'Balloon Boy' hoax was a reality TV publicity stunt, police say
The runaway balloon saga, in which six-year-old Falcon Heene was reported to have flown away in a home-made helium balloon, was a hoax intended to drum up publicity for a future reality television show, police confirmed.
AFP - The runaway balloon saga that gripped the United States was a hoax concocted by the entire family to drum up publicity for a future reality television show, police confirmed Sunday.
Larimer County Sheriff Jim Alderden said Richard Heene and his Japanese-born wife Mayumi had fabricated Thursday's drama when their six-year-old son Falcon was reported to have flown away on a home-made helium balloon.
Falcon Heene was later discovered alive after hiding in an upstairs attic at the family home for several hours, a bizarre ending to a televised drama that drew immediate suspicions of a hoax.
Alderden revealed at a press conference that the Heene parents had first met during a Hollywood acting class -- and successfully conned officers last Thursday into thinking that they were distraught as the tension mounted.
"Needless to say they put on a very good show for us and we bought it," Alderden told reporters. "These people are actors ... We were manipulated by the family and the media were manipulated by the family."
"The plan was to create a situation where it appeared Falcon was in the craft and that his life was in jeopardy in order to gain a lot of publicity with the ultimate goal of gaining some notoriety and perhaps furthering their careers by gaining a contract for a reality TV show," Alderden explained.
"On the bizarre meter, this rates a 10."
Alderden also revealed for the first time that the Heenes' three sons -- aged 10, 8 and six -- were also in on the scam.
The Heenes had previously appeared together on an episode of the reality television series "Wife Swap" earlier this year, where they were portrayed as a family of storm-chasing amateur scientists who conduct wacky experiments from launching rockets to searching for extra-terrestrials.
Alderden confirmed that Heene and his wife are expected to face felony and misdemeanor charges of conspiracy, contributing to delinquency of a minor, attempting to influence a public servant, and filing a false report. The couple's children were unlikely to face charges because of their young age.
The most serious felony charge -- attempting to influence a public official -- could in theory see the Heenes jailed for any where between two to six years, law enforcement source said. However Alderden said that due to the crowded nature of Colorado's prisons jail time was unlikely.
Alderden had emphasized at a press conference on Friday that law enforcement were convinced that the Heenes had been telling the truth.
Yet Alderden claimed Sunday that police's public statements of support for the family were part of a strategy to lull the Heenes into a false sense of security.
He said authorities' suspicions had first been raised late Thursday when Falcon Heene blurted out during a television interview on CNN that "we did this for a show."
"If you look at the non-verbal responses as well as some of the verbal cues, not only from him but from the family, from the children, the reaction, it became very clear to us at that point that they were lying," Alderden said.
Armed with those suspicions, police interviewed Richard Heene and his wife separately on Saturday, Alderden said.
"Based on the interviews that were done yesterday, we obtained enough probable cause to execute search warrants at the house last evening," he said.
Larimer County under-sheriff Ernie Hudson meanwhile defended the failure of law enforcement to uncover the hoax earlier, saying that the Heenes initial distraught demeanor appeared to be genuine.
"We don't have the luxury of just rushing to judgment or jumping to conclusions," he said.
Police later allowed reporters to inspect the home-made balloon at the center of the hoax and revealed it had been constructed with common household materials, mainly aluminium foil and plastic trash bags.
Meanwhile a college student who discussed possible ideas with Heene for a reality television show on Sunday revealed the idea of staging a publicity stunt involing a flying-saucer shaped balloon was mooted several months ago.
Robert Thomas, 25, made the disclosure on Gawker.com, referring to a memo by Heene charting possible ideas for episodes of a reality television series.
"We will modify a weather balloon, so that it resembles a UFO and will electrically charge the skin of the craft," Heene wrote.
"This will be the most significant UFO-related news event to take place since the Roswell Crash of 1947, and the result will be a dramatic increase in local and national awareness about The Heene Family, our Reality Series, as well as the UFO Phenomenon in general."