Family of boy feared lost in balloon falls under scrutiny amid questions about hoaxBy P. Solomon Banda, AP
Friday, October 16, 2009
Family at center of balloon saga faces scrutiny
FORT COLLINS, Colo. — By all accounts, Richard Heene is an unapologetic self-promoter who would pursue all sorts of off-the-wall stunts to get media attention. Flying saucers, mountaintop helicopter stunts, storm chasing, reality TV shows — no gag was beyond his limits.
But would he go so far as to hide his 6-year-old son in the rafters of his garage for five hours and make it seem like the boy floated away in a helium balloon?
It was a question being asked everywhere Friday, one day after the balloon drama unfolded live on television during a frenzied search before little Falcon Heene was found.
The sheriff’s office said it does not believe at this point that the balloon episode was a stunt, but investigators planned to question the family again Saturday. Richard Heene denies that the events were a hoax, dismissing such allegations as “extremely pathetic.”
Doubts surfaced after a series of bizarre TV interviews, including one on CNN in which Falcon Heene told his parents “you said we did this for a show” when asked why he did not come down from the garage rafters during the search.
The family made the rounds on the morning talk shows Friday, and little 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 sheriff was also asked about the sequence of events when the Heenes reported their child’s disappearance to authorities. The Heenes called the FAA first, followed by 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 had been 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 restitution costs for the thousands of dollars spent to search for the boy, an effort that involved military helicopters, a ground rescue and even a mounted posse. Officials also rerouted planes around the balloon’s flight path and briefly shut down Denver International Airport.
Deputies searched the family’s home and considered going into the attic, but they “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. The balloon could probably handle a payload of about 80 pounds. The child weighed 37 pounds.
A video of the balloon 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.
Richard Heene’s actions have drawn scrutiny and puzzlement on many occasions in recent years. He has worked as a storm chaser, a handyman and a 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.”
The sheriff said that because of the “magnitude” of the balloon event, his office contacted social workers, but investigators asked them not to speak to the Heenes until the family has talked to authorities again.
Maj. Justin Smith of the sheriff’s office said social workers were 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.
On Friday, dozens of journalists were parked in front of the family home. At times, two of the boys could be seen playing in the backyard and peeking through windows at the scene 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.
Associated Press writers Colleen Slevin in Colorado and Greg Risling, Lynn Elber and Solvej Schou in Los Angeles contributed to this report. Moreno reported from Denver.
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