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Mon, Sep 22, 2003

Parachute Saboteur May Have Struck Before -- In US

"Oh my God, I'm Going To Die"

He may have struck twice -- the killer who disabled the equipment of British parachutist Stephen Hilder. The UK enthusiast plunged to his death in July during a skydiving competition (ANN: "It Wasn't Parachute Failure" -- 06 July 2003).

Now comes word from the London Daily Telegraph that British investigators are looking into the death of an American skydiver whose rig may also have intentionally been set to fail.

Cary Hopwood (right) survived his 75 mph impact with the ground in 1996. The Hopwood and Hilder cases bear chilling similarities. Authorities in both investigations say those same similarities could provide a breakthrough on both sides of the Atlantic.

Hopwood was skydiving in Fayette County (IL) when his chute failed. He has only partially recovered from the accident -- er, murder attempt. Fayette Sheriff Harold Johnson got a tip about July's fatal incident in Britain and is now intent on sharing information with Scotland Yard.

"Because of the similarities, the English authorities contacted me and one of the things we are looking into is to see if we have a common suspect," said Sheriff Johnson. Humberside police, who are investigating Mr. Hilder's murder, said that they too were considering the possibility that the incidents were linked.

"There was nothing extraordinary in Stephen Hilder's (pictured below, right) private life, no love rivalries or anything," said a police spokesman. "That is why we are looking at the case of Hopwood. It's not dissimilar and it would be foolish to rule out anything, including that they could be connected."

US Deputy Marshall John Andrews witnessed Hopwood's near fatal fall. He's certain there must be a connection with Hilder's death. "I had seen it happen and thought it was an accident, but then I got a call that night to say that it was attempted murder," said Andrews, himself a skydiver.

"Cary had been equipped with a video camera on his helmet to film the jump for the MTV channel and when you watched it, you could see what had happened."

Hopwood's father, Bill, said the video "shows him opening his chute, pulling the ripcord and the pilot chute just floated away."

In fact, it was later established that the main bridle had been carefully chopped in two. He deployed his reserve (chute) and one riser [the webbing that attaches the canopy to the main harness] had been cut. It should have just spiraled into the ground, but it inflated enough that it held him. You can see his hands reaching up grabbing and he says: 'Oh my God, I'm gonna die'. He's trying to reach up and you can see the cords fluttering. Then he hits the ground and the camera goes thud. It's horrible."

The younger Hopwood was, significantly, not wearing his own chute that day. Instead, the parachute that failed belonged to a man named Kirk Verner. Verner, a world champion skydiver, is the son of Dave Verner, the owner of a sky diving center in Vandalia (IL). A problem with Hopwood's own equipment led him to borrow Verner's. That makes police suspect it was Verner who had been the intended victim.

Sheriff Johnson believed only someone who knew a lot about parachuting could have sabotaged Hopwood's rig. He asked several skydivers to take lie detector tests, which they did and which they passed.

Two, however, declined to take the polygraph exams. One was Daniel Wright, a former employee at the skydiving center. His refusal, together with the fact that he had resigned under less-than-friendly circumstances, made him the main suspect.

The other man who refused to take a polygraph, surprisingly, was Kirk Verner. Andrews said, "After it happened, Kirk was terrified that someone was trying to kill him. He and his wife went home and barricaded themselves in. He was afraid someone was going to come for him with an assault rifle. The next day he had totally changed. It was as if he had come to an arrangement with whoever it was who was after him, but I know for a fact that he did not speak to the main suspect."

A year after the Hopwood incident, another skydiver in Tennessee found that his equipment had also been tampered with.

Charlie Mullins, a 25-year-old champion parachutist with almost 6,000 jumps under his belt "moves in the same circle" as Kirk Verner. In 1997, he was about to jump at his father's school in west Tennessee when a last minute check showed that the riser on his parachute had been cut.

Mullins' stepmother, Andrea, told the Telegraph, "Someone had used a knife or scissors and then put the riser back. When Charlie realized, he freaked out. His best friend had been jumping with it only just before. We have no idea at all who did it. Skydivers don't tend to say bad things about each other, it's very taboo, but I have heard some people saying that they can't stand Charlie. It's the fact maybe that he gets to jump for free because his daddy owns the airplane. We are super paranoid now. I never leave my rig out unattended."

Bill Hopwood said police were reluctant to investigate his son's case. "Everybody thought it was just another stupid skydiver who had had a bad landing, because he survived. The only time that they got anything was when my son had recuperated and he went over there and raised a little Cain and tried to talk to the police. He was a guy from out of state, a poor old guy from Kentucky and they didn't care. They just dropped it. He had brain damage and his whole right side, arm, elbow has been pieced together with metal. Today he's not the same, he can't remember anything. But he's alive."

FMI: www.bbc.co.uk/crime/crimewatch/index.shtml

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