Colorado family of boy feared lost in balloon falls under scrutiny amid hoax questionsBy P. Solomon Banda, AP
Saturday, October 17, 2009
Family at center of balloon saga under scrutiny
FORT COLLINS, Colo. — 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 Heene 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 Heenes’ 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 signs of backing out of the spotlight, knocking on the windows of media vehicles outside his home early Saturday and promising a “big announcement” in a few hours.
He then emerged from the house to tell the crowd of anxious reporters and raucous spectators he’d take written questions and answer them at another news conference later in the day.
As Heene walked away, a reporter asked him if it was a publicity stunt.
“Absolutely no hoax. I want your questions in the box,” Heene said, waving a cardboard box he then left on the doorstep before going back inside.
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 said, “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.
Richard Heene left the house about an hour-and-half later in a red minivan and drove to the sheriff’s office. A little later, a man who told reporters he and a woman with him were from the sheriff’s department entered the house.
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 family made the rounds on morning talk shows Friday, and Falcon threw up during two separate interviews when asked why he hid.
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 at the home in February, heard a man yelling and noticed 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.”
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.
Gene Fiechtl, a neighbor selling coffee at the Saturday morning news conference, said the Heenes are a good family. He said he sees the boys walking with fishing poles, climbing gear and riding mini motorcycles.
“Everybody’s looking for a controversy,” Fiechtl said. “It would be nicer if everybody would look at the bright side and say it’s nice the boy was found.”
Associated Press writers contributing to this report include P. Solomon Banda in Fort Collins; Judith Kohler, Ivan Moreno and Colleen Slevin in Denver; and Greg Risling, Lynn Elber and Solvej Schou in Los Angeles.
Tags: Animals, Balloon boy, Birds, Colorado, Denver, Falcon heene, Fort Collins, North America, Reality Tv, Search And Rescue Efforts, Television Programs, United States, Weather Conditions