Sheriff: No indication balloon ordeal was hoax
Associated Press Writers
FORT COLLINS, Colo. – A Colorado official said Friday there’s no indication a family was carrying out a hoax when they reported their 6-year-old son was in a helium balloon that floated away from their home, causing a frenzied rescue effort before the child was found hiding in the garage.
“We believe at this time that it was a real event. Certainly people are free to speculate,” Larimer County Sheriff Jim Alderden said. He added that if the episode “turns out to be a hoax, we will seek restitution by whatever means we have available.”
Falcon Heene vanished Thursday around the time his family’s homemade helium balloon floated away from their home, setting off a frantic search as authorities scoured the plains of northern Colorado for the youngster.
Questions were raised about the incident after the boy said “we did this for a show” in a live interview with CNN. The boys’ parents are storm chasers who appeared in the ABC reality show “Wife Swap.”
The boy’s father, Richard Heene, called accusations that the ordeal was a publicity stunt “extremely pathetic.”
The sheriff acknowledged that Falcon’s comments had clearly “raised everybody’s level of skepticism, but that investigators had no reason to believe the balloon odyssey was a hoax.
The sheriff said they’ll interview the family again on Saturday to ask about the boy’s comments.
“It seems much more likely that the boy was frightened because he saw that he was responsible for this device becoming untethered,” Alderden said.
In a 911 call, the boy’s mother, Mayumi Heene, told a dispatcher her son was in “a flying saucer,” sobbed and said “we’ve got to get my son.”
Then her husband, Richard Heene, got on the phone and described the helium craft, saying the boy “doesn’t know how it operates.” He said the balloon wasn’t supposed to launch, and had been gone about 20 minutes.
The sheriff said that because of the “magnitude” of the event, his office contacted social workers, but asked them not to talk to the Heenes until they’ve talked to authorities again. Maj. Justin Smith of the sheriff’s office said social workers were asked to get involved because of concerns raised about the family’s storm chasing work. He said authorities want to make sure the children are in a healthy environment.
If it was determined the ordeal was a hoax, the parents could be charged with making a false report to authorities, a low-level misdemeanor, Alderden said.
While the balloon floated 50 miles over two counties, the boy was hiding in an attic space above the garage, though not in a cardboard box as officials originally reported, Alderden said. He was found five hours after the oldest of three sons reported that Falcon, the youngest, had climbed into the saucer-shaped balloon.
Deputies who searched the home “just didn’t think it was possible that 6-year-old boy would be able to get up to that space so they didn’t look 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 would support a child the size of Falcon, Alderden said. They were told the balloon could likely handle a payload of about 80 pounds; the child weighed about 37 pounds.
The balloon was designed to hover about 50 to 100 feet from the ground, but it broke loose from its tether, setting off a search that included military helicopters and a plan to either lower a person to the craft or place weights on the balloon to bring it down. Officials rerouted planes around the balloon’s flight path and briefly shut down Denver International Airport.
Heene said the family was tinkering with the balloon Thursday and that he scolded Falcon for getting inside a compartment on the craft.
“I was in the attic and he scared me because he yelled at me,” Falcon said, referring to his father. “That’s why I went in the attic.”
Richard Heene and his family made the rounds on all three television networks on Friday, and the boy at the center of the saga got sick twice when he and his father were asked during separate interviews what he meant when he said that “we did this for a show.”
During an ABC interview on Friday Falcon was asked why he said he was hiding “for a show,” at which point he said: “Mom, I feel like I’m going to vomit.” He then left the room with his mother and could be heard gagging.
During a live interview on NBC’s “Today” that aired simultaneously, Falcon threw up into a container when his father was answering the same question.
Some people who know the family said the family, especially the father, thrived on publicity and chaos.
Barb Slusser of Fort Collins worked with Richard Heene on a show called, “The Science Detectives,” which Heene described on his MySpace page as a documentary series “to investigate the mysteries of science.” She said she stopped working with him after becoming concerned about his off-the-wall antics and attempts to get media attention for the program.
While Slusser stops short of calling Thursday’s balloon odyssey a hoax, she said she wouldn’t rule it out.
“Basically, what I’m saying, knowing Richard, there’s always a possibility that this was done for publicity,” she said.
Headshot photographer Carrie Cavalier, 53, of Burbank, Calif., paints a picture of a man with big ideas who lived in chaos.
She did headshots for Heene, an aspiring actor at the time, and said the Heene family rented a one-story Burbank house from her from June 2006 until June 2007. But when she evicted them because they hadn’t paid a security deposit and let the house deteriorate, they picked up and left without notice, leaving behind a home in disarray, she said.
“Mostly, the whole house was infested with cockroaches. There was dog poop all over the backyard,” she said.
Cavalier said she was spooked by Richard Heene.
“He was pretty much controlling them and involving them in all the activities he did,” she said of Heene and his children.
TLC said the Heenes had earlier approached them with a reality show pitch and the network passed. TLC declined to provide further details.
The family received no more than a few thousand dollars for each time they appeared on “Wife Swap,” according to a person who was familiar with the production. The person requested anonymity because the source was not authorized to speak publicly.
Associated Press Writers Solvej Schou and Lynn Elber in Los Angeles contributed to this report.