FORT COLLINS, Colo. — A Colorado sheriff said Sunday it was a hoax when parents reported that their 6-year-old son was in a flying saucer-like helium balloon hurtling away from their home.
Sheriff Jim Alderden said Richard and Mayumi Heene “put on a very good show for us, and we bought it.”
“We believe that we have evidence at this point to indicate that it was a publicity stunt done with the hopes of marketing themselves or better marketing themselves for a reality television show at some point in the future,” Alderden said.
The sheriff said no charges had been filed yet, and the parents weren’t under arrest. 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.
Some of the most serious charges each carry a maximum sentence of six years in prison and a $500,000 fine.
Alderden said all three of the Heenes’ sons knew of the Thursday hoax, but likely won’t face charges because of their ages. The oldest son is 10. One of the boys told investigators he saw his brother get in the balloon’s box before it launched.
Alderden said 6-year-old Falcon may not have even been in the rafters in the garage, as originally reported, based on where the investigators were when the boy entered the house.
“For all we know he may have been two blocks down the road playing on the swing in the city park,” he said.
Heene, a storm chaser and inventor, and his family have appeared on the reality show “Wife Swap.” Alderden said the couple met in acting school in Hollywood.
Alderden said interviews with the parents Saturday resulted in enough information to get a warrant to search the house. He said they were looking for computers, e-mails, phone records and financial records.
Alderden said the children were still with the parents Sunday morning, and child protective services had been contacted to investigate the children’s well-being.
The sheriff initially said there was no reason to believe the incident was a hoax. Authorities questioned the Heenes again after Falcon turned to his dad during a CNN interview Thursday night and said what sounded like “you said we did this for a show” when asked why he didn’t come out of his hiding place.
Falcon got sick during two separate TV interviews Friday when asked again why he hid.
A Colorado State University physics professor, using dimensions given by Richard Heene, had told sheriff’s officials as they were tracking the balloon Thursday that it was plausible for it to lift off with 37-pound Falcon inside.
Once the device landed, sheriff’s officials discovered it was made with plastic tarps taped together and covered with aluminum foil, with a utility box made of a very thin piece of plywood, cardboard on the side, held together with string and duct tape, Alderden said.
Using the true dimensions, the professor determined it could not have launched with the boy inside, Alderden said.
Dan Elloitt/The Associated Press