BRUSSELS, Belgium — The skydiver’s horrific final moments were captured by the video camera on her helmet.
Els Van Doren plunged screaming for more than half a mile as she frantically struggled to open her sabotaged parachute.
On Wednesday, a jury found fellow skydiver Els “Babs” Clottemans guilty of her friend’s murder, the crime motivated by a deadly rivalry for the affections of the lover they shared.
Clottemans, 26, had always denied the charge that she’d caused the fatal fall in November 2006.
“I’m really innocent and can only keep on repeating it” she pleaded in a final appeal to the jury. “For four years I’ve been accused of something I didn’t do.”
However, the 12 members of the jury in the eastern Belgian city of Tongeren took just four hours to find her guilty of premeditated murder.
The primary school teacher's face was ashen as the verdict was read. The victim’s tearful husband and teenage children hugged. Today, Clottemans was sentenced to 30 years in prison.
The victim, Els Van Doren, had led a double life.
During the week the 37-year-old mother of two worked with her husband in the family jewelry store. Weekends she spent at the Zwartburg parachute club to enjoy her passion for skydiving and to meet her long-time lover, fellow club member Marcel Somers.
The three were friends, but unknown to Van Doren, Somers had also begun an affair with Clottemans. A week before the fatal jump, the three of them spent the night at Somers’ home in the Dutch city of Eindhoven. Van Doren shared Somers’ bed, while Clottemans was consigned to the sofa in the front room.
The prosecution claimed that she was infuriated by the couples’ lovemaking in the room next door, and took a pair of scissors to cut the strings of her rival’s parachute, which was stored in Somers’ apartment.
Somers and Clottemans both jumped with Van Doren from a Cessna light aircraft flying two and a half miles over the Belgian countryside on Nov. 18, 2006. Together with another man they were supposed to link hands and free fall in a star formation, but Clottemans jumped too late to join them. She was able to look down on the other woman’s fatal fall.
At first all seems fine on the video, but when the signal is given to open the parachutes, Van Doren’s fails to open. An experienced skydiver with more than 2,300 jumps behind her, she tries desperately to activate the reserve 'chute before crashing to her death in a garden in the northeastern village of Opglabbeek.
Media interest in the case has been intense over the four weeks of the trial and Belgian television networks carried the reading of the verdict live.
Defense lawyers argued that there was no forensic evidence linking their client to the killing. Clottemans had pointed the finger at Somers or Van Doren’s husband, Jan De Wilde.
Somers had told the court Van Doren was the “love of his life” and he bitterly regretted becoming involved with Clottemans. De Wilde said he’d learned about his wife’s affair only after her death and therefore had no motive for the killing.
The jury agreed with prosecutors that circumstantial evidence linking Clottemans to the crime was overwhelming. Her jealousy provided the motive and she had ample opportunity to tamper with both the main- and reserve-parachutes during the night at Somers’ apartment and the necessary expertise to sabotage Van Doren’s kit without the damage being visible.
“Els Clottemans carries an unspeakable anger within her,” Jef Vermassen, attorney for the victims’ family said in his closing arguments. “It has led to the most horrible type of attack: murder. She is totally intensive and feels no empathy.”