Parachutist who fell to his death cut the straps of his own equipment, police say

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The Independent Online

Stephen Hilder, the experienced skydiver who plunged to his death after his parachute failed to open, apparently cut the cords of his equipment himself, it was revealed yesterday.

Humberside Police said his death was no longer being treated as murder but refused to confirm that he had staged a dramatic suicide.

Mr Hilder, 20, a student at the Royal Military College of Science in Shrivenham, Wiltshire, who had performed 200 jumps, fell 13,000ft while performing a three-man jump at Hibaldstow airfield, Lincolnshire, on 4 July last year during an annual parachute contest.

His death was initially suspected to be a result of sabotage, because the straps on his main and reserve parachutes had been cut. But despite a lengthy investigation in which police briefly arrested three men and interviewed 2,500 people, they were left struggling to find a motive or a culprit.

Ten months later, scientific tests discovered that fibres from the severed parachute cords had been found on the clothing that Mr Hilder was wearing the day he died, and his DNA and similar fibres were discovered on a pair of scissors in the boot of his car. No other DNA was found on the scissors. The findings have led police to close the murder inquiry and pass the case to the coroner's office for an inquest.

Detective Superintendent Colin Andrews, senior investigating officer, confirmed that no one else was involved in Hilder's "unexplained" death. He said: "These forensic findings, in conjunction with the findings of the criminal investigation, have led police to believe that nobody else is involved in Stephen's death. However, it is now in the hands of the coroner to listen to the evidence we have gathered and establish a finding for Stephen's death." He called it a "unique" inquiry which had been one of the most difficult that the force had dealt with.

Hilder's father, Paul, read a statement on behalf of his wife, Mary, and daughter, Kate, who live in Hereford. He spoke of their enduring love for Stephen and added they were keeping an open mind about the nature of his death. He said: "The Steve we will remember was an intelligent, funny, enthusiastic young man, confident and mature ... We are proud of him. Nothing in over 10 months of intensive investigation into Stephen's life has been found to challenge any of this or tarnish his memory.

"We will now wait until the inquest to hear the evidence presented to the coroner, the interpretation of that evidence and the coroner's verdict. Until then, we are keeping an open mind regarding the circumstances surrounding his death."

Despite the official closure of an exhaustive and expensive investigation, Britain's skydiving community expressed an unsettling sense of mystery over the circumstances surrounding Mr Hilder's death.

Paul Hollow, the chief instructor at Hibaldstow, who has studied the video film which captured Mr Hilder as he made his final jump, said police findings left many questions unanswered. He said: "This was not the result many of us were expecting. It is a relief if the police are absolutely certain that there is no third party involved. But from my point of view, I still find it difficult to accept. It is a very elaborate way to damage your equipment and you do not pull every handle available to you on your parachute if you have cut your straps, and Stephen did pull every handle."

Mr Hollow, who saw Mr Hilder as he boarded the aircraft before his final jump, said he would not have allowed him to participate in the contest if he had sensed that he was in an agitated state of mind.

Tony Butler, spokesman for the British Parachute Association, said the findings were likely to be greeted with scepticism by people in the skydiving world. "I think a lot of parachutists might doubt this result. It certainly seems strange for him to go to such extremes when all he could have done was not pull his parachute," he said.

THE 'WORST NIGHTMARE'

¿ 3 July 2003: Stephen Hilder is photographed at the skydiving centre in good spirits, taking part in a fancy-dress competition wearing a blonde wig and black dress.

¿ 4 July: He plunges 13,000ft to his death in the British Collegiate Parachute Association Championships at Hibaldstow airfield, near Brigg, north Lincolnshire.

¿ 6 July: Humberside Police begin a murder investigation after it is revealed that the cords on both his main and reserve parachutes were severed.

¿ 31 July: Hundreds of mourners gather at St Mary The Virgin church, in Burghill, for Mr Hilder's funeral service.

¿ 7 September: Police contact all 4,500 registered skydivers in the UK in the hope that the killer confessed to a fellow jumper.

¿ 13 September: Detectives confirm they have spoken to officers in America who investigated a similar incident of sabotage in 1996.

¿ 22 October: David Mason, 19, and Adrian Blair, 19, who accompanied Mr Hilder on his last jump, arrested on suspicion of murder. Three days later they are released on

police bail.

¿ 17 November: A 24-year-old man is arrested in Leeds on suspicion of murder. He is later released.

¿ 28 January, 2004: Detectives say they are re-examining the theory that Mr Hilder took his own life.

¿ 4 April: Police describe reports that he fixed his own death as "speculation".

¿ 5 April: Detectives confirm there had been a "significant" scientific development in the case. Further tests expected to take up to six weeks.

¿ 21 May: Police announce they are no longer treating the case as murder.

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