Skydiver's death will always be a mystery, says coroner

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The Independent Online

The death of the skydiver Stephen Hilder remains a mystery after the coroner at his inquest refused to accept that he had killed himself. The North Lincolnshire coroner, Stewart Atkinson, recorded an open verdict yesterday, saying there was no proof the Army officer cadet was murdered, and he remained unpersuaded about the police's suicide theory.

The death of the skydiver Stephen Hilder remains a mystery after the coroner at his inquest refused to accept that he had killed himself. The North Lincolnshire coroner, Stewart Atkinson, recorded an open verdict yesterday, saying there was no proof the Army officer cadet was murdered, and he remained unpersuaded about the police's suicide theory.

Mr Atkinson's conclusions that 20-year-old Mr Hilder's fatal 13,000ft jump was simply "unique and mysterious" came after a forensic scientist, Peter Grant, told the inquest in Scunthorpe that murder could not be ruled out. Humberside Police closed their murder investigation after they found the only DNA on kitchen scissors used to cut the straps and cords of his main and reserve parachutes.

But Mr Grant said someone wearing gloves that left no DNA traces could have used the scissors, found in the boot of Mr Hilder's unlocked Vauxhall Belmont car. "I cannot exclude the possibility that someone else cut the straps," Mr Grant said. Fibres from the sabotaged straps were found on the scissors and Stephen's clothing, but these could have been transferred to his clothes from the parachute pack before the skydiver put his overalls on, Mr Grant added.

Mr Atkinson said he was not satisfied Mr Hilder knew his parachute had been sabotaged, as he was filmed appearing jubilant as he looked one of his formation team in the eye while making his final leap at Hibaldstow airfield in Lincolnshire.

The coroner was also unmoved by evidence of Mr Hilder's personal problems, which had convinced detectives he killed himself. These included debts £17,000, mostly for skydiving equipment, his unfounded conviction that he had failed his first-year college exams and the end of a relationship with a woman he met at the Royal Military College of Science, at Shrivenham, Wiltshire.

"There were a number of issues in his life but that does not persuade me he killed himself," said Mr Atkinson. Mr Hilder's relatives listened quietly as Mr Atkinson read out the open verdict. He told them: "I hope will be some relief to the family [and] ... begins some closure. How you cope, I do not know. I admire your dignity in such adversity."

Humberside Police's initial belief that Mr Hilder must have been murdered led the force to overlook the most important piece of evidence, the scissors, which were "bagged" by detectives but not examined at first. Mr Hilder's car was not DNA-tested, but donated to a youth charity which had valeted it before the police took it back for forensic tests.

Investigations offered tantalising hints that Mr Hilder harboured a fascination with death. It was unclear whether he had read a skydiving magazine, found after his death, which featured an attempted murder in 1976 involving parachute sabotage. There were also suggestions he may have watched the 1994 film Drop Zone, starring Wesley Snipes, which had another near-fatal parachute drop.

Mr Hilder's girlfriend, Ruth Woodhouse, said the couple had also discussed committing the "perfect murder" after watching the Sandra Bullock film Murder By Numbers. And Mr Hilder had told a friend three years ago "if he took his own life he would want to do something amazing".

Last night, Detective Superintendent Colin Andrews, who was in charge of the 10-month investigation, said that he still did not believe Mr Hilder was murdered, although he admitted there was a "very small chance" that he could have got it wrong.

Mr Hilder's father, Paul, said that an open verdict did not remove the uncertainty of what had happened. "Stephen's life has been dissected and examined in great detail and we still do not know why he died," he said. "We do not know why anyone would want to kill him, nor is there evidence that he took his own life."