'A Hoax ... a Publicity Stunt': Sheriff Lowers Boom on Heene Family Over Balloon Gambit

Authorities explore federal case against family that reported son took flight.

October 15, 2009, 2:39 PM

Oct. 18, 2009 — -- The sheriff leading the investigation of a runaway balloon and the little boy once feared to be an accidental passenger on board flatly declared today that the event was a "hoax" and "a publicity stunt."

"We have evidence at this point to indicate that this was a publicity stunt, done with the hope of marketing themselves for a reality show at some point in the future," said Larimer County, Colo., Sheriff Jim Alderden.

The statement represented a 180-degree shift from the sheriff's public position two days earlier, when he said authorities did not suspect Richard Heene's report that his son Falcon, 6, was trapped in a runaway balloon he launched from his Fort Collins, Colo., home was a hoax.

The helium balloon that Heene said was carrying his son traveled out of control for about 50 miles, reaching altitudes of 7,000 feet.

The sheriff said today that authorities had needed to keep the confidence of the Heene family in hopes of winning a confession.

"On the bizarre meter, this rates a 10," the sheriff said of the case.

Alderden announced four potential charges against Richard Heene and possibly his wife, Mayumi. The charges include conspiracy, a felony; contributing to the delinquency of a minor, a felony; attempting to influence a public servant, a felony; and false reporting to authorities, a midemeanor.

In addition, he said local authorities would consult with the Federal Aviation Administration to determine whether federal charges could be added to the list.

No arrests have been made in the case. Alderden said officers would go through records and conduct interviews before charges would be filed.

"This has been a planned event for at least two weeks," Alderden said, referring to the false emergency created when the Heenes called police Thursday to say their son Falcon was missing and they feared he was in the runaway balloon. "The plan was to launch a spacecraft to garner media publicity."

Alderden said the police had few interactions with the Heenes but that an earlier 911 call from the Heene home raised suspicions of potential domestic violence.

In that case, "insufficient evidence" was found "to proceed with a criminial prosecution," Alderden said.

On Thursday, the Heenes called a local television news station and possibly the FAA, the sheriff said, but it was unclear whether those calls were made before the 911 call. Authorities have a search warrant on phone records and intend to check.

"We were manipulated by the family, and the media has been manipulated by the family," Alderden said.

Richard Heene -- a two-time participant on the ABC reality show "Wife Swap" -- told The Associated Press today that he is "seeking counsel," though it was unclear whether he was talking about hiring an attorney.

According to the AP, which spoke with Heene and his wife as they were shopping at Walmart at the same time Alderden was talking to reporters, Heene's eyes filled with tears as he said "this thing has become so convoluted."

Later today, attorney David Lane, who is representing the couple, issued a statement saying the Heenes were willing to turn themselves in to face charges, and said he advised the family against making public statements, according to the AP.

Richard Heene 'May Be Nutty But He's Not a Professor'

The sheriff said the perception that Heene is a scientist was unfounded.

"We now know that his education level is only high school," the sheriff said. "He's not … the nutty professor. He may be nutty but he's not a professor."

Alderden said the police had no reason to disbelieve the family, at first.

"At that time, everything that we experienced with family to that point was very consistent and believable," he said. "Though media and viewers were skeptical, we remained skeptical, we have to operate on facts. Information was plausible. ... [The family] granted us free access to search the house, complete access to the children to interview him, after Falcon was found, talk to him -- suggestive to us that it was the real deal."

But then new facts began to emerge.

"After the fact, these people are actors, reality TV," Alderden said. "And they met and established a relationship when they were in acting school. They put on a very good show for us, and we bought it. I don't fault our staff, everything seemed plausible."

Richard and Mayumi Heene met at the Lee Strasberg acting school in Los Angeles, as reported Friday by ABC News' Denver affiliate KMGH-TV.

Alderden referred to a possible co-conspirator, Rob Thomas, 25, who attended Colorado State University in Ft. Collins and met Heene online. In a blog posted on gawker.com, Thomas said Heene was desperate to be a celebrity.

"Desperate times call for desperate measures, and I think in this case the desperation was too much for Richard to bear," Thomas wrote on Gawker. "Richard's construction business wasn't doing too well. It's hard to find people interested in spending money on the aesthetics of their home when they're worried about their mortgage."

