Blue Skies, Black Death
This is another entry into my series of a behind-the-scenes look at the episodes I write for the podcast Casefile. These posts will explain how and why I choose each case and the research that goes into writing the stories.
This post is about Episode 88 – Stephen Hilder.
Best to listen to it before reading on, as there will be spoilers below.
Long before I became a writer, I was a skydiver. For many years I was obsessed with the sport, even taking a year off in 2002 to travel and skydive in the USA full time.
Skydivers can be a morbid bunch, and it was not uncommon to sit around the bonfire at the end of the day dissecting the circumstances surrounding deaths in the sport. Deaths are rare for tandem or student skydivers, but more common than a lot of people imagine for more experienced jumpers, especially those who push the envelope. (My USA trip ended with the death of my partner in a skydiving accident, who was one of those guys). We used to have a saying that you start out with a full luck bucket and an empty skill bucket, and the trick is to fill up the skill bucket before the luck bucket runs out.
When the death of Stephen Hilder occurred, it quickly became an ongoing topic of conversation. Just about every skydiver around the world followed reports and updates avidly. We were all fascinated – it was being reported as a murder, and the sport is so tiny that we all would be no more than one degree of separation from the murderer. I followed the threads about developments on dropzone.com and many an evening was spent speculating and theorising about the event. It seemed that the investigation was flawed from the start. It is nearly impossible to impart technical knowledge that comes from years of experience to someone who has no experience of it at all and things were misunderstood, errors were made and evidence was not properly preserved.
All these years later, it seemed like an obvious story for me to write. As far as Casefile episodes go, this one was not particularly well received, and that mostly came down to the perception that Stephen Hilder committed suicide rather than was murdered. I don’t think I’ve ever met a skydiver who bought the suicide theory that police settled on when they ran out of suspects to arrest, but many outsiders accepted it as a plausible explanation.
I always wondered who the 24-year-old unnamed third suspect arrested was and the tinfoil hat-wearing part of me notes that Emile Cilliers would have been around that age at the time. I must point out that I have no idea if he was even there at the time and I have no evidence other than just how many murderous skydivers can there be in England?
The Darkest Web is now available on Kindle in the Amazon US and Canadian stores. At this stage they don’t seem to be selling physical copies, but they are available with free worldwide shipping from Book Depository.