World

Falling in love: Skydiver accused of sabotaging romantic rival's parachute in fatal plunge

A parachute lays between other pieces of evidence as lawyers arrive at the courthouse in Tongeren, Belgium, Friday, Sept. 24, 2010. Friday, the trial into the death of a skydiver who crashed to earth because of a faulty parachute started. Els Clottemans, a lone suspect, faces murder charges and accusations that jealousy pushed her four years ago to sabotage the parachute of her close friend and rival Els Van Doren with whom she shared a passion for skydiving and a lover.

A parachute lays between other pieces of evidence as lawyers arrive at the courthouse in Tongeren, Belgium, Friday, Sept. 24, 2010. Friday, the trial into the death of a skydiver who crashed to earth because of a faulty parachute started. Els Clottemans, a lone suspect, faces murder charges and accusations that jealousy pushed her four years ago to sabotage the parachute of her close friend and rival Els Van Doren with whom she shared a passion for skydiving and a lover.

BRUSSELS (AP) — The two women shared the same first name and were close friends. They both had a passion for skydiving. And they both loved the same man.

Prosecutors say this love triangle led to high-altitude murder when Els Clottemans sabotaged her friend's parachute in a fit of jealousy as they skydived together, sending her romantic rival plunging to her death in a horrifying fall captured on video.

As her murder trial opened Friday, Clottemans sat nervously in front of the mudcaked parachute bag and helmet that Els Van Doren wore as she frantically tried to open the chute before hitting the ground in November 2006 from a height of 13,000 feet (4,500 meters).

The video camera mounted on her helmet showed how Van Doren desperately looked up, hoping to see an open canopy. Seconds later, she crashed into the low shrubbery of a suburban garden in eastern Belgium and was killed instantly.

Clottemans, a 26-year-old schoolteacher, has vehemently denied the murder charge and accusations that she killed her friend to claim for herself Dutch skydiver Marcel Somers, whom both had slept with.

The 68-page indictment read out by Prosecutor Patrick Boyen said there was enough evidence for the murder charge.

"As skydiver, she had the knowledge and opportunity to sabotage the parachute," the indictment said. It alleged she made two key cuts to Van Doren's parachute.

"On top of that, she had a relationship with Marcel ... who also had a relationship with the victim, giving the accused a motive to have Marcel for her alone," the indictment said.

Chief defense lawyer Vic Van Aelst said prosecutors have nothing but circumstantial allegations.

"I read no guilt and I see no guilt," Van Aelst said.

"We will not deny that Ms. Clottemans has had some problems," he said. "But she certainly is not a psychopath."

A jury was selected Friday, and the trial in the town of Tongeren is expected to last a month.

Clottemans became a prime suspect when she attempted suicide hours before she was to make a second statement to police a month after Van Doren's death.

At one time, the 38-year-old Van Doren was so close to Clottemans at the skydiving club that she decided to have everybody call her younger friend "Babs" so there would be no more first name confusion.

On Nov. 18, 2006, Van Doren, an experienced skydiver with 2,300 jumps to her name, leapt out of a Cessna with Clottemans, Marcel and another skydiver to perform aerial maneuvers during their fall.

Clottemans, however, said she jumped a fraction too late to join the other three. When the sign was given to open the parachutes, Van Doren struggled with hers and hurtled toward the ground. The helmet-mounted camera recorded her desperate attempt to release her reserve parachute.

"The first question a family normally asks is whether the victim suffered, whether she knew what happened. We don't have to ask. It was filmed. Try to deal with that as a family," said Jef Vermassen, a lawyer for Van Doren's family.

A married mother of two, Van Doren spent most weekends away from her family, skydiving and hanging out with Somers at the skydiving club or his home. After the two became lovers, Clottemans also became their friend and eventually also slept with Somers.

A week before Van Doren's death, all three stayed at Somers' home, with Clottemans sleeping in the living room while the other two were in the bedroom. Prosecutors say that during that weekend, Clottemans could have sabotaged the parachute.

It was not clear from the trial's first day if Van Doren had known that Clottemans had slept with Somers.