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Colo. sheriff bursts story of ‘balloon boy’
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.
During Sunday's hourlong news conference, Sheriff Alderden said he was initially convinced that the Heenes were telling the truth. It wasn't until Falcon said, "You said we did this for a show," during a CNN interview Thursday night that the sheriff realized he had been duped, he said.
"If you look at the nonverbal responses, as well as some of the verbal cues, not only for him but from the family, the children, their reaction - it became very clear to us at that point that they were lying," Sheriff Alderden said.
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, department officials indulged in a little trickery of their own, concealing their suspicions about 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, Mr. Heene was persuaded to sit for an interview. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to Mr. Heene, other investigators raced to the family's home in order to speak with 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 search warrants for their home. Deputies executed the warrants Saturday night, taking computers, videos, contracts, documents and financial records.
Sheriff's officials plan to meet with FBI and Federal Aviation Administration officials this week to determine whether federal charges are warranted, said Sheriff Alderden.
"We needed to maintain a good rapport with this family so that we could get them to voluntarily come in," Undersheriff Ernie Hudson said. "Our plan worked."
Sheriff Alderden acknowledged that some remarks he made to the media were less than sincere. "I think we bumped against the line of misleading the media. ... For that, I apologize," he said.
He added that he confided in several "trusted media folks," saying that they knew what he was doing from the beginning. The sheriff didn't name the reporters but implied that they were locally based and he had worked with them in the past.
Asked whether he could now be trusted, Sheriff Alderden laughed and swore "on John Wayne" that he was now telling the truth.
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 compiled those figures, Sheriff Alderden said. Among other things, the rescue effort involved flights by military helicopters, a mounted posse and the rerouting of some airline flights around Denver International Airport.
The Heene family made two previous 911 calls this year, in February and in August. One was a hang-up that was later attributed to the children "messing with the phone," said Sheriff Alderden, but the other appeared to involve domestic abuse.
The district attorney ultimately concluded that 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 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 that the Heenes could be tracked down if they disappeared. "Felony warrants will follow them wherever they go," he said.
Doubts about the Heenes' story emerged almost immediately after Falcon was found. Sheriff Alderden said questions have been raised about whether the boy was actually 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," the sheriff said.
The family has appeared twice on the ABC TV show "Wife Swap," and local television stations have aired several stories about their storm-chasing adventures, including their 2008 trip to follow Hurricane Gustav in Texas.
The Heenes also posted YouTube videos about their quest for adventure and scientific knowledge, including one showing the children rant against a vulgar term for "becoming like wimps." 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 no formal education beyond high school, Sheriff Alderden said.
Said the sheriff: "He may be nutty, but he's not a professor."
About the Author
Valerie Richardson covers politics and the West from Denver. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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