Acquaintances say balloon boy’s mom will ‘go down with the ship’ if needed

By P. Solomon Banda, AP
Thursday, October 22, 2009

Friend: Balloon mom will ‘go down with the ship’

FORT COLLINS, Colo. — On an episode of ABC’s “Wife Swap,” Mayumi Heene pounds her fists and shouts in frustration because she believes her co-star isn’t paying enough attention to one of his sons.

Off-camera, the mother of Colorado “balloon boy” Falcon Heene is a stoic, hardworking woman who is loyal to her family and sometimes subservient to her husband, those who know her say.

She now could face charges along with her husband in last week’s runaway balloon spectacle, the latest twist in a 12-year marriage that has never been short on drama.

Mayumi has been at her husband’s side as they chased down tornadoes and hurricanes, looked for UFOs, launched rockets and pursued his dream of becoming a TV star.

Friends say she emigrated from her native Japan — it’s not clear when — and met Richard at an acting school in Hollywood. Public records show they married in October 1997 in Clark County, Nev., which includes Las Vegas. They soon started having children, with three boys now aged 10, 8 and 6.

The couple ran a film-editing business in Los Angeles for a while, renting a house in 2006 and 2007 from Carrie Cavalier, a Burbank-based photographer who takes publicity headshots.

“When they had their editing business, she was doing all the work. She was in the back guest house doing editing and working on the footage all the time,” Cavalier said.

They moved to Fort Collins two years ago, making the city north of Denver their base for wide range of bizarre experiments that culminated with the balloon saga. Six-year-old Falcon Heene was reported trapped in the saucer-shaped balloon as it floated across the Colorado plains but was later found alive and well at the family home.

Authorities say Falcon was a pawn in a hoax hatched by his parents to get publicity for a reality TV show. They say the parents could face criminal charges and be asked to pay restitution for the cost of the massive search-and-rescue operation. The couple have denied staging the incident.

Richard Heene, 48, is the public face of the family, and his aspirations to become a reality TV star and television scientist are well known. Mayumi Heene, 45, has been mostly in the background.

Barbara Slusser of Fort Collins, who worked with Richard Heene on a proposed TV show called “The Science Detectives” or “The Psyience Detectives,” described Mayumi Heene as stoic, strong, intelligent and big-hearted.

“But she also is totally subservient to Richard and the boys. Whatever they want, they get,” Slusser said.

She said Mayumi didn’t have much of a say in family matters but is devoted to what Slusser called their “unit.”

“She’s devoted to the unit. She’ll go down with the ship,” Slusser said.

Los Angeles-based comedian and actress Sunda Croonquist met Mayumi in the late 1990s and spent long hours with her when she helped edit Croonquist’s demo reel. The two were both pregnant at the same times and nursed their children together.

“She was very level, quiet, shy, yet a very good sense of humor, very keen eye for comedy,” Croonquist said. “Very funny, very good mom.”

Yet Mayumi was reserved when Croonquist saw her around her husband.

“I was doing an editing session and he burst in. He was upset because his work wasn’t being done and somebody else’s was being done, not even noting that I am a paying customer,” Croonquist said. “Her reaction was silence. She did not fight back, did not say anything.”

The Heenes moved to Fort Collins by late 2007. Investigators say Richard Heene worked in construction, including installing tile. Neighbors say they often saw him working on a project in the driveway or fishing with his boys in a nearby creek but that Mayumi Heene rarely ventured out of the house. She did chat with neighbors at the community mailbox stand or wave as she loaded the children in a minivan for school.

About the most neighbors and parents at her children’s school heard from her was when she talked about the family’s appearance on reality TV.

The Heenes appeared on “Wife Swap” late last year and again in March, with Mayumi Heene trading places with a mother from a Connecticut family. The show described the other family as “safety-conscious” and the Heene household as “chaotic as a twister.”

“She had really enjoyed the other family,” said neighbor Amy Dengler, who spoke to Mayumi Heene shortly afterward.

Leilani Bishop, who lives in a house across a greenbelt behind the Heene home, said she has spoken to the couple on several occasions, once after she said one of the Heene boys urinated on her driveway.

Mayumi Heene was apologetic, she said, but Richard Heene was more aggressive and confrontational.

Marc Friedland, who lives next to the Heenes, said he’s never seen Richard Heene yell at his spouse.

“I’ve heard him be upset, but in a minute he calms down,” he said.

Records show that a Larimer County deputy responded to the house in February and reported that he thought a fight may have taken place. But he concluded he didn’t have probable cause to make an arrest. Last weekend, Larimer County Sheriff Jim Alderden said officials tried to persuade Mayumi Heene to go with her sons to a safe house, but she declined. Richard Heene’s attorney, David Lane, called such talk by the sheriff “irresponsible.”

“Wife Swap” showed Richard Heene throwing a glass of milk at the Connecticut woman who traded places with Mayumi, who in turn berates her fake husband on the show as a “loser.”

But one of the Heenes’ neighbors said she doesn’t read too much into the antics on the show.

“I can’t really tell if he’s a hot head or not,” Molly Fiechtl said. “I don’t want to use every thing I see on these shows to form my opinions. You can’t tell how much of that is acting.”

Associated Press Writer Catherine Tsai contributed to this report.

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