- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 24, 2009

DENVER | The Fort Collins, Colo., parents behind the balloon-boy hoax received short jail sentences for falsely reporting that their young son had floated off in a homemade balloon in order to gain publicity for a reality television show.

Larimer County Judge Stephen Schapanski slapped Richard Heene with a sentence of 90 days’ jail, the first 30 to be served as “straight” time followed by 60 days on work release. Heene pleaded guilty last month to a felony charge of attempting to influence a public servant.

The judge allowed Heene to begin his sentence Jan. 11 in order to spend the holidays with his wife and three young sons.

Judge Schapanski then sentenced Mayumi Heene, the boy’s mother, to a 20-day jail sentence through a program that allows her to serve jail-supervised community service on weekdays and weekends.

Mayumi Heene earlier pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of filing a false report, but she was widely viewed as far less culpable than her husband.

“What this case is about is deceit and exploitation,” said Judge Schapanski before handing down the sentences. “Exploitation of the children, exploitation of the media. … And it’s about money.”

Richard Heene, wearing a navy-blue suit and dark shirt, apologized to the court for his actions, appearing to choke up as he mentioned the rescue workers who frantically tracked the flying-saucer-shaped craft as it drifted above northern Colorado.

“I do want to reiterate that I’m very, very sorry, and I want to apologize to all the rescue workers out there and people that got involved in the community,” said a grim-faced Richard Heene. “That’s it.”

The Heenes were also sentenced to four years’ supervised probation and 120 hours’ community service. They must also write letters of apology to the community and the agencies that participated in the search for their son.

The couple are also responsible for repaying county, state and federal authorities for costs related to the search and investigation, which is expected to reach about $50,000. At least a half-dozen agencies were involved in the October hunt for the balloon.

At Wednesday’s hearing, however, the judge prohibited them from profiting from the hoax by, for example, selling their story to the media or writing a book.

The Larimer County sheriff earlier said that investigators with child-protective services had opened a file on the Heenes, but the judge indicated Wednesday that any investigation appeared to be finished. The agency as a matter of policy refuses to comment on cases.

“I understand Human Service is apparently not pursuing this,” Judge Schapanski said.

The Heenes gained worldwide attention Oct. 15 after they reported that their 6-year-old son, Falcon, had floated off in a homemade weather balloon that was accidentally released from their yard. Local news helicopters followed the balloon as it drifted 50 miles through northern Colorado before landing softly near Denver International Airport.

When Falcon wasn’t found in the balloon, horrified rescue workers assumed he had fallen off and began tracing the balloon’s path in a search for his body. The boy emerged at his home a few hours later, saying he had hidden in the family’s attic.

The story began to unravel a few hours later when Falcon said on national television that he hid in the attic “for the show.” Days later, Mayumi Heene confessed to Larimer County investigators that the family had planned the hoax in order to win attention for a possible reality television show.

District Attorney Andrew Lewis argued for jail time for Richard Heene, pointing to his spotty criminal record, which includes a felony conviction. Mr. Lewis also cited a handful of incidents in California in which police reported that Richard Heene threw his ex-wife over a sofa, slapped an employee and purposely rear-ended another car.

David Lane, Richard Heene’s attorney, argued that justice would be better served by allowing his client to remain free in order to support his family. The Heenes had been suffering from financial problems, which was cited by prosecutors as a motive for the hoax.

Mr. Lane also tried to cast the bulk of the blame on Heene and away from his wife.

“He has taken sole responsibility for this and while Mayumi Heene is a good, kind, decent person who has acknowledged her role in this, the truth is Richard Heene is to blame for this,” Mr. Lane said. “She is far, far, far less culpable than Richard Heene.”

The couple worried that Mayumi Heene, a native of Japan, could be deported if she was convicted of a felony.

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