Parents in ‘balloon boy’ hoax get jail time

In a warning to other would-be reality television stars, a judge Wednesday sentenced the Colorado parents who claimed their 6-year-old son floated away in a balloon to spend time in jail for staging the hoax.

“All of this was designed to attract attention,” 8th Judicial District Chief Judge Stephen J. Schapanski told Richard and Mayumi Heene of Fort Collins.

However, he said the couple wouldn’t have to report to jail until after the holidays, a decision the judge said he was making for the sake of their three young sons.

Richard Heene, who tearfully apologized to the judge but did not speak to reporters as he and his wife scurried into the courtroom amid a thicket of cameras, was ordered to serve 90 days in custody -- 30 days in jail and 60 days in a work-release program. Under that program, he will be allowed to work during the day but must return to jail at night.

Mayumi Heene was sentenced to 20 days in jail, under terms similar to work release. They won’t have to serve their sentences at the same time.

Richard Heene’s attorney, David Lane, said that his client’s sentence was appropriate, but called Mayumi Heene’s sentence excessive and the result of a desire for vengeance.

“Don’t mess with America’s emotions. That’s why Mayumi has to go do 20 days in jail -- because everybody got fooled,” he said.

On Oct. 15, the Heenes -- amateur storm-chasers who have appeared on the ABC show “Wife Swap” -- told authorities that their youngest son, Falcon, had sneaked into a helium balloon that lifted off accidentally from their backyard. Millions of people watched the journey of the balloon -- a silvery craft that resembled a giant tray of Jiffy Pop popcorn -- on live television.

People offered prayers for the boy’s safe return, and flights in and out of Denver International Airport were rerouted. When the balloon landed in a field two hours later and was found to be empty, a search was launched for Falcon, who presumably had fallen to his death.

Falcon later appeared and said he’d been hiding in the Heenes’ garage.

The hoax began to unravel the night of the incident when the family was interviewed on “Larry King Live.” When asked why he had remained hidden for so long, the boy looked at his parents and said, “You had said that we did this for a show.”

Last month, Richard Heene, 48, pleaded guilty to one felony charge of attempting to influence a public official. Mayumi Heene, 45, pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of making a false report to law enforcement.

In a letter to the judge, Richard Heene had pleaded for leniency for his wife, whom prosecutors agreed was less culpable. She also was the more cooperative of the two, confessing the plot to investigators.

On Wednesday morning, Chief Deputy Dist. Atty. Andrew Lewis asked the judge to impose a jail term for Richard Heene, calling it a necessary deterrent against “people who want their 30 seconds of fame.”

“He wasted a lot of manpower and money, wanting to get himself some publicity,” Lewis said. “For that, they do need to be punished.”

He described Heene as deceitful and uncooperative throughout the investigation, pretending to fall asleep during a polygraph exam and trying to intervene when he learned his wife was talking with detectives.

Lane argued that a jail term would prevent Heene, a construction contractor, from providing for his family, adding that the couple already had suffered scorn and ridicule from the community.

But the judge appeared to agree with prosecutors, ordering the Heenes to serve short jail sentences and noting that he could have sentenced each of them to much lengthier incarcerations. “This, in simple terms, was an elaborate hoax,” Schapanski said.

The judge also placed them on four years’ probation and ordered them to write letters of apology to the community, as well as to perform at least 100 hours of community service each year.

Still unclear was how much the couple might be required to pay in restitution to the agencies that participated in the search. Prosecutors have estimated that the couple owes at least $47,000. A judge will consider that issue at a later date.

Schapanski also barred the couple from receiving any financial benefit, such as a book deal, in connection with the incident.

Summing up the balloon-boy saga, he said, “What this case is about is deception and exploitation -- exploitation of their children, exploitation of the media, exploitation of the emotions of people. And it was about money.”