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Charges will be filed in US balloon saga: Sheriff

A sheriff said he was pursuing criminal charges in Colorado's "balloon boy" saga, which first sparked fear for the child's safety, then relief that he was okay and now suspicions of a hoax.

world Updated: Oct 18, 2009 21:55 IST

A sheriff said he was pursuing criminal charges in Colorado's "balloon boy" saga, which first sparked fear for the child's safety, then relief that he was okay and now suspicions of a hoax.

Deputies searched the home of the boy's parents on Saturday night, carrying away several boxes and a computer.

The parents, Richard and Mayumi Heene, met with Larimer County investigators for much of Saturday afternoon amid lingering questions about whether he perpetrated a publicity stunt when his 6-year-old son Falcon vanished into the rafters of the family's garage while the world thought he was zooming through the sky in a flying saucer-like helium balloon.

But Sheriff Jim Alderden did not say who would be charged or what the charges would be. His deputies later showed up at the Heene's Fort Collins home with a search warrant and at least three of them began a search. Sgt Ian Stewart declined to say what they were after. Alderden on Saturday didn't call Thursday's hours-long drama a hoax, but he expressed disappointment that he couldn't level more serious charges in the incident, which sent police and the military scrambling to save young Falcon Heene as millions of worried television viewers watched.

"We were looking at a Class 3 misdemeanor, which hardly seems serious enough given the circumstances," Alderden said. "We are talking to the district attorney, federal officials to see if perhaps there aren't additional federal charges that are appropriate in this circumstance."

Alderden earlier said the family could be charged with making a false report to authorities, a Class 3 misdemeanor, if it was determined the balloon saga was a hoax. The low-level crime carries a maximum sentence of six months in jail and a $750 fine, with a minimum sentence of a $50 fine.

Suspicion that the balloon saga was a hoax arose almost immediately after Falcon was found hiding in the garage attic. Heene, a storm chaser and inventor whose family has appeared on the ABC television reality show Wife Swap, and his wife had said one of the boy's older brothers said Falcon was aboard the homemade balloon when it took off.

Alderden initially said there was no reason to believe the incident was a hoax. Authorities questioned the Heenes again after Falcon turned to his dad during a CNN television interview Thursday night and said "you said we did this for a show" when asked why he didn't come out of his hiding place.

Falcon got sick during two separate TV interviews Friday when asked again why he hid.

After the sheriff spoke to reporters Saturday, Richard Heene and his wife walked out of his office after meeting with officials for several hours.

As reporters yelled questions, Heene said: "I was talking to the sheriff's department just now." He then walked to his car with his wife and a friend and drove away. It wasn't clear where the family spent Saturday night.

The Heenes have said the balloon was supposed to be tethered to the ground when it lifted off, and no one was supposed to be aboard. A video of the launch shows the family counting down in unison, "3, 2, 1," before Richard Heene pulls a cord, setting the balloon into the air.

"Whoa!" one of the boys exclaims. Then his father says in disbelief, "Oh, my God!" He then says to someone, "You didn't put the (expletive) tether down!" and he kicks the wood frame that had held the balloon.

Falcon's brother said he saw him inside the compartment before it took off and that's why they thought he was in there when it launched. Heene said he had yelled at Falcon before the launch for getting inside.

Over the years, Richard Heene has worked as a storm chaser, a handyman and contractor, and an aspiring reality-TV star. The producer of "Wife Swap" said it had a show in development with the Heenes but the deal is now off. TLC also said Heene had pitched a reality show to the network months ago, but it passed on the offer.