Larimer County Sheriff Jim Alderden announced Sunday that local police now believe that the so-called "balloon boy" incident was a Heene family hoax and charges will be filed soon. The Heenes' goal was to create publicity for a potential reality TV show, he added.
The long and often rambling press conference for the first time offered the police's explanations for the odd events that led to media and rescue helicopters trailing an experimental balloon that – police had been told – carried six-year-old Falcon Heene, only to discover later that he was hiding in box above the garage.
Alderden's comments ranged from previous allegations of domestic violence against father Richard to the likelihood of any Heenes serving time in prison.
Here is a summary of the briefing:
Alderden put it this way: "We were manipulated by the family and the media was manipulated by the family."
Alderden laid out the incident as a grand marketing scheme planned beforehand, with every member of the family involved. The family that relished appearing on ABC's reality TV show "Wife Swap" apparently sought more notoriety and conceived of the balloon hoax as a way to get it, he said.
"It was done with the hope of marketing themselves for a reality TV show in the future," Alderden said.
The family video of Richard kicking out in anger as the balloon floated away was all an act, he added, as were the interviews that followed – both on TV and with investigators.
At first, the family acted its part so well that investigators did not suspect a hoax, Alderden said. Richard and his wife, Mayumi, allowed their children to be interviewed independently by police – something that guilty people very rarely do.
"They put on a very good show for us, and we bought it," Alderden said, suggesting that the couple had met at acting school in California. "Everything we experienced with the family to that point was very believable."
When did the police suspect a hoax?
The first doubts arose while police were watching "Larry King Live," hosted by Wolf Blitzer. In response to a question about why he didn't come out of the attic when he heard searchers calling for him, Falcon said: "You said we did this for a show."
Alderden cast doubt on whether Falcon was even in the attic.
How did police crack the case?
Alderden told of a series of investigative maneuvers designed to get each of the Heenes on their own: "We had to get somebody talking."
So they invited Richard to the police station on the pretext of giving him back his balloon. At that moment, they also dispatched officials to the Heene household to talk to Mayumi.
Alderden did not go into specifics about what was said, saying that to do so would make the evidence inadmissible in court under Colorado law, but he said information from the interviews was sufficient to obtain a search warrant. During the search that followed, they confiscated the Heenes' computer and looked for evidence of the alleged hoax.
Alderden also said that at one meeting with local officials Mayumi was advised to go to a safe house with her children. Alderden said 911 dispatchers had received two previous calls from the Heene house: one that was determined to be a mistake and one that involved "suspicious circumstances" of potential domestic violence against Mayumi.
Alderden said there had not been sufficient evidence to proceed.
Mayumi rebuffed the offer of the safe house, and Alderden said local child-welfare officials did not believe they had sufficient grounds to take the children into protective custody.
Will the Heenes go to prison?
No charges have yet been filed. Alderden said more investigative work is needed before that can happen, though he gave no indication of how long that might take.
He said he expected to pass along to legal authorities evidence to support four charges, including two felonies that could bring as many as 6 years in prison each.
• contributing to the delinquency of a minor
• making a false report to authorities
• attempting to influence a public servant
Alderden said the investigation could yield more members of the alleged hoax conspiracy beyond the Heene family, saying: "Clearly some other people had knowledge of this."
As for any of the Heenes going to prison, Alderden said the prospect was remote. Colorado prisons are so crowded that prison sentences are reserved mostly for repeat offenders, he said.
But he did say that the county would likely seek financial restitution for all the money it spent in the search for Falcon.
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