Make us your home page
Instagram

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

Just a publicity stunt?

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 Sunday, and the boy's parents will likely 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 didn't name the media outlet but said it was a show that blurs "the line between entertainment and news." It wasn't clear whether the deal was signed before or after the alleged hoax, or whether that media outlet was a possible conspirator.

Six-year-old Falcon Heene might not even have 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 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 live television to millions of viewers worldwide. When the balloon landed without the boy in it, officials thought he had fallen out and began a grim 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 weren't 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 were 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 didn't have an estimate.

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

"This thing has become so convoluted," Richard Heene said as tears welled in his eyes.

The couple's attorney, David Lane, issued a statement later Sunday saying 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' sons knew of the hoax but likely won't face charges because of their ages. The oldest son is 10.

Heene, 48, a storm chaser and inventor, has described himself as an amateur scientist, but Alderden said Heene has only a high school education.

"He may be nutty, but he's not a professor," Alderden said.

Alderden said that during the drama, the family's actions led authorities to believe the story was genuine. But during a CNN interview Thursday night, Alderden said investigators had an "aha" moment when Falcon turned to his dad 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.

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

Alderden said they didn't question the family Friday because they wanted to keep the family's cooperation. Richard Heene was asked to stop by the Sheriff's Office, under the pretext that he needed to pick up his balloon, and was questioned once he got there.

With Heene gone, other investigators went to the house. Alderden said they were looking for computers, e-mails, phone records and financial records.

Records show that police have responded to the house at least twice in the past year, including a possible domestic violence incident in February. No charges were filed.

As to the hoax that could send one or both parents to prison:

"It certainly got big and whether anybody realized it that it would get the type of international media attention, I suspect this is probably beyond what they thought," Alderden said.

Just a publicity stunt? 10/18/09 [Last modified: Sunday, October 18, 2009 11:22pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

    

Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

Loading...
  1. Commentary: Ten years later, the iPhone owns us

    Science

    Steve Jobs unveiled the first iPhone in January, 2007, before an adoring congregation, in his signature "Sermon on the Mount" style. On June 29, it became available to the public. Ten years later, the phone has spread like Christianity. The device represents "the pinnacle product of all capitalism," as Brian Merchant …

    Apple is celebrating the 10th anniversary of the iPhone's release on June 29, 2007. [Associated Press]
  2. Florida education news: School grades, teacher pay, transgender lawsuit and more

    Blogs

    SCHOOL GRADES: Florida's school grades showed improvement as the state's revised accountability system entered its third year in its current form. …

    Bear Creek Elementary principal Willette Houston celebrates her school's A grade with students in a summer program at the school.
  3. Whiskey wasn't my thing, but then I visited the Teeling Distillery in Ireland

    Travel

    DUBLIN

    If you drink your way through a four-day trip to Ireland, can you make an honest recommendation on anything?

    The focal point of the Teeling Whiskey Distillery in Dublin is the copper pots used in the process.
  4. Faulty AC leaves Chinsegut manor house, supporters steaming

    Human Interest

    BROOKSVILLE

    As summer temperatures climb, volunteers at Chinsegut Hill Manor House say a faulty air-conditioning system has put them in a hot spot.

    Thomas Hoops of Tampa, left, takes a breather with his 1-year-old daughter, Zoe Hoops, on the porch of the Chinsegut Hill Manor House.
  5. Looking Back: Adele and her baby koala come out of hiding (December 27, 1991)

    Attractions

    This story appeared in the pages of the St. Petersburg Times on December 27, 1991. What follows is the text of the original story, interspersed with photos of the event taken by Times staff photographer Tony Lopez.

    BABY KOALA IS NOW OUT OF POCKET

    By Amber Grimes

    Times staff …

    Kunara, Busch Garden's shy baby koala, has been working his way out of his mother Adele's pouch since his birth.

TIMES | Tony Lopez