BERLIN (AP) _ He was a gifted computer whiz _ one of the best, one who'd made the jump from illegal tinkering to the legitimate, potentially lucrative business of making codes crack-proof from hackers like himself.

But when Boris Floriciz was found hanging from a tree in a Berlin park on Oct. 22, his belt around his neck and his feet dragging the ground, it drew attention even outside the tight-knit world of hackers.

His friends wonder whether he was caught up in the murkier side of the trade _ one of spies, espionage and black-market criminals. Was it suicide, as police suspect? Or homicide?

At 26, Floriciz seemed headed for a great future. He'd just finished his computer science degree. International firms sought him as a consultant. He was happy, say his friends, who cannot believe he would take his own life.

Floriciz's friends wonder if he had become a threat to someone on the wrong side of the business, leading to his death.

``That was not a personal decision,'' Andy Mueller-Maguhn, a friend and fellow member of the Chaos Computer Club said. ``For sure not. That was murder.''

From childhood, Floriciz looked destined to be an engineer. He was always taking things apart to see how they worked. ``Radios, television, clocks, the lawn mower _ nothing was safe from him,'' his father told Stern magazine.

He disassembled a telephone booth to get at computer data inside. He was the first hacker to crack the microchips on Deutsche Telekom telephone cards, used at pay phones in Germany. His homemade card reloaded as the credit ran out.

After getting caught in 1995 and sentenced to probation, Floriciz ``felt the need to draw the line,'' said Mueller-Maguhn.

He joined Chaos, a 10-year-old group of computer devotees, and he went back to college, earning his diploma in September by developing a scrambler to encode telephone calls on high-speed, digital lines.

German media reports say Floriciz also was working on cracking decoders for pay television _ a booming business spreading across Europe. One of the key players is Robert Murdoch, whose digital broadcasting research firm NDS Ltd. contacted Floriciz two years ago about being a code-design consultant.

``He was an exceptionally talented engineer,'' said Margot Field, spokeswoman at the firm's London headquarters. NDS wanted to hire him but couldn't move forward because Floriciz hadn't yet graduated or completed his compulsory military service. The firm's last contact with him was in June.

NDS apparently wasn't the only one interested in Floriciz.

His father says Floriciz talked several times about being approached by people he suspected worked for spy agencies, which are believed to have mined the hacker world for talent in the past.

Just a few months ago, Germany's spy agency tried to hire a hacker to get secrets out of Iran's military computers, the Chaos club said. But the contact vanished when the hacker got Chaos involved.

Floriciz may also have attracted black marketeers of counterfeit chips for telephone cards and mobile phones. Deutsche Telekom estimates it loses millions of dollars each year from counterfeit cards. And industry officials worry that TV decoder chips offer gangsters even bigger profits on the black market.

Money wasn't a lure for Floriciz, his friends say. He preferred to post his research on the Internet for all to see _ and use.

``It was all the same to him if others raked in the bucks from what he developed,'' one friend, Daniel, told Stern. ``The main thing for him was that he had proven what he was great at.''

Mueller-Maguhn says Floriciz's open attitude about his work might have threatened those who didn't want competitors horning in on their business.

``He had lots of jobs, but he didn't want to become a slave of one company,'' he said. ``Maybe that was a problem.''

Floriciz left his mother's apartment on Oct. 17 at about 2 p.m. She didn't think he'd be gone long, because he didn't take his laptop computer.

He never came back. Calls to his mobile phone went unanswered.

A passerby found his body five days later. His phone, keys, ID card and money were with him, evidence police say points to suicide. No sign of a struggle. Nothing stolen. No drugs.

Detectives are waiting for test results _ fingerprint fragments or chemical traces _ before making a final determination.

The Chaos Computer Club is putting together its own report, which it plans to release at its annual convention Dec. 27-29 in Berlin. Already, the death notice on the club's Web site states what Floriciz's friends believe happened:

``The circumstances under which he disappeared and his extraordinary capabilities lead us to the conclusion that he became a homicide victim.''