- The Washington Times - Monday, October 19, 2009

FORT COLLINS, Colo. | Larimer County Sheriff Jim Alderden concluded fairly early on that the “balloon boy” saga was nothing but hot air, yet he continued to state publicly that he believed the Heenes were telling the truth.

On Sunday, Sheriff Alderden revealed that he was playing an elaborate cat-and-mouse game in order to gain the Heene family’s trust, a ruse that ultimately led to the dismantling of the family’s story but that also compelled him to nudge at ethical lines in dealing with the media.

Sheriff Alderden apologized to reporters Sunday for his less-than-candid statements as he announced what many had suspected: that the Heenes concocted the entire escaped-balloon episode involving their 6-year-old son, Falcon, to help them secure a deal for their own reality show.

“It has been determined that this was a hoax, that it was a publicity stunt,” Sheriff Alderden said at a news conference. “It 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, said sheriff’s Sgt. Ian Stewart.

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

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.

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

On Sunday, Mr. Heene told the Associated Press that he is “seeking counsel,” though he didn’t specify whether that meant psychological counseling or legal counsel.

“This thing has become so convoluted,” he said.

Later Sunday, Heene attorney David Lane said in a statement that his clients wanted to avoid “the public spectacle and humiliation” of an arrest in front of their children and thus were willing to voluntarily turn themselves in.

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

The Heenes contacted authorities on Thursday and reported that they had accidentally released a homemade silver, saucer-shaped weather balloon, and that their eldest 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 at altitudes exceeding 10,000 feet, touching down near Denver International Airport. Rescuers found no trace of Falcon, leading them to fear that he had fallen from the craft, but the boy emerged shortly thereafter and said he had been hiding in his family’s garage attic.

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