Skydiver who fell to his death 'had study and money troubles'

A student who plunged 13,000ft to his death after his parachute straps were deliberately cut was beset by academic and financial problems and about to break up with his girlfriend, an inquest was told.

The death of Stephen Hilder, 20, in July 2003 triggered Humberside Police's biggest criminal investigation after it appeared that his parachute had been sabotaged. But behind Mr Hilder's "ebullient", sophisticated image was a troubled individual, harbouring the mistaken impression that he had failed his examinations after a "poor" first year on a course he had not enjoyed at the Royal Military College of Science at Shrivenham, Wiltshire.

Despite receiving a £7,500 army salary while studying, Mr Hilder was "having difficulty raising funds" in the week before his death, Stuart Atkinson, the North Lincolnshire coroner, heard at Scunthorpe Town Hall yesterday.

He owed a total of £17,080, through loans, credit cards, store cards and unpaid bills. The debt included a £223 mess bill at Shrivenham. He had tried to settle that debt with a cheque that bounced, prompting a meeting with a major at his college, the inquest was told. The major censured him for a "lack of personal integrity and officer quality". Mr Hilder was also about to part, by mutual consent, from Ruth Woodhouse - the girlfriend he had met at Shrivenham.

Humberside Police now consider it a "strong possibility" that he took his own life in the fateful jump with the three-man Black Rain formation team at Hibaldstow airport, north Lincolnshire. "He did not want to be a failure and the manner of his death was honourable for him," Detective Inspector Barry Longstaff told the inquest.

Scientific evidence supports the theory, the coroner heard. Mr Hilder's DNA was found on a six-inch, orange handled kitchen knife recovered from the boot of his car, which was used to cut the parachute strap. "If it was murder, [then] the murderer would have [needed] to gain access to the car, not leave his DNA on the scissors but not remove Stephen's," said Detective Superintendent Colin Andrews, who led the 10-month investigation. "I would never say never to anything but the murder investigation is now formally closed."

Det Insp Longstaff said Mr Hilder had told a friend three years ago that "if he took his own life he would want to do something amazing". He also told his Black Rain team-mate Adrian Blair - who was initially a murder suspect - that he would "jump out of an aeroplane if he took his own life". Mr Blair and David Mason, the team's third member, were also arrested on suspicion of murder, it emerged at the inquest.

Humberside Police has admitted that it regrets its long delay in examining the key piece of forensic evidence - the scissors found in the car, which Mr Hilder had left unlocked and with the key in the ignition. Det Supt Andrews confirmed that the boot of the car was not subjected to initial DNA testing. Instead, it was given away to a youth charity and valeted several times before detectives re-examined it.

The inquest, which is expected to last for about one week, continues today.