'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.

ByABC News via logo
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.