Family at Center of Balloon Saga Under Scrutiny

By: Dan Elliott Associated Press Email
By: Dan Elliott Associated Press Email

FORT COLLINS, Colo. (AP) - A couple who frantically told a 911 dispatcher their 6-year-old son had floated off in an inflatable balloon remain in the spotlight, but now it's for a series of bizarre TV interviews about the escapade, a previous 911 call and efforts to land a reality TV show gig.

Sheriff's investigators hoped to talk to Richard and Mayumi bHeene again Saturday to resolve lingering questions over whether the drama - with military helicopters scrambling to catch up to the helium balloon and rescue the boy supposedly inside - could have been a hoax.

It turns out little Falcon Heene was hiding in the rafters of the family garage, apparently without his parents or two brothers knowing.

Doubts over the Heene's story surfaced after a CNN interview in which Falcon told his parents "you said we did this for a show" after his father asked why he did not come down from the rafters during the search Thursday.

Richard Heene showed no sign of backing out of the spotlight, promising a "big announcement" Saturday morning.

He then emerged from the house to tell a crowd of reporters and spectators he'd take written questions and answer them at another news conference later in the day.

As Heene walked away, a reporter shouted, "Can you tell us once and for all if this is a hoax?"

"Absolutely no hoax, I want your questions in the box," Heene said, waving a cardboard box he then left on the doorstep.

The crowd included two young men holding signs and occasionally yelling, "balloon boy." One sign read "Put balloon boy on TV: America's Most Wanted." The other read, "10/15/09. We will never forget."

A man pulled a red wagon with coffee for sale. The sign had $2 scratched out with a new price of $1.

The family made the rounds on morning talk shows Friday, and Falcon threw up during two separate interviews when asked why he hid.

Larimer County Sheriff Jim Alderden acknowledged that Falcon's comments on CNN had clearly "raised everybody's level of skepticism." But, he said, investigators had no reason to believe the whole thing was a hoax.

Alderden said the family seemed genuine during the panic, and he believed events could have unfolded just as they described: Falcon got frightened when his father scolded him for playing inside the balloon, and hid in the garage out of fear.

The sheriff said his office has been flooded with calls and e-mails about the matter. He added that officials "have to operate on what we can prove as a fact and not what people want to be done."

The Heenes say that when they couldn't find Falcon, they called the Federal Aviation Administration, then a local TV station with a news helicopter, and then dialed 911. The sheriff said the TV station call made sense because the helicopter could have provided immediate assistance.

In the 911 call, the boy's mother, Mayumi Heene, told a dispatcher in a panicked voice that her child was in "a flying saucer." She sobbed and said, "We've got to get my son."

It was not the first time someone from the Heenes' home has dialed 911. A Colorado sheriff's deputy responded to a 911 hang-up in February at the home, hearing a man yelling and noticing Mayumi Heene had a mark on her cheek and broken blood vessels in her left eye. She said it was because of a problem with her contacts.

Richard Heene said he was yelling because his children stayed up past their bedtime. The husband and wife said nothing had happened, and the deputy concluded he did not have probable cause to make an arrest.

If the balloon ordeal was a hoax, the parents could be charged with making a false report to authorities, a low-level misdemeanor, Alderden said.

He said authorities would need to bring a criminal case before attempting to recoup costs for the thousands of dollars spent on aerial and ground searches for the boy. Officials rerouted planes around the balloon's flight path and briefly shut down Denver International Airport.

Deputies searched the family's home but didn't look in the attic because they didn't think it was possible Falcon could climb up there, Alderden said.

While the balloon was in the air, the sheriff's department reached out to a university professor who determined that a balloon of that size could probably handle a payload of about 80 pounds, Alderden said. Falcon weighs about 37 pounds.

The balloon was supposed to be tethered to the ground when it lifted off Thursday. A video of the launch shows the family counting down in unison, "3, 2, 1," before Richard Heene pulls a cord, setting the silvery craft into the air.

"Whoa!" one of the boys exclaims. Then his father says in disbelief, "Oh, my God!" He then says to someone, "You didn't put the (expletive) tether down!" And he kicks the wood frame that had held the balloon.

Over the years, Richard Heene has worked as a storm chaser, a handyman and contractor, and an aspiring reality-TV star.

He and his family appeared on the ABC reality show "Wife Swap," receiving no more than a few thousand dollars for each show, according to a person familiar with the production. The person requested anonymity because the source was not authorized to speak publicly.

In addition, the producer of "Wife Swap" said that it had a show in development with the Heenes but that the deal is now off. The producer did not provide specifics. TLC also said Heene had pitched a reality show to the network months ago, but it passed on the offer.

Barb Slusser Adams, who along with Heene and another man worked
on a proposed show called "The Science Detectives," said she became used to his relentless attempts to get media attention for the program, which never aired. Heene described the show on his MySpace page as a documentary series "to investigate the mysteries of science."

Slusser said one of Heene's publicity ideas involved going at dawn to the top of a mountain with her and an associate from the show. They would be clad in black attire similar to that worn by characters in the "Matrix" movies, "and the helicopter would come by and strafe us or whatever," Slusser said. She and the associate said "absolutely not."

Slusser said Heene approached ABC to be on "Wife Swap" in an attempt to promote "The Science Detectives." She said Heene included her in his pitch to be on "Wife Swap" without her knowledge, describing her as a family friend who could be on the show.

Actor-comedian Perry Caravello said he met Heene back in the early 1990s, when Heene was struggling in Hollywood. Caravello said Heene rented out a room at the Comedy Store, and he and a handful of comedians performed, but that the event was a "total bomb."

The two worked on a couple of construction jobs before Heene approached Caravello about storm chasing. "He wanted to ride a motorcycle into the middle of a tornado. It was stupid, out-of-the-world stuff."

Maj. Justin Smith of the sheriff's office said social workers have been asked to get involved because of concerns about the family's storm chasing. He said authorities want to make sure the children are in a healthy environment.

The sheriff said investigators asked social workers to wait to talk with the Heenes until the family talks to authorities again.

On Friday, two of the Heene boys could be seen playing in the backyard and peeking through windows at reporters on the street. One of the boys, Ryo, would occasionally crack open the door and tell journalists that the family was not talking today.

"My dad said he's tired of this show," the boy said.


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