Boy in balloon hoax: Jury is still out on the Heenes

On Friday, sheriff stood by the Heenes' story that there is no boy in balloon hoax. But he'll reinterview them.

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

The story of the boy who was not in the balloon took another unexpected turn Friday.

The Heene family of Fort Collins, Colo., released their home video of Thursday's launch of their homemade balloon. The video shows the family counting down, the balloon lifting off, and then Richard Heene, father of Falcon Heene, the little boy once thought to be aboard the silver balloon, kicking the ground and yelling angrily as the balloon escapes its tether and floats away.

The video appears to confirm the sequence of events the family described Thursday night on "Larry King Live." But it is also fueling a firestorm of speculation as to whether Thursday's five-hour, hold-your-breath balloon chase that played out 7,000 feet above Colorado – and live on at least three major networks – was nothing more than a hoax.

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The Heenes said they had filled the balloon with helium, thinking it would rise only about 20 feet off the ground, and that Mayumi Heene, the mother, had secured the balloon with a tether. Mrs. Heene said that when the balloon continued to rise, she and her husband began arguing. Mr. Heene added that it took a few minutes for his older son to get his attention and tell him that he thought 6-year-old Falcon was inside the balloon.

A video clip first shown on NBC shows only the first few seconds after the launch and does not show Falcon or include any mention of his whereabouts. This has furthered speculation that Thursday's incident was a hoax, though it's unclear why the Heenes would release their home video if it did not support their version of events.

'We did this for a show'

The controversy began after the Heene family appeared on "Larry King Live" Thursday night.

Mr. Heene asked son Falcon whether the boy had heard them calling for him after the balloon escaped from their backyard.

"You guys said that ...," Falcon began, before trailing off. After pausing for a second, he answered, "We did this for a show."

Responding to criticism

Mr. Heene maintained on NBC's "Today" show Friday morning that the balloon chase was "absolutely not" a publicity stunt.

So how does he explain his son's response?

"First of all, let's clarify. He's six," Mr. Heene said. "I don't know that he really understood the question he was being asked."

He further explained that after the family spoke to the press outside their home Thursday afternoon, Falcon showed reporters his hiding spot and how he'd climbed into the rafters of the garage.

"Somebody had asked him if he'd show them how he got in the attic, and he obliged them," Mr. Heene said. "One of the guys told him it was for some TV show. That's what he was referring to when he made that statement."

What would the Heenes have to gain?

Visibly upset when asked if it was all a publicity stunt, Mr. Heene responded Friday: "What have I got to gain out of this? I'm not selling anything. I'm not advertising anything." He described the balloon as a "minimalistic experiment" and said, "It's something the kids and I put can together and do as a family. It's not something that can be marketed. It's not even patentable."

But the Heenes' previous stints on ABC's reality TV show "Wife Swap" have led some to suggest the family might have simply been after media attention.

In addition to their television appearances, the family has also posted numerous videos on YouTube, including a homemade science series called "The Psyience Detectives," which Mr. Heene co-hosts.

A former colleague of Mr. Heene has questioned his story.

"I believe that Richard had a plan to send this craft aloft," Scott Stevens told NBC News on Friday. Mr. Stevens used to work as a "storm chaser" with Heene but says the two had a falling out when Heene insisted on bringing his boys along to search for storms. "Whether it was to leave the illusion that there was a boy on board, I don't know. [But] I believe it was a premeditated launch," Stevens said.

The Heenes' fellow contestant on "Wife Swap," Sheree Silver, told "The Early Show" Friday that her first thought when hearing about the balloon incident was, "Richard, did you do this on purpose?"

Sheriff believes the Heenes

Despite Friday's controversy, one important person is standing by the Heenes – Larimer County Sheriff Jim Alderden.

"We were convinced yesterday after talking to the parents and having investigators on the scene ... that the parents were being honest with us," Larimer County Sheriff Jim Alderden said in a press conference Friday. In light of recent media interviews given by the Heenes, however, he said he would like to reinterview the family over the weekend.

Challenged repeatedly by the press corps at the news conference about the veracity of the Heenes' story, Sheriff Alderden said: "We believe at this time that is is a real event."

Possible repercussions

If the runaway balloon was a hoax, Alderden said on "Good Morning America" Friday, the first step would probably be to charge the family with making a false report, a misdemeanor offense.

Others have speculated that a bill for the rescue attempts might come the Heenes' way.

"The real liability the parents should be concerned about in the event it was a hoax will be all the costs associated with the 'rescue,' " writes Erin Geiger Smith of Business Insider. "And the law enforcement costs would just be the tip of the iceberg. There's the news helicopter the father apparently requested track the balloon. There's the fact that planes from the Denver airport didn't take off for at least a short period of time."

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To read about the extraordinary efforts that went into Thursday's rescue attempt, click here.

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