Obsessive condition drove parachutist to cut his own cords

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The Independent Online

David Crowcroft was an intelligent, sensitive young man who revelled in the outdoor life in his adopted country of New Zealand.

However, in March this year, Mr Crowcroft, 27, decided to return to his home in London and seek help in overcoming an obsessive compulsive disorder, which was becoming steadily worse.

As well as embarking on a course of psychotherapy, Mr Crowcroft also decided to learn how to parachute.

After seven hours of training, he made his first jump with a skydiving club in Norfolk on Saturday last week. His parachute opened automatically, but Mr Crowcroft then threw away his helmet and is believed to have used a pair of scissors or garden shears to cut his cords.

While no foul play is thought to be involved, there is a concern among British parachutists that "suicide by skydive" is becoming more frequent. An official at the British Parachute Association (BPA), the governing body of the sport, said yesterday that until July 2003 he could not recall any suicides involving skydives. But in the past three years there have been four parachutists who have been suspected of taking their own lives by jumping.

Tony Butler, a technical officer of the BPA, said his organisation's safety officers were investigating the most recent case.

"When something becomes well known there is always a risk that others will copy it," he said. "The problem is that if someone is determined to kill themselves, there is nothing much we can do about it.

"I have worked here for 24 years and we have not had any problems up until about two years ago."

The first parachute death that was suspected to be suicide was that of Stephen Hilder, who fell 13,000ft to his death in July 2003 at Hibaldstow airfield in north Lincolnshire. Police at first believed his parachute had been sabotaged and opened a murder inquiry.

But officers later suspected that he had cut the straps himself after fibres from his parachute were found on scissors in the boot of his car. The coroner recorded an open verdict because there was no evidence to suggest that Mr Hilder wanted to kill himself.

The second suspicious death happened 10 months later in Northern Ireland when David Halls jumped from 13,000ft but failed to open either his main or reserve parachute. Police later found a suicide note.

Sixteen days later on 30 May 2004, a Scottish skydiver committed suicide by unstrapping his parachute at 9,000 feet. Alastair McLaren, 39, plunged to his death in Perthshire following the break-up of his relationship with a student.

Initial inquiries into Mr Crowcroft's death suggest that his motive for learning to skydive was to use it as a method of killing himself.

Norfolk Police, who are investigating the case, say that they believe it is an "isolated incident".

Mr Crowcroft paid £175 to take a course at the UK Parachuting centre at Old Buckenham airfield near Attleborough, Norfolk. He was given seven hours of training on Saturday 15 April, but was not able to jump because the weather was not good enough.

Instead he returned to the centre last Saturday to do his first solo jump in perfect flying conditions.

Following his death, the chief instructor, Jason Thompson, said: 'There was nothing to indicate he had any problems at all. I didn't have any part in his training, but apparently he was just a normal student."

His apparent decision to take his life is thought to be linked to his obsessive compulsive disorder. The condition, which is thought to affect up to 3 per cent of the population, can be extremely debilitating. It is also linked to depression.

His father, Michael, and stepmother, Lindy, said he was "much loved and respected for the way he tried to deal with his ... obsessive compulsive disorder". They described David as an "intelligent, sensitive and well-read man". Another family member described him as appearing to be "incredibly happy" before his death.

Mr and Mrs Crowcroft, who married in 1993, said in a statement: "We are shocked and grieved by this tragic event. He will be very sadly missed by us all."

David Crowcroft had dual New Zealand and British nationality as his mother, Vivienne, was from New Zealand. She died in 1988, aged 39.

The illness

By Jason Bennetto

The World Health Organisation lists obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) as among the 10 biggest causes of disability, yet many sufferers keep their illness hidden and the condition is often the subject of scepticism and derision.

Men and women are equally affected, and OCD is thought to run in families, suggesting it may have a biological cause. It often occurs alongside other illnesses, such as depression and anxiety.

OCD has two main features; obsessions, such as constant unpleasant and intrusive thoughts about issues such as contamination and symmetry, and compulsions such as repetitive acts of handwashing, saying specific words, counting, or going up and down stairs.