At the end of the press conference today, Alderden said he had one last statement to make.

"I know it's been captivating, but I am confident you folks have something else to do, this isn't an important story," he said. "I'm shutting this thing down in terms of any further news conferences ... we're cutting this thing off.

"Don't bother to call me, we are not going to do until and if charges are filed with the [district attorney] and they accept them," he said. "Until then, we're not going to continue to feed this story, other cases are more valuable, including investigating this, when we're done with this, we're done with this."

The "tipping point" in the investigation, Alderden said, was the family's appearance on CNN.

"It wasn't until the Larry King show, where the family was interviewed, that we had the first 'aha' moment," Alderden said. "When he was asked, 'Why didn't you come down?' -- 'We did it for the show.' If you look at the reaction, it became clear to us at that point that they were lying. You picked up on it; we picked up on it."

Runaway Balloon Story Didn't Fool Cops, Sheriff Says

Alderden said the sheriff's office had possibly misled the media by appearing more credulous than they actually were.

"The only way that we were able to bring this to a successful conclusion is if we got a confession," Alderden said. "We developed a strategy to do that. It was very important during this time that they maintained their trust with us.

"We had to say and do things to make sure that they believed we were on their side, still maintain trust, to get them in here to conduct interviews," he said. "We wanted to do that on our turf that was more controlled. The obvious goal was to separate them to interview them separately, convince them to take a polygraph."

Colorado law prevented him from revealing whether a polygraph test had been administered, Alderden said.

At an impromptu news conference late Saturday, Alderden suggested for the first time that Heene, who reported Oct. 15 that his 6-year-old son had been whisked away in a helium flying contraption, may have broken the law.

"We are looking at Class 3 misdemeanor, which hardly seems serious enough given the circumstances," Alderden said.

The sheriff added that he planned to meet with prosecutors to discuss a more serious charge.

At that news conference Saturday night, the sheriff gave the first indication that investigators did not believe the Heenes' story.

When he was asked straight out whether he thought that what happened was a hoax, though he declined to answer directly, he said reporters could "read between the lines."

The cryptic announcement came after a strange scene earlier in the day, when Richard Heene made an announcement to reporters outside his home, saying that he would not be taking questions ... except in writing.

After announcing a news conference for 10 a.m. Mountain time Saturday, Heene emerged from his home carrying a cardboard box.

"I've got a box, and so later today, at 7:30, I want to meet you guys again," he said.

Heene was asked again if his report that Falcon had been carried away in the balloon he had constructed in his backyard was a hoax.

Richard Heene Says Balloon Story 'No Hoax'

"Absolutely no hoax," he said. "I want your questions in a box. I'll get right back to you. OK?"

Then, just moments after emerging with the box and leaving it behind for reporters' inquiries, Heene returned to his home.

On Saturday night, the box was filled with questions. Heene never emerged to address them.

Instead, Heene addressed a different audience: sheriff's officers.

Heene met with investigators at sheriff's office headquarters for several hours, beginning at around 2 p.m.

Alderden said earlier that police continued to believe the Heene family's story that they feared the boy was aboard after their 20-foot-wide balloon launched accidentally.

But wide public skepticism, fueled by Falcon's statement on camera Thursday that "we did this for a show," persuaded authorities to reopen an investigation, Alderden said.

"We believe at this time that it was a real event. Certainly people are free to speculate," Alderden said Friday.

The story began with the desperate voice of a father calling for help: Heene begging 911 dispatchers to help him find Falcon.

Click here to listen to the Heene's 911 call

But can that voice really be believed? A home video showed what happened just minutes before that emergency call.

The Heene family gathered around the balloon. The plan, said Richard Heene, an amateur scientist, was to see if the enormous balloon filled with helium would rise 20 feet in the air.

The plan went amiss, Heene said, when a key control factor in the "experiment" -- equipment limiting the balloon's rise to just 20 feet -- failed.

The balloon came loose and the father let loose, cursing and kicking the launching framework.

It's another strange glimpse into this family -- a family that never seems to be without a video camera.

Ever since his family's appearances on "Wife Swap," Heene has reportedly been trying to sell producers another reality show, based on his eccentric family life. He even developed a show in which he was the star. The title? "Richard Heene: Science Detective."

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