THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Sheriff alleges balloon drama was publicity stunt

Parents could face charges for hoax in hopes of TV series

By Dan Elliott
Associated Press / October 19, 2009

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FORT COLLINS, Colo. - The story that a little boy had floated away in a giant helium balloon was a hoax concocted to land a reality television show, authorities said yesterday, and the boy’s parents will probably face felony charges.

The stunt two weeks in the planning was a marketing ploy by Richard and Mayumi Heene, who met in acting school in Hollywood and have appeared on the ABC reality show “Wife Swap,’’ Larimer County Sheriff Jim Alderden said. The Heenes have reportedly been working on a reality TV deal in Los Angeles.

Investigators are examining the possibility of other conspirators, “including the possibility that even some of the media outlets may have had some knowledge about this,’’ Alderden said.

Documents show that a media outlet has agreed to pay money to the Heenes with regards to the balloon incident, Alderden said. He did not name the media outlet, but said it was a show that blurs “the line between entertainment and news.’’

It was not clear whether the deal was signed before or after the alleged hoax, or whether that media outlet was a possible conspirator.

Alderden did not name an outlet or provide any details.

“Let’s call it (my statement) short of speculation that a media outlet was in on the hoax, but let’s not discount the possibility,’’ he said.

Six-year-old Falcon Heene may not have even been hiding in the rafters of the family’s garage during the intense five-hour search for him Thursday, Alderden said.

“For all we know, he may have been two blocks down the road playing on the swing in the city park,’’ the sheriff said.

The stunt temporarily shut down Denver International Airport and caused the National Guard to scramble two helicopters in an attempt to rescue the boy, who was believed to be inside the flying-saucer shaped homemade balloon that hurtled more than 50 miles across two counties.

The drama played out on television to millions of viewers worldwide. When the balloon landed without the boy in it, officials thought he had fallen out and began a search for his body.

In fact, the balloon - which was held together with duct tape - would not have been able to launch with the 37-pound-boy inside, Colorado State University physics professor Brian Jones has determined.

The parents were not under arrest, the sheriff said.

He said he expected to recommend charges of conspiracy, contributing to the delinquency of a minor, making a false report to authorities, and attempting to influence a public servant. Federal charges are also possible.

The most serious charges are felonies and carry a maximum sentence of six years in prison and a $500,000 fine. Alderden said they would be seeking restitution for the costs, though he did not have an estimate.

The cost for just the two military helicopters was about $14,500.

Richard and Mayumi Heene were shopping for snacks at Wal-Mart with their three sons as Alderden told reporters that the whole thing was a hoax.

Richard Heene told the Associated Press he was “seeking counsel.’’

“This thing has become so convoluted,’’ Heene said as tears welled in his eyes. He said his wife was holding together better than he was.

The couple’s attorney, David Lane, issued a statement yesterday, saying that the Heenes were willing to turn themselves in to face charges. Lane said he advised the family against making public statements.

The sheriff said all three of the Heenes’s sons knew of the hoax but probably won’t face charges because of their ages. The oldest son is 10. One of the boys told investigators he saw his brother get in the balloon’s box before it launched.

Heene, 48, a storm chaser and inventor, has described himself as an amateur scientist; Alderden said Heene has only a high school education. He most recently earned a living by laying tile, the sheriff said.

“He may be nutty, but he’s not a professor,’’ Alderden said.

Alderden said that during the drama, the family’s actions led them to believe the story was genuine.

But during an interview on CNN Thursday night, Alderden said investigators had an “aha’’ moment when Falcon turned to his father and said what sounded like, “You had said we did this for a show,’’ when asked why he didn’t come out of his hiding place.

On Friday, Falcon got sick during two separate TV interviews when asked again why he hid.