Millions of people world wide watched the drama unfold on TV and streaming video on the Web. E-mails and text messages were flying, "Are you watching this?" Of course we were, there was no escaping it. Everyone wanted to see if there was a little boy in the helium balloon racing across the Colorado sky.
Richard Heene is a storm chaser, inventor, and, in his own words, an amateur scientist. He designed a saucer-shaped helium balloon as an alternative form of transportation that would allow folks to "hover above traffic." He built a prototype of the balloon in his backyard. The balloon was 20 feet wide and 5 feet high, and had a small compartment with a spring-loaded door that would house the steering controls on the real craft (there were no controls on the prototype).
On October 15, 2009, the Heene family - Mayumi Heene, Richard's wife, and two of their sons, Bradford and Ryo - appear in a homemade video of what appears to be some type of test flight. Richard is seen checking the storage compartment, the family counts down "3, 2, 1..," and then the balloon is released. It starts to hover, and then to Richard's surprise, it floats away. He seems angry in the video. Apparently, there was supposed to be one tether rope still attached to the balloon to keep it Earth-bound.
Not long after that, the oldest of the Heenes' children, Bradford, tells his Dad that the youngest child, Falcon, was inside the balloon. Falcon, who's six years old, isn't seen in the homemade video. Although there's some speculation about what happened next exactly, it's been reported that the Heenes called the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), then called a local television station asking that a news helicopter track the balloon, and then called 911, all the time insisting that Falcon was on the balloon.
The balloon flew for nearly two hours, traveled over 60 miles crossing two counties, and reached altitudes near 7,000 feet before it landed in a field. The flight was covered by news helicopters, as well as a host of state and local emergency responders both in the air and on the ground.
Falcon wasn't in the balloon.
The Hoax Unravels
At first, even the sheriff of Larimer County, Colorado believed that the incident was real. The Heenes story seemed to make sense: Falcon had been seen near the balloon earlier in the day, playing with or near the ropes and the storage compartment. When the balloon floated away, their story went, Falcon thought he'd get into trouble and so he hid in an attic area.
Others were skeptical from the beginning. Why wasn't Falcon in the video? Why did the Heenes call the FAA first and 911 last? The police searched the attic and didn't find Falcon. How? There was no ladder or any other access to the attic, so how'd he get up there?
It all started to unravel when Falcon was asked during a CNN interview if he had heard his parents calling for him. When he answered "yes," the surprised parents asked why he didn't come out of hiding. Falcon answered, "because you said we did this for a show."
This led to more investigation, and it was discovered that a "media outlet" had agreed to pay the Heenes for going forward with the balloon ride. There's also an indication that the hoax was intended to land the Heenes their own reality television show.
End of the Ride?
The balloon ride is over, but the Heene parents' won't be resting anytime soon. State criminal charges haven't been filed yet, but the sheriff has said he'll recommend that they be charged with conspiracy, contributing to the delinquency of a minor, and other crimes. They may even be forced to repay the costs of the "rescue" effort. In addition, Child Protection Services is looking into the Heenes' parenting skills. And, federal charges may be filed against them, too. The balloon flew close to the Denver Airport - it was closed down for a time because of the balloon - in violation of FAA regulations, and US military equipment and personnel were used in the "rescue."
They'll probably get their TV show, though. Once charges are filed, there'll be months of interviews and courtroom drama. A lot of money to repay for the first responders' efforts, possible jail time and criminal fines, and maybe even losing the custody of their children, and all of it captured live as it happens. Now that's real TV.
Questions for Your Attorney
- Even if the Heenes are convicted of crimes and have to pay back money for the rescue, they could still make millions by writing a book or selling their story for a movie, right?
- Are there really any grounds for taking the kids away from the Heene parents?
- I was stuck in the Denver Airport for hours during the balloon ride. I missed my flight, had to pay for a hotel and meals. Can I sue the Heenes to recover my costs?