Balloon boy charges may not come until next week
Investigators pored over e-mails, phone records and financial documents from the home of Richard Heene on Monday as they weighed felony charges and sought to determine who else might have helped the alleged balloon-boy hoax get off the ground.world Updated: Oct 20, 2009 07:28 IST
Investigators pored over e-mails, phone records and financial documents from the home of Richard Heene on Monday as they weighed felony charges and sought to determine who else might have helped the alleged balloon-boy hoax get off the ground.
The sheriff's office said its findings will be forwarded to prosecutors next week to decide if Richard and Mayumi Heene should be charged with falsely reporting that their 6-year-old child had drifted away in a large home-built helium balloon to drum up publicity for a reality TV show.
The boy, Falcon, was never in the flying saucer-shaped balloon, which flew unmanned for 50 miles (80 kilometers) last Thursday, in a story that played out live on national televsion. His family said they discovered he had been hiding in the family's garage. The investigation could reach beyond the Heenes, possibly into the world of reality-show promotions.
Larimer County Sheriff Jim Alderden said documents show that a media outlet had agreed to pay the Heenes. Alderden did not name the organization but said it was in an industry that blurs "the line between entertainment and news."
It was not clear whether the deal was signed before or after the alleged hoax, or whether the media outlet was a possible conspirator. If so, the organization could face charges as well. The Heenes are amateur storm chasers who apparently wanted to star in a reality show that focused on a range of absurd experiments, such as attracting UFOs with a weather balloon, launching a model rocket into space and conducting an electromagnetic analysis of a terminally ill patient's spirit before death.
Robert Thomas, a collaborator who worked with Richard Heene on the idea, provided an e-mail to the Web site Gawker.com outlining his plan for the show. The sheriff's department questioned Thomas on Sunday night after he revealed that Heene was planning a media stunt to promote the show, according to the researcher's lawyer, Linda Lee.
Thomas told investigators what he observed about the couple and "intimate details about their home life," Lee said. "He noticed things that were definitely not right. ... Some of the things are kind of shocking that Mr. Heene did, but we're not going to discuss specifics," Lee said.
Lee said investigators told her Thomas does not face charges and is not a person of interest in the case. However, she said she is seeking immunity for him before he turns over documents and e-mails with Heene, "just to be safe." Thomas has said he had no idea that a possible hoax would involve the Heene children. With television cameras and reporters set up outside the Heene home, Richard Heene's lawyer, David Lane, stressed that the Heenes are willing to turn themselves in to avoid the spectacle of a public arrest.
Lane declined to say directly whether he believes the incident was a hoax but said the Heenes are innocent unless convicted. The Heenes remained holed up in their home until midafternoon, when they left in a pickup truck without commenting.
Mayumi Heene retained her own lawyer, signaling the family is gearing up for a legal fight. The lawyer, Lee Christian, declined to comment on whether the couple still maintains they thought their son was in the balloon.
"I've got to see what the charges are before I can comment on the facts of the case," he said.
Alderden said he is seeking charges against the Heenes that include conspiracy, contributing to the delinquency of a minor, making a false report to authorