Deflating the Balloon-Boy Tale

October 28, 2009

Cable television news tracked the runaway helium balloon excitedly on Thursday, October 15, 2009. Watching rescue and news helicopters in pursuit, viewers lent sympathy to a frantic Richard and Mayumi Heene who said their six-year-old boy Falcon was a stowaway aboard the flying-saucer-shaped, lighter-than-air craft. When it finally crash-landed in a field near Denver International Airport, and would-be rescuers discovered its capsule empty, the child was thought to have fallen out.

Instead, he was found safe in the rafter space over the Heenes’ garage. By the next day, the family of five (Falcon has two older brothers) was making the TV rounds. An apologetic Richard Heene explained that his having “scolded” Falcon had caused the boy to hide. But when CNN’s Wolf Blitzer asked why Falcon did not come out of hiding on hearing his name being called, the boy blurted out to his parents, “You had said we did this for a show.” On two subsequent programs, the boy became sick when asked why he hid, once even throwing up on camera—an indication of stress. (See Buffalo News , various articles, October 17–26, 2009.)

Later that day, I was queried by BBC Radio in Birmingham, England, and over subsequent days in cities near and far (including Canberra, Australia). As I told the BBC, there were reasons to question the story: the unusual nature of the incident, the fact the Heenes’ had conveniently filmed it, and other indicators, including Falcon’s comment. Privately, having myself launched a number of helium balloons over the years (e.g., for History Channel’s Monster Quest , August 8, 2009), I doubted the relatively small balloon could have actually lifted the boy. And I thought too many of the Heenes’ actions—such as his “angrily” kicking the balloon’s support frame after his wife “accidentally” failed to tether the balloon—looked like bad acting.

As it turned out, the Heene’s were reality-show actors; they had met while attending Hollywood acting school; they had twice appeared on ABC’s “Wife Swap” (discussing, among other things, their belief that they are descended from aliens); and Richard Heene was “obsessed” with getting his own TV show and was seeking to publicize one that he had in the works. (It has since been canceled.).

On Saturday, Sheriff’s deputies questioned the two Heenes separately and—according to an affidavit used to obtain a search warrant for their home—“Mayumi described that she and Richard devised this hoax approximately two weeks earlier. . . . She and Richard had instructed their three children to lie to authorities as well as the media regarding this hoax.”

Larimer County, Colorado, Sheriff Jim Alderden told the news media that he expected to recommend the Heenes be charged with conspiracy, making a false report to authorities, contributing to the delinquency of a minor and, interestingly, attempting to influence a public servant. The most serious of these are felonies carrying a sentence of up to six years in prison together with a $500,000 fine. Sheriff Alderden added that authorities would also seek restitution for the costs, which would include approximately $14,500 for two military helicopters.

Richard Heene has a history of publicity seeking, including storm chasing, mountaintop helicopter stunts, and reality-show antics (such as once throwing a drink on another participant). The media has given him some of the attention he covets, though none of it positive. Jay Leno quipped that the couple could lose custody of their children to Britney Spears. The Buffalo News suggested Halloween costuming representing the Heene family (consisting of a mylar balloon, a cardboard box for “Balloon Boy” to hide in, and a barf bag). If Richard Heene, the apparent instigator of the hoax, is convicted, let us hope he gets the publicity he covets: that cameras follow him all the way to jail.