- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 18, 2009

UPDATED:

FORT COLLINS, Colo. — The “balloon boy” saga was nothing but hot air, authorities said Sunday.

Larimer County Sheriff Jim Alderden told reporters that the Heene family planned to release the 20-foot homemade helium balloon on purpose and then report that their 6-year-old son Falcon was aboard in the hope of making a deal for their own reality show.

“[I]t has been determined that this was a hoax, that it was a publicity stunt,” Sheriff Alderden said at a press conference Sunday. “[I]t was a publicity stunt done with the hopes of marketing themselves, or better marketing themselves, for a reality television show at some point in the future.”

Sheriff Alderden said his department planned to recommend that the Larimer County district attorney’s office file charges, including conspiracy, contributing to the delinquency of a minor, filing a false report and attempting to influence a public official.

The most serious charges are Class 4 felonies punishable by a maximum sentence of six years in jail and a $500,000 fine, according to Ian Stewart of the sheriff’s office.

The parents, Richard and Mayumi Heene, were not arrested, and their children were left in the custody of their parents pending an investigation by state Child Protective Services, Sheriff Alderden said.

The three Heene sons—Bradford, 10; Ryo, 8, and Falcon—were fully aware of the balloon hoax and involved in the plan to fool authorities, but Sheriff Alderden said it was unlikely they would face charges because of their ages.

The Heenes were seen driving away from their home in Fort Collins on Sunday and were unavailable for comment. Asked Saturday about the veracity of his claims, Mr. Heene told reporters, “Absolutely no hoax.”

The sheriff said he planned to interview others about the case, saying that “clearly there were other people who had some knowledge about this,” which could include the media. He said that at least one media outlet had offered to pay the Heenes for their story, although he refused to name the organization.

Sheriff Alderden added that he never had seen a case like it. “On the bizarre meter, this ranks a 10,” he said.

The Heenes contacted authorities Thursday and reported that they accidentally had released the silver, saucer-shaped balloon and that their oldest son said he had seen Falcon crawl inside a box attached to the bottom of the craft.

State and local agencies tracked the balloon as it flew 50 miles across the state at altitudes exceeding 10,000 feet, touching down near Denver International Airport. Rescuers found no trace of Falcon, leading them to believe he had fallen from the craft, but the boy emerged shortly thereafter and said he had been hiding in his family’s garage attic.

During Sunday’s hourlong press conference, Sheriff Alderden said he initially was convinced the Heenes were telling the truth. It wasn’t until Falcon stated that “You said we did this for a show” during a CNN television interview Thursday night that the sheriff suspected he had been duped.

He said he later discovered that the Heenes were “actors” who had met at an acting school in Hollywood.

“Needless to say, they put on a very good show for us, and we bought it,” Sheriff Alderden said.

At that point, the department indulged in a little trickery of its own, devising an elaborate game of cat-and-mouse with the Heenes in the hope of gaining a confession. Sheriff Alderden continued to state publicly that he believed the family’s version of events in order to coax Mr. Heene into coming to headquarters by himself, ostensibly to pick up the balloon.

Once there, officials persuaded Mr. Heene to sit for an interview. Meanwhile, unbeknown to Mr. Heene, other investigators raced to the family’s home in order to speak to his wife and sons without his presence.

Sheriff Alderden said he was unable to confirm whether the Heenes confessed or whether they took polygraph tests, but the interviews gave him enough evidence to obtain a search warrants for the home. Deputies executed the warrants Saturday night, taking computers, videos, contracts, documents and financial records.

The department plans to meet with the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Federal Aviation Administration this week to determine whether federal charges are warranted, Sheriff Alderden said.

“We needed to maintain a good rapport with this family so that we could get them to voluntarily come in,” said Undersheriff Ernie Hudson. “Our plan worked.”

If convicted, the Heenes could be compelled to pay restitution for the man-hours spent tracking the balloon and investigating the case, although the department hasn’t yet compiled those figures, Sheriff Alderden said.

The Heene family made two previous 911 calls this year, in February and in August. One was a hang-up that later was attributed to the children “messing with the phone,” Sheriff Alderden said, but the other appeared to involve domestic abuse.

The district attorney ultimately concluded the case lacked sufficient evidence to file charges. Mrs. Heene was given the option of moving Saturday into a “safe house” instead of returning home, but she opted to go back to her husband.

“Clearly from all indications Mr. Heene has something of a temper,” Sheriff Alderden said.

He acknowledged that the family presented a flight risk, but said he was confident the Heenes could be tracked down if they disappeared, adding that “felony warrants will follow them wherever they go.”

Doubts about the Heenes’ story emerged almost immediately after Falcon was found. Sheriff Alderden said there are now questions about whether the boy was hiding in the garage rafters or had been moved to another location during the balloon’s flight.

“For all we know, he may have been two blocks down the road playing on the swing at the city park,” Sheriff Alderden said.

The family is hardly publicity-averse: They’ve appeared twice on the ABC show “Wife Swap,” and local television stations have done several stories about their storm-chasing adventures, including their 2008 trip to follow Hurricane Gustav in Texas.

They’ve also posted YouTube videos about their quest for adventure and scientific knowledge. Mr. Heene lays tile for a living but bills himself as an amateur scientist working to prove his theories on weather and magnetism. Further scrutiny revealed that he has only a high-school education, Sheriff Alderden said.

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

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