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WITH FALCON FOUND SAFE, SKEPTICISM TAKES FLIGHT

His father, who has sought publicity in the past, denies a hoax. A sheriff is investigating.

Associated Press

FORT COLLINS, Colo. - By all accounts, Richard Heene is an unapologetic self-promoter who would pursue all sorts of off-the-wall stunts to get media attention. Flying saucers, mountaintop helicopter stunts, storm chasing, reality TV shows - no gag was beyond his limits.

But would he go so far as to hide his 6-year-old son in the rafters of his garage for five hours and make it seem like the boy floated away in a helium balloon?

It was a question being asked everywhere Friday, one day after the balloon drama unfolded live on TV during a frenzied search before Falcon Heene was found.

The Sheriff's Office said it does not believe at this point that the balloon episode was a stunt, but investigators planned to question the family again today. Richard Heene denies that the events were a hoax, dismissing such allegations as "extremely pathetic."

Doubts surfaced after a series of bizarre TV interviews, including one on CNN in which Falcon told his parents "you said we did this for a show" when asked why he did not come down from the garage rafters during the search.

The family made the rounds on the morning talk shows Friday, and Falcon threw up during two separate interviews when asked why he hid.

Larimer County Sheriff Jim Alderden acknowledged that Falcon's comments on CNN had clearly "raised everybody's level of skepticism." But, he said, investigators had no reason to believe the whole thing was a hoax.

Alderden said the family seemed genuine during the panic, and he believed events could have unfolded just as they described: Falcon got frightened when his father scolded him for playing inside the balloon and hid in the garage out of fear.

If the balloon ordeal was a hoax, the parents could be charged with making a false report to authorities, a low-level misdemeanor, Alderden said.

He said authorities would need to bring a criminal case before attempting to recoup restitution costs for the thousands of dollars spent to search for the boy, an effort that involved military helicopters, a ground rescue and even a mounted posse. Officials also rerouted planes around the balloon's flight path and briefly shut down Denver International Airport.

Richard Heene's actions have drawn scrutiny and puzzlement on occasions in recent years. He has worked as a storm chaser, a handyman and a contractor, and an aspiring reality-TV star.

He and his family appeared on the ABC reality show Wife Swap.

TLC said Heene pitched a reality show to the network months ago, but it passed on the offer.

Barb Slusser Adams, who along with Heene and another man worked on a proposed show called "The Science Detectives," said she became used to his relentless attempts to get media attention for the program, which never aired. Heene described the show on his MySpace page as a documentary series "to investigate the mysteries of science."

Slusser said one of Heene's publicity ideas involved going at dawn to the top of a mountain with her and an associate from the show. They would be clad in black attire similar to that worn by characters in the Matrix movies, "and the helicopter would come by and strafe us or whatever," Slusser said. She and the associate said "absolutely not."

On Friday, dozens of journalists were parked in front of the family home. One of the boys, Ryo, would occasionally crack open the door and tell journalists that the family was not talking today. "My dad said he's tired of this show," the boy said.

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