Sheriff: Balloon hoax a publicity stunt

October 19th, 2009 by

FORT COLLINS, Colo. — The Colorado parents who triggered a frantic rescue effort when they reported that their 6-year-old son had floated away in a helium balloon concocted the ruse to get publicity, the Larimer County sheriff said Sunday.
Richard and Mayumi Heene had been planning Thursday’s drama for at least two weeks to help land a deal for a TV show, Sheriff Jim Alderden said.

“They put on a very good show, … and we bought it,” he said. The couple met in acting school, he said.

TV viewers were riveted by the 50-mile flight of the UFO-like balloon, which they thought was carrying little Falcon Heene. After it touched down and he was not inside, a search continued until he was found at home. The boy said he had been hiding.

Alderden said he will recommend the district attorney file charges of conspiracy, contributing to the delinquency of a minor, attempting to influence a public servant and making a false report to authorities. He declined to say whether Richard or Mayumi Heene confessed.

Alderden said his office will consult with the Federal Aviation Administration and the FBI on whether federal charges are warranted.

The couple’s three boys, 6, 8 and 10, were “100% involved” but are unlikely to face charges, Alderden said. Larimer County’s Child Protection Services will investigate whether they are in danger, he said.

The Heenes, who have appeared on ABC TV’s Wife Swap, describe themselves as storm chasers. Alderden said Richard Heene has a high school education and is a contractor who lays tile.

As for a “nutty professor” image, the sheriff said, “He may be nutty, but he’s not a professor.”

A handwritten note taped to the Heenes’ front door said: “Thank you for all of your support. We are not taking any interview anymore. We are tired. Thank you.”

“This thing has become so convoluted,” Richard Heene told the Associated Press while shopping at Walmart with his wife and sons Sunday, tears welling in his eyes.

Denver attorney David Lane said Richard and Mayumi Heene will turn themselves in if an arrest warrant is issued.

Alderden said the Heenes’ story seemed believable at first, partly because they gave officers access to the house and children.

The “a-ha moment” came as the family was interviewed that night on CNN, he said. When Richard Heene asked Falcon why he didn’t come out when he heard his parents calling his name, the boy said, “You guys said that we did this for the show.”

Alderden said the Heenes were in talks about a TV deal and might have thought the project needed a “spark.” His office is investigating whether the couple conspired with anyone else, such as an entertainment program, to stage Falcon’s disappearance.

He said he would seek restitution for the search but is doubtful the family could pay. “I don’t think there’s much to recover,” he said.

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