The episode that transfixed the nation last week — a spaceship-like balloon floating through the Colorado skies with a 6-year-old boy named Falcon believed to be inside — was declared “a hoax” by the Larimer County sheriff’s office on Sunday.
“It has been determined that this is a hoax, that it was a publicity stunt,” the Larimer County Sheriff Jim Alderden said at a news conference in Fort Collins, Colo., one day after re-interviewing members of the now-famous Heene family about the case. “We have evidence to indicate it was a publicity stunt done with the hope of marketing themselves to a reality television show sometime in the future.”
Richard Heene and his wife Mayumi have not yet been arrested, but the sheriff said that among the charges being considered are three felonies: conspiracy between the husband and the wife to commit a crime, contributing to the delinquency of a minor and an attempt to influence a public servant., the last of which carries a prison term of six years. The charges could also include a misdemeanor, filing a false report.
The sheriff said his conclusions were based on separate interviews of the Heenes and their three children as well as searches of their computers, e-mail records and documents found in their home. He said the plot to launch a balloon and tell authorities that Falcon was aboard was planned two weeks ago, with the aim of obtaining a contract to do a reality TV show.
He said authorities had asked a professor of physics at Colorado State University whether the balloon could actually fly with a 37-pound boy inside. The professor determined that this particular balloon could not even though the compartment, patched together with duct tape and plywood, could carry the boy.
The missing child report captured the country’s attention on Thursday afternoon as television news helicopters followed the wayward balloon across the skies of northern Colorado for more than an hour. When the balloon came to land in a dusty field, more than 60 miles from its starting point in Fort Collins, it was found to be empty — prompting fears that the boy, Falcon Heene, had fallen out. Hours later, it was discovered that he had been home the whole time, hiding in an attic above the garage.
An interview Falcon held with CNN fueled speculation that the ordeal was a publicity stunt cooked up by Mr. Heene. In that interview on Thursday night, the boy said: “You guys said that, um, we did this for the show.”
Mr. Heene repeatedly denied that the incident was a hoax. Local authorities initially believed him, citing the panicked nature of the family’s initial 911 calls and their body language while the balloon was missing.
But Mr. Alderden said Sunday that the parents had been acting.
Richard Heene and his wife have been enmeshed for years in the culture of reality television and self-promotional Web postings. The family appeared twice on the ABC show “Wife Swap,” including as recently as last March. Mr. Heene wanted his own show about his family, and he had worked with at least one production company on a proposal. On Friday the cable channel TLC said it had turned down the proposal months ago. He has posted YouTube videos claiming to show proof of life on Mars, asking whether Hillary Rodham Clinton is a “reptilian.”
Neighbors also said Mr. Heene was a storm chaser, who followed the path of tornados and other weather events and was interviewed about his escapades on local television. He is also known around his neighborhood as something of a self-proclaimed scientist and inventor, who had been working on the helium balloon — the family called it a “flying saucer” — for months.
But nothing quite prepared those neighbors — or much of the nation — for the events of last Thursday morning. Around the country, people stopped working and were gripped by broadcasts on CNN and MSNBC showing a silver balloon soaring, floating and diving across the skies of northern Colorado while 6-year-old Falcon was believed to be inside a small compartment all by himself and police, firefighters and helicopters gave chase. Family members told the authorities that Falcon’s 10-year-old brother, Bradford, claimed he saw the boy inside the compartment when the balloon accidentally broke off its moorings.
Sheriff Alderden said he and other law enforcement authorities genuinely believed they were trying to rescue a small boy hundreds of feet above the ground in a balloon and for several hours, they shared the same anguish millions of Americans did.
“We were very worried that the life of a small child, a 6-year-old child may indeed be in jeopardy,” he said.
Sheriff Alderden said that during the chase after the balloon and in the immediate aftermath he and his deputies believed the Heenes were sincere as they sobbed and screamed that their child was in the balloon. But he said he has learned in the course of the investigation that the Heenes had been schooled in dramatic techniques, meeting with an acting school in Hollywood.
“So needless to say they put on a very good show,” the sheriff
He said there even appear to be questions whether Falcon, as the boy and his father told reporters, actually spent several hours hiding in the attic of his house while the rest of the country was worried about his life. The sheriff said the child protection authorities had been notified, though the three Heene children, aged 6, 8 and 10, have not been taken from their parents.
The sheriff said all the Heeenes were interviewed separately in an effort to extract a confession and their home and financial records searched. The Heenes posed no objections.
“All suggested that this was in fact a real deal,” he said. “Someone trying to make something like this up we wouldn’t have expected to give this level of access.”
He said that Colorado law forbade him from confirming whether the Heenes did in fact make a confession.