Colo. sheriff: Balloon saga was a "hoax"

October 18, 2009

The sheriff says the incident rates a 10 on the 'bizarre meter.'

For several hours, the world watched the homemade balloon fly across Colorado with what people thought was 6-year-old Falcon Heene inside. As it turned out, the drama was nothing more than a made-for-TV drama.

The Larimer County, Colo. sheriff says the runaway balloon was a hoax all in the name of reality television.

"It has been determined that this is a hoax. This was a publicity stunt," Sheriff Jim Alderden said. "The plan was to create a situation where it appeared Falcon was in the craft, in order to gain a lot of publicity."

Alderden says the plan was concocted by Falcon Heene's parents, Richard and Mayumi Heene. As of yet, Richard Heene and his wife have not been arrested. When the investigation is complete, Colorado authorities say the couple faces charges that range from conspiracy to the delinquency of a minor.

"There's a lot of intervies we need to conduct. There's a lot of records we need to go through. We've got to go through his compute, all of the videos," Alderden said.

The attorney hired by the Heene couple said his clients are willing to turn themselves in to avoid '"a public spectacle."

Saturday night, the husband and wife were interviewed separately by investigators for five hours. They came out afterwards and said very little to the media.

"I've been talking to the sheriff's department to hurry things along, and we are doing well," Richard Heene said.

Officials brought in a physics expert to examine the balloon. Given the dimensions and what it was made of, the expert determined the balloon could not have launched with the boy inside.

"Basically it is a... plastic tarp that was taped together and covered with aluminum foil. The utility box, the base of it is a very thin piece of plywood. And the sides of that box are cardboard, all held together with string and duct tape," said the sheriff. "They put on a very good show for us, and we bought it."

Alderden says all three of the Heene couple's sons knew about the hoax, but the kids likely will not face charges because of their ages. The oldest son is 10 years old.

Investigators became suspicious after the Heene family gave several TV interviews. In one, Falcon actually admitted the family did it for a show. Authorities say say Richard Heene concocted the whole story for his ongoing quest to become a reality television star. A self-proclaimed amateur scientist with a high school education, Heene and his family have already appeared on the show "Wife Swap."

"It's really not about reality television, in a way. It's about fame and people's addiction to the public spotlight. And because there are so many more opportunities to get in the spotlight, things like this to happen," said Professor Michael Niederman, chairman of Columbia College's television department.

Niederman says 24-hour news shows also create opportunities for people addicted to fame. The balloon story was carried live on different cable networks.

"It's time, given the news dynamic, that all the networks need to take a breath before jumping in. They need to realize that being first with story isn't necessarily the answer to all of their problems," he said.

Child protective services will conduct an investigation into whether the Heene home is a safe environment for the boys.

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