open – had fluttered away as soon as Ms Van Doren had tugged at it. They became suspicious of Ms Clottemans, a trainee teacher, when they discovered the three-way romantic entanglement.

During her many months in custody during the initial police investigations, Ms Clottemans protested her innocence. She told prosecuters that she had a close relationship with the couple, and had an affair with Mr Somers, whom she accused of "leading me astray". The relationship had later fizzled out. In a letter to the Belgian media in 2007, she said: "I always knew that I was number two for Marcel and that Els was number one. I never had a problem with this as at the time I had such a low image of myself that I could only ever imagine being number two." She also described Ms Van Doren, who apparently did not know about her lover's affair with Ms Clottemans, as a close confidante who "was the only one who knew me".

But Mr Somers had a different account of the friendships. He said it was impossible to shake off the younger woman and that she had turned up uninvited two nights before the parachute jump and had stayed at his place, sleeping on the sofa, while he and Els had gone to bed.

The "parachute murder" has enthralled Belgium and a similar plot line has been woven into the nation's best-loved television detective series.

Since her release from jail, Ms Clottemans has completed a teaching qualification and has been employed at an elementary school in Anderlecht near Brussels.