Sheriff: Balloon Boy Incident Was a Hoax

Published October 19, 2009

FORT COLLINS, Colorado (AP) — An alleged associate of the father in the balloon boy hoax is wanted for questioning after e-mails surfaced showing the two men had discussed a similar stunt months ago as a public relations campaign to promote a reality TV show.

Investigators said they want to interview Robert Thomas, a Denver man who claimed Richard Heene had told him he was planning a media stunt to promote a proposed reality show. Thomas, a self-described researcher, sold his story to Gawker.com and provided the Web site with e-mail exchanges between him and Heene. Thomas said the show would feature Heene as a mad scientist who carries out various scientific experiments.

Meanwhile, the attorney for the Heenes said he expects authorities to file charges against the couple by the end of the day Monday or sometime Tuesday.

Attorney David Lane, who appeared on the "Today" show on NBC Monday, said Richard and Mayumi Heene are willing to voluntarily turn themselves in once charges are filed.

Lane also said he has met the Heenes' three sons, including 6-year-old Falcon Heene, who was believed to be flying over Colorado inside a giant helium balloon Thursday until it was discovered that he had been hiding. Lane said Falcon Heene and his brothers appeared to be well-loved, well-adjusted and happy boys.

In the e-mail exchange, Heene apparently expected to generate a lot of publicity.

"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," according to a copy of the show's proposal provided to the site by Thomas.

Gawker.com editor-in-chief Gabriel Snyder confirmed the New York-based Web site paid Thomas, but declined to say how much for the story billed with the headline: "Exclusive: I Helped Richard Heene Plan a Balloon Hoax."

Snyder said Thomas was planning to meet with investigators Sunday night, though sheriff's officials did not return messages seeking confirmation.

Messages left for Thomas by The Associated Press were not returned.

Thomas, 25, said in his Gawker.com story that the plan he knew about did not involve Heene's children.

The alleged stunt temporarily shut down Denver International Airport, and the National Guard provided two helicopters in an attempt to rescue 6-year-old Falcon Heene, who was believed to be inside the homemade balloon that hurtled more than 50 miles (80 kilometers) across two counties.

The drama played out on live television to millions of viewers worldwide. When the balloon landed without the boy, officials thought he had fallen out and began the grim search for his body.

Larimer County Sheriff Jim Alderden announced Sunday that he's seeking charges, including felonies. Alderden said the stunt two weeks in the planning was a marketing ploy by the Heenes, who met in acting school in Hollywood and have appeared on ABC's reality show "Wife Swap."

"We certainly know that there's a conspiracy between the husband and wife, you've probably seen some of the e-mails and some of the things on the Internet suggesting that there may be other conspirators," Alderden said.

Alderden said documents show that a media outlet has agreed to pay money to the Heenes with regard to the balloon incident. Alderden didn't name the media outlet but said it was a show that blurs "the line between entertainment and news."

It wasn't clear whether the deal was signed before or after the alleged hoax, or whether the media outlet was a possible conspirator.

In an e-mail Sunday to the AP, Snyder said editors at Gawker.com had not contacted the Heene family or offered them money for their story, referring to Alderden's reference to a deal being struck by a media outlet.

"No, that wasn't us," Snyder said.

The parents weren't under arrest, the sheriff said. He said he expected to recommend charges of conspiracy, contributing to the delinquency of a minor, making a false report to authorities and attempting to influence a public servant. Federal charges were also possible.

The most serious charges are felonies and carry a maximum sentence of six years in prison and a $500,000 fine. Alderden said they would be seeking restitution for the costs, though he didn't have an estimate.

The cost for just the two military helicopters was about $14,500.

As Alderden told reporters Sunday that the whole thing was a hoax, the Heenes were shopping for snacks at Wal-Mart, where Richard Heene told the AP he was "seeking counsel."

"This thing has become so convoluted," Heene said, tears welling in his eyes. He said his wife was holding together better than he was.

The couple's attorney, David Lane, issued a statement later Sunday saying the Heenes were willing to voluntarily turn themselves in to face charges. Lane said he advised the family against making public statements.

Once investigators got a good look at the "flying saucer" they determined that the thin mylar balloon covered with foil and held together with duct tape would not have been able to launch with the 37-pound (17-kilogram) boy inside, according to Colorado State University physics professor Brian Jones.

Other parts of the story, including whether the 6-year-old had been hiding in the rafters of the family's garage during an intense five-hour search also weren't true, Alderden said.

"For all we know he may have been two blocks down the road playing on the swing," the sheriff said.

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Associated Press writers Catherine Tsai, P. Solomon Banda and AP contributor Breck Larson in Fort Collins provided material for this report.


 

Written by the Associated Press

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