10 years ago Tuesday, the ‘balloon boy hoax’ captivated America
FORT COLLINS, Colo. — Only one family can claim “Balloon Boy” as their own.
That’s the moniker given to Falcon Heene in October 2009 when he was just 6 years old. For nearly two hours, people around the world fixated on his fate — fearing he had floated as high as 7,000 feet in a massive helium balloon resembling a flying saucer.
And nearly 10 years later, the day is still fresh on the minds of many in Colorado and around the world.
The balloon landed 90 miles from the family’s home in Fort Collins with no Falcon inside. He turned up in an attic over the garage, having never been tucked in the balloon as his parents said.
His discovery ended a frantic effort to save him. It also started legal woes for his parents, both of whom served time in jail after a story that started to unravel during an interview.
As soon as the story got out, the world couldn’t get enough.
News outlets from Al-Jazeera to the BBC to CNN beamed images of the floating spectacle, with the quickly dubbed “Balloon Boy” presumably inside. Social media exploded. Seven of Twitter’s top 10 trending topics at one point that afternoon had to do with Falcon Heene.
It became clear soon enough that Falcon had not been in the balloon at all — he had been safe at home all along.
Rather than sit back and deal with the situation privately, the Heenes leaped into the limelight. Richard invited about 30 journalists into his home so they could see where Falcon hid.
The boy took part in this media circus, though it didn’t always go smoothly. In an interview on NBC’s “Today” show, the 6-year-old leaned his head against his father and vomited, right in front of the camera.
The turning point for law enforcement, though, came during an interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer. Repeating Blitzer’s question to his son, Richard asked the boy whether he heard his parents call for him as they searched the house. The boy said yes.
“And why didn’t you come out?” Richard asked.
“You guys said that we did this for the show,” Falcon replied.
Later in the interview, the Heenes said their son was confused by a Japanese reporter’s earlier request to see the attic.
Larimer County Sheriff Jim Alderden saw it differently. Alderden initially said authorities believed the boy had fallen asleep in the garage’s attic without his parents’ knowledge. Now he called it a “hoax.”
“We believe that we have evidence at this point to indicate that it was a publicity stunt done with the hopes of marketing themselves, or better marketing themselves, for a reality television show at some point in the future,” Alderden said. “Clearly, we were manipulated by the family. And the media was manipulated by the family.”
Mayumi Heene would plead guilty to a misdemeanor charge of false reporting to authorities, earning 20 days in jail and four years’ probation. Court documents said she admitted to authorities it was all made up.
Her husband got 90 days after pleading to one felony count of attempting to influence a public servant, claiming later that he did so hoping to keep his wife from being deported.
Yet, even though he apologized to rescue workers and community members involved in the chase, Richard Heene never admitted outright that it was a sham. He still doesn’t.
“I didn’t get charged for a hoax,” he said, accusing Colorado authorities of going after him so they could look good publicly. “It was a typical … public official (who) redirected it to him so he could get attention. That’s fine. I just want to walk from it.”
The Heenes decided to start over. They built a huge trailer, hooked it up and headed to Florida. After some time south of Tampa, they settled about 50 miles north, in Spring Hill. Richard says he was drawn by the area’s low cost of living and high opportunity for work fixing and flipping houses.