Sheriff Says Criminal Charges Likely Over Balloon Incident

Heenes released after questioning about balloon flight, boy's vanishing act.

Oct. 17, 2009 — -- The sheriff leading the investigation into what happened with a runaway balloon and the little boy once feared to be an accidental passenger onboard said today that he anticipates charges will be filed in the case.

Larimer County, Colo., Sheriff Jim Alderden said in an impromptu news conference this evening that the investigation is progressing and the sheriff's office is obtaining a search warrant.

He did not say who would be charged or what the charges might be, but said the charges would likely be misdemeanors and the boy's parents, Richard and Mayumi Heene, were not under arrest.

The sheriff gave few specifics, but did say that his office was looking into whether federal charges might be applicable or whether there might have been Federal Aviation Administration violations in the release of balloon Thursday.

"We were looking at Class 3 misdemeanor, which hardly seems serious enough given the circumstances," Alderden said. "We are talking to the district attorney, federal officials to see if perhaps there aren't additional federal charges that are appropriate in this circumstance."

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

The cryptic announcement came after a strange scene earlier in the day, when Richard Heene, the father of the boy and creator of the runaway helium "flying saucer" made an announcement to reporters outside his Ft. Collins, Colo., home, saying that he would not be taking questions ... except in writing.

After announcing a news conference for 10 a.m. Mountain time today, 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 Oct. 15 report that his 6-year-old son, Falcon, had been carried away in a balloon he had constructed in his backyard was a 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.

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

Heene met with investigators at Sheriff's Office headquarters around 2 p.m.

Colorado authorities announced Thursday that they would re-interview members of the family about the five-hour disappearance of Falcon Heene. 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.

The story began with the desperate voice of a father calling for help. It was Thursday afternoon, Oct. 15, and Heene was 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, a two-time participant of the ABC reality show "Wife Swap," 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."

Child's Statement Fuels Doubt: 'We Did This for a Show'

But more than the actions of the father, it's the words of the son that have fueled speculation. Toward the end of a lengthy interview on CNN's "Larry King Live" Thursday night, Falcon was asked why he hid in the attic for hours while so many thought he was in danger. "You guys said that we did this for a show," he replied, with his parents nearby.

Guest host Wolf Blitzer asked Richard Heene to ask his son, who could not hear Blitzer, what he meant by the comment. Heene briefly suggested Falcon might have been talking about the family's two appearances on the ABC reality show "Wife Swap."

"Certainly, that statement that was made last night on the interview raises the questions again," the sheriff investigating the incident said. "We do intend to go back and try and re-interview the family."

Alderden said Child Protective Services would "probably open an investigation," but he asked that they wait until law enforcement officials had an opportunity to question the family today.

The sheriff said he believed the boy hid in the rafters and fell asleep there because he thought he was responsible for untethering the balloon. He said he further believed that the parents were legitimately worried about their son's well-being and that it did not appear to be a hoax or publicity stunt.

"We were convinced yesterday having talked to the parents and investigators that the parents were being honest," Alderden said.

He added that the Heene family "appropriately expressed statements, nonverbal communication, body language and emotions that were entirely consistent with events that were taking place. They believed the boy was in there.

"Our people didn't think [that emotional response] could be faked or was faked," he said.

The sheriff said he doubted the 6-year-old, who allegedly slept during the hunt for him, could have been coached to remain quiet and still during the five-hour search, given his "hyperactive" disposition.

"The suggestion to us that he had been coached to hide and remain still for five hours is inconceivable. It is much more likely he was frightened because he thought he was responsible for the device becoming untethered," Alderden said.

Police Searched the Heene Home Three Times

The sheriff said police were waiting to interview the boy because he was sick, twice vomiting during morning TV show interviews Friday.

"We had hoped to do it today, but after watching the boy being sick and the family suffering from fatigue, we thought it in their best interest to not interview them [Friday] but perhaps tomorrow after they've settled down and had some rest," he said.

Alderden said sheriff's deputies searched the Heenes' home three times, but never looked in the rafters above the garage because they did not think the area was accessible to a small child. He said the boy climbed on top of a box to get to the attic.

Alderden added that officials believed it was possible that the aircraft was capable of carrying the boy, answering some critics who claim the flight was a hoax because the device could not conceivably carry that weighty a payload.

Police released a 911 tape of Falcon's parents frantically calling 911 to report that their son was stowed away in the floating balloon.

It was Falcon's mom, Mayumi, who called 911, but she was so distraught, the dispatcher could barely understand what she was saying through her tears about her son floating away in a "flying saucer."

"Does he know how to operate the flying saucer?" the dispatcher asked. "No," the boy's mother wails.

Falcon's father Richard then got on the phone, but he was so distracted that he kept leaving the dispatcher saying, "Hello? Hello?"

When asked if he was certain Falcon was in the aircraft, the father responded: "Yeah, we looked everywhere. And then [another] son just said ... yeah, he verified it ... He said, 'yeah, he went inside just before it went off.'... We had it tethered; it wasn't supposed to take off."

Richard Heene warned the dispatcher that the balloon was headed for a nearby airport.

Toward the end of the call, the 911 dispatcher was left repeating, "Helloooo. Sir? Hellooo?" She then said to a colleague, "My caller is completely gone."

Richard Heene spent Friday on the defensive, saying Falcon was found safely hiding in the rafters of his family's garage and insisting that the balloon's takeoff was an accident and not a publicity stunt.

"To have people say that, I think, is extremely pathetic," Richard Heene told "Good Morning America" Friday, his arm wrapped around son Falcon. "We were holding on to every second, every second, just hoping he might come out OK."

Boy Said He Feared Getting in Trouble for Messing With Father's Aircraft

Making the rounds on the morning news programs, Richard Heene explained what he believed Falcon meant when he said, "We did this for a show." The dad told NBC's "Today" that Falcon had showed journalists his hiding place in the garage rafters.

"Somebody had asked [Falcon] if he would show them how he got in the attic, so he was obliging them, and one of the guys told him it was for some TV show. So, that's what he was referring to. That's what he was referring to when he made that statement," Heene said.

Heene and law enforcement officials told reporters Thursday that Falcon had retreated to his hiding space after his father scolded him for fiddling with the experimental aircraft tethered in the family yard.

"I was in the attic, and he scared me because he yelled at me," Falcon told reporters. "That's why I went in the attic."

"Falcon is a great kid, very adventurous, and has no fear factor," neighbor Tina Sanchez said. "For him to climb into this balloon would not be out of character."

Richard Heene, responding to the recent criticism, said, "I'm not selling anything. This is what we do all the time," he said. "I don't have a can of beans I'm trying to promote. This is just another day in the life of what we do."

ABC News' Michael James and Clayton Sandell contributed to this report.