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'Balloon Boy' family seeks a fresh start in Spring Hill

SPRING HILL — Nowadays, in their new home, they call what happened in October 2009 "the incident."

Richard Heene doesn't allow reporters to ask his boys about it. He and his wife, Mayumi, will answer questions, but they don't bring it up.

The iconic phrase people around the country associate with the Heene family — "Balloon Boy" — is never uttered in this house.

"I can't stand it," says Heene, 49, a thin but sturdy man with patches of gray in his brown beard. When he's impassioned, as Heene often is, he talks fast and loud and his hazel eyes stretch wide.

His arms crossed and head shaking, Heene swears those days won't define his three sons for the rest of their lives.

"People," he says, "always forget."

Today, 16 months and 1,900 miles away from their involvement in a supposed hoax that brought international attention and condemnation upon the Heenes, they've settled in Spring Hill.

The family moved to Florida to start over, they say, and to move on.

"People here treat us so different compared to out there," Heene says of his former home outside Denver. "People here don't care."

• • •

The family rushed into the public consciousness on Oct. 9, 2009, when Heene told authorities his 6-year-old son, Falcon, had climbed into a homemade balloon just before it took off. The boy, Heene said, was hurtling thousands of feet into the atmosphere.

Millions around the world watched live on TV as officials shut down Denver International Airport, and the National Guard scrambled a pair of helicopters to help in the rescue. But when the UFO-shaped balloon landed, it was empty, and Falcon was soon discovered hiding in the family's garage.

After the saga ended, media outlets reported that 34 of Google's top 40 searches that day related to the family.

Heene later pleaded guilty to felony charges and served 28 days in jail for what authorities called an elaborate ruse he concocted to help land a reality TV show. His wife did community service for filing a false police report.

Heene still owes tens of thousands of dollars in restitution and has four years of probation left, during which time he can't profit from the episode.

Their home in Hernando County is far away from the drama and fame they left behind. Neighbors just a few houses down the road say they didn't know and don't mind that the Heenes moved into the area.

The boys, all with long brown hair down to their shoulders, say they miss their buddies and the snow in Colorado, but they like Spring Hill. Their 5-year-old Plott hound, Zoomer, has room to run, and the kids like to hunt for crickets and turtles at Veterans Memorial Park. Mayumi, 47, homeschools her sons through a computer program.

Each of the boys says life here is easier.

"It's more peaceful," 11-year-old Bradford says.

"Less crazy," says Ryo, 10.

As he plays the video game Ratchet & Clank on the family's small, fuzzy TV screen, Falcon, now 8, describes their recent past his own way.

"Bad-bad, good-good, bad-bad, normal again."

• • •

The living room in this old rental home is mostly bare. A pair of coolers function as chairs, and a green couch is the lone piece of real furniture. The family splits its pillow space when they watch movies together or when the boys play video games on a PlayStation 2 that occasionally stops working. Their other furniture still sits in a Colorado storage facility because they can't afford to ship it cross-country.

Since his youth, Heene has fashioned hundreds of gadgets, from a modified pizza box that keeps his laptop cool to a hovercraft made from a leaf blower. Inventing has become his life's passion.

Components of Heene's creations are strewn throughout the house. He still keeps a pair of 8-foot stage lights and other material from a failed children's TV show he devised years ago about a talking cardboard box named, well, Boxter. Nearby, he stores a collection of old storm-chasing equipment that includes a 4-foot red rocket packed with a parachute and weather equipment that Heene can't launch while he's on probation.

In the driveway, clear tarp and black tape cover their Toyota Sienna's back window, smashed in June 2009 as the family pursued a tornado.

Mayumi loves her husband's stories and admires his adventurous, free spirit. Grinning, Heene can't explain why she feels that way about him, but he says that's what keeps their marriage together.

"I grew up in a very conservative family," Mayumi says in a thick Japanese accent. "So everything he does amazes me."

During a January storm that ripped through Hernando County, the family piled into their Toyota Tundra and filmed one of the most intense cells as it passed through Spring Hill.

"Guys, we are right in a meso," Heene bellows in the video, referring to the swirling cloud overhead. "Right now."

"Awesome," one of the boys yells back.

• • •

Last summer, the family packed their belongings into a trailer they made of plywood and drove from Colorado to Bradenton, where Heene says his mom lives.

But Heene, a contractor, struggled to find work there, so they moved to Spring Hill. Here, they can afford to rent a larger piece of property and a house big enough for Heene to build his new inventions.

For extra income, the family sells Heene's Bear Scratch, a sanded fence post treated with epoxy and a coat of sand that people mount to the wall and rub their backs against. The regular Bear Scratch sells for $19.99; a heavy-duty version goes for $29.99 and includes a "Bearobics" exercise video.

Spring Hill resident George Zalocha has owned A&A Liquors on nearby Spring Hill Drive for seven years, and he agreed to let Heene put a few of the items on consignment in his store.

"I said, hell, put one on the wall. I might use it," Zalocha said. "I don't hold anything against anybody. Everybody deserves a second chance."

Heene and his family have left the site of the balloon incident, but he hasn't let it go.

He says the episode wasn't a hoax, maintaining that he always believed Falcon was in the balloon. And as for the famous Wolf Blitzer interview on CNN in which Falcon responded to a question about what had happened by stating, "You guys said … we did this for the show," Heene offers an explanation. He says his son was just confused by the dozens of media members in his home the day of that exchange.

Heene asserts he only pleaded guilty in a Larimer County courtroom because he couldn't afford more legal fees, and he feared Mayumi, a Japanese national, would be deported if he didn't.

"I didn't have a choice," he says. "I felt I was at the center of a black hole."

Now, Heene has posted an ad on Craigslist asking for a lawyer to help him sue the Colorado authorities who arrested and prosecuted him, though he's not sure on what grounds he would file a suit.

Larimer County District Attorney Larry Abrahamson said that he is confident Heene understood what he was doing when he pleaded guilty and that the system worked properly.

Abrahamson added that he's not concerned about any potential litigation.

"People can sue anybody they want to sue for any reason," he said. "As far as we're concerned, the case is over and we hope that he can get on with his life."

Heene insists he wants to move on but, at the same time, still speaks to reporters and seems determined to pursue the lawsuit. Restoring his reputation, he says, compels him.

"I want to clear my name so I can get on with my life," he says. "I'm not living the life of the Heene family."

Times researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report. John Woodrow Cox can be reached at or (352) 848-1432.

'Balloon Boy' family seeks a fresh start in Spring Hill 02/06/11 [Last modified: Monday, February 7, 2011 9:43am]
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