Was it suicide or murder? Skydiver's friends speak

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Stephen Hilder was full of plans for the future in the last conversation he had with his closest friend Jason Saunders.

Stephen Hilder was full of plans for the future in the last conversation he had with his closest friend Jason Saunders.

The men discussed the amateur play they were due to perform in with the Royal Navy's amateur dramatics society and Mr Hilder spoke excitedly about the possibility of joining the Navy after his training at the Royal Military College of Science in Shrivenham, Oxfordshire.

The chat ended as it always did, with Mr Hilder teasing his friend to overcome his vertigo and take his first skydive for a tandem jump he was organising to raise money for his college diving team, Black Rain, and as usual, his friend refused.

A week later, Mr Hilder plunged 13,000ft to his death while taking part in a three-man jump at an annual collegiate skydiving contest on 4 July last year, at Hibaldstow airfield in Brigg, North Lincolnshire.

Detectives found the cords of his main and reserve parachutes had been slashed. Nine months after investigation began, the mystery of how the 20-year-old student came to meet such a horrifying death still hangs over his family, friends and the skydiving community.

Humberside Police last week announced a significant forensic development, while press reports suggested that Mr Hilder had staged his own death, speculation that police criticised as "unhelpful and distressing" for his family. Investigators have stressed that they will only be able to determine whether Mr Hilder's death was likely to have been suicide or murder when forensic examinations are completed in six weeks.

The skydiving community and those who knew Mr Hilder refused to accept the suicide theory. Mr Saunders, 35, a naval lieutenant from Portsmouth, speaking for the first time yesterday, said that right up until that final conversation, Mr Hilder appeared to have great vigour for life. He was enthusiastic about his military future, in a loving relationship with his girlfriend, Ruth Woodhouse, and trusted the safety of the adrenaline sport which he loved. "I would see him three or four times a week and I found him to be a forward-thinking person. Last April, he'd won a newcomer's acting trophy in the play I had written and we were working on one-act plays we were going to put on this month for the Royal Naval Theatre Festival.

"He was passionate about three things - the military, amateur dramatics and skydiving. I would not describe him as a risk-taker and he was extraordinarily safety-conscious. He was always telling me how safe the sport was. That is why we were all so disbelieving about the way he died," said Mr Saunders.

His personal theory on how Mr Hilder died echoes the fear and suspicion that lies at the heart of the skydiving fraternity. "The greatest fear I have is that there is a guy out there doing these attacks at random. I cannot believe that it could ever have been suicide and neither can I believe that Stephen was targeted," he said.

Ms Woodhouse, 24, who met Mr Hilder at the military college in Shrivenham, took her first jump as Mr Hilder watched from the ground only three weeks before his death, and has not taken part in another dive since.

Ms Woodhouse, who lives in Staffordshire, said her life hangs in painful limbo until the mystery surrounding his death is solved. "I have vaguely thought about jumping but if I was going to do it again, I would have done it by now. It's far too close to home. Without his death being resolved, I cannot get on with my life. All I ask if that if anyone does know anything, please come forward as there are too many people waiting to get on with their lives," she said.

She dismissed the theory that Mr Hilder masterminded a suicidal jump in the attempt to fake his murder. "He loved life. When I first met him, I was having difficulties with my studies and the people I lived with and he helped me resolve them and provided great emotional support. This was a guy who gave me my life back," she said.

The suggestion that Mr Hilder killed himself met with equal disbelief in the skydiving community. Tony Butler, spokesman for the British Parachute Association, said divers had become more vigilant over their equipment since the tragedy.

Paul Hollow, chief instructor at the Target Sky Sports skydiving centre at Hibaldstow, who saw Mr Hilder minutes before his team performed the jump, said he had repeatedly studied the video of Mr Hilder's final dive, and could not accept he went up with the intention of taking his own life.

But he said the alternative - that his equipment was sabotaged, was an equally unpalatable option. He added: "Having reviewed the video of the jump so many times over the months, I have come to the conclusion that his was not the face of someone who knew he was about to die.

"What I do know is that this is lingering on and darkening the sport. Every jumper wants a conclusion, whether it is murder or suicide, everyone is waiting to know exactly what happened that Friday afternoon, because some of us are thinking, 'can this happen again?'"