A runaway balloon purportedly holding a 6-year-old boy was actually a publicity stunt intended to get the family a reality-television show, but instead could result in felony charges, authorities said Sunday.
Larimer County Sheriff Jim Alderden said at a news conference that the boy’s parents, Richard and Mayumi Heene, had planned the charade for at least two weeks before launching the homemade balloon Thursday. Alderden said his office was likely to recommend that the parents be charged with felonies.
He said they may have had help, even from some entertainment media.
“There is absolutely no doubt in our minds that this was a hoax,” said Alderden, who had defended the family until his office interviewed the Heenes over the weekend.
The Heenes have not been arrested and have insisted they perpetrated no hoax.
On Sunday, a reporter from the Associated Press confronted them as they shopped at a local Wal-Mart. The AP reported that Richard Heene teared up and said the family was “seeking counsel.”
“This thing has become so convoluted,” he told the AP.
Later Sunday, David Lane, a Colorado 1st Amendment attorney, said in a statement that the Heenes had retained him and that he had advised them to turn themselves in and to stop talking to the media.
Thursday’s search for the balloon and its supposed passenger, Falcon, riveted the nation for hours. Another Heene boy said he saw his brother crawl into the balloon’s basket before it launched.
The contraption, put together with cardboard, plywood and duct tape, sailed for 50 miles, shutting down flights at Denver International Airport, leading the Air National Guard to mobilize and making the family a media sensation.
But after the spaceship-shaped balloon landed -- empty -- in a field 50 miles away, Falcon turned up safe at home. He said he had hidden in the garage because his father was angry at him for playing with the balloon.
The sheriff said at the time that he believed the Heenes. But skepticism grew in the neighborhood and the media.
On “Larry King Live” Thursday night, Falcon was asked why he had stayed in hiding so long. Falcon turned to his parents, saying: “You said we were doing this for a show.”
Alderden described that statement as “our first ‘aha’ moment.”
The sheriff said he acted as if he continued to believe the Heenes to lure them into agreeing to separate interviews, a polygraph exam and, he hoped, a confession. On Saturday, Richard and Mayumi Heene and their children were questioned separately.
Alderden noted that Colorado law prevents him from confirming lie detector tests or confessions, but he said he had enough evidence to say the event was a hoax.
“They put on a very good show for us and we bought it,” Alderden said, noting that Richard and Mayumi Heene are trained actors.
The couple, amateur scientists and storm chasers, have twice appeared on the ABC reality show “Wife Swap” -- in which spouses trade places for two weeks -- and had discussed a reality show with the production company of that show.
Alderden said a search of the Heene house Saturday night found documents confirming they were still hoping for a reality show.
“If something like that was going to happen, there needed to be a spark,” Alderden said.
The sheriff said the three Heene sons, ages 6, 8 and 10, were “100%" involved in the hoax but probably would not face charges because of their ages. Instead, the sheriff’s department has asked social workers to determine whether it’s safe for the children to remain in their parents’ custody.
Richard and Mayumi Heene are likely to face felony charges of conspiracy, contributing to the delinquency of a minor and attempting to influence a public official, Alderden said. They could also face one misdemeanor of making a false report, he said.
The felonies carry maximum penalties of six years in prison and a $500,000 fine.
The Heenes also could be billed for the rescue operation, which included the sheriff’s departments of three counties, two Air National Guard helicopters and the rerouting of flights from Denver International Airport.
Authorities have not tallied those costs.
Alderden said a bill could be futile, however, given the family’s apparently weak financial condition.
“I don’t think there’s much to recover at this point,” he said, noting that Richard Heene, the apparent breadwinner, works as a part-time, self-employed tile-layer.
He added that Richard Heene, despite his scientific experiments, had only a high school education. “He may be nutty,” Alderden said, “but he’s not a professor.”
Alderden said he thinks it’s unlikely the Heenes will serve prison time, given that this apparently would be their first offense and that Colorado, amid a severe budget crunch, is releasing even violent offenders early from prison.
He did say, however, that his agency was concerned about possible violence from Richard Heene against the household. Investigators unsuccessfully tried to persuade Mayumi Heene to stay at a safe house Saturday night, the sheriff said.
Earlier this year, deputies responding to a 911 call found Mayumi bearing possible signs of physical abuse, but she said nothing was wrong. On “Wife Swap,” Richard Heene demonstrated a volcanic temper and said that he was descended from aliens.
Beyond the Heenes
Alderden said his agency would continue to investigate suggestions, many from Internet rumors, that others were involved in the hoax.
He said he wanted to talk to a former assistant to the family, Robert Thomas, who wrote on the Gawker website Saturday that Richard Heene had discussed a “stunt” with a UFO-shaped device to garner publicity.
“There’s a pretty clear indication from what we’ve seen so far that there are others who had planned a publicity stunt involving a spaceship,” Alderden said.
The sheriff speculated that some members of the entertainment media could have been involved. At least one show, he said, had already paid the Heenes since the balloon launch. He refused to identify it.
Alderden ended his news conference by saying that he would have no more statements to the media and that he hoped the furor surrounding the family would die down. He acknowledged, however, that the case was one of the more unusual ones he has seen.
“On the bizarre meter,” he said, “this rates a 10.”