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Sheriff rechecks family’s balloon account

- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 17, 2009

DENVER | An investigation is under way by the Larimer County Sheriff's Office to determine whether Thursday's balloon-boy episode was real or a hoax.

Sheriff Jim Alderden said Friday that investigators plan to interview Richard and Mayumi Heene again about whether they believed their 6-year-old son had floated off in a homemade helium balloon or they staged the incident as part of a publicity stunt.

"We believe at this time it's a real event," said Sheriff Alderden at a press conference.

He also said that he had contacted state Child Protective Services, and that he expected officials there to interview the family as well. The sheriff planned to wait until Saturday for the interviews to give the family a chance to rest and recuperate from the ordeal.

The Heenes reported that their son, Falcon, had flown off with the balloon after his older brother said he saw him crawl into a compartment attached to the bottom of the makeshift craft. It turned out that Falcon was hiding in the attic after his father yelled at him for trying to crawl into the compartment.

Before Falcon was discovered, a dozen state and federal agencies were involved in tracking the balloon for more than two hours as it made a 50-mile voyage across northern Colorado, reaching an altitude as high as 10,000 feet. The balloon ultimately touched down after leaking helium near Denver International Airport, where rescuers found no trace of the boy.

Horrified rescuers feared that Falcon had tumbled out of the craft, especially after a Weld County sheriff's deputy reported that he had seen something fall from the balloon during the flight. The boy was found shortly before authorities began a massive search of the area.

Suspicions about the incident's authenticity arose Thursday after Falcon said during a CNN TV interview, "You had said we did this for a show." His father explained in another televised interview that Falcon was talking about how he had demonstrated for TV cameramen his method for climbing into the attic.

The sheriff said Friday that the Heenes behaved in a manner consistent with that of parents of a missing child.

"We were convinced yesterday after talking to the parents and having investigators on the scene that the parents were being honest with us," Sheriff Alderden said. "Their body language, emotions were entirely consistent with the events that took place."

He added that he didn't think a boy as "hyperactive" as Falcon could be instructed to hide in an attic for five hours. Falcon later said that he slept for much of the time, but that he was afraid to come down because his might get in trouble.

Mr. Alderden also offered an explanation for his failure to find Falcon during his department's two searches of the family's Fort Collins home.

"Yesterday I spoke about us having conducted a very thorough search of the house. Obviously it wasn't as thorough as we would have wanted it," Mr. Alderden said.

He said that deputies had checked the attic, but didn't look in a space above the rafters because it didn't appear accessible. Later, Mr. Alderden said Falcon demonstrated how he got up there by climbing up boxes and chinning himself up into the space.

The Heene family came under scrutiny Thursday for its unconventional lifestyle. Mr. Heene, an amateur scientist interested in weather and magnetism, is also a "storm-chaser" who takes his wife and three young sons along with him when tracking tornadoes and hurricanes.

The family has also appeared on television several times, both on local news profiles and in an episode of the ABC TV show "Wife Swap," in which Mrs. Heene traded places with a more risk-averse Connecticut woman.

Mr. Heene denied that he rigged the balloon incident for the publicity, insisting that he had nothing to sell or advertise. The balloon was intended as part of an experiment and educational project for his sons, he said.

The Heenes, looking exhausted and frazzled, did interviews Friday morning with the three major networks. Falcon vomited during two different appearances, which Sheriff Alderden said contributed to his decision to put the interview on hold until Saturday.

If the report was a hoax, the worst the Heenes could be charged with is making a false report to authorities, a Class 3 misdemeanor. Sheriff Alderden said they could also be ordered to pay restitution for the department's costs, a figure which has yet to be determined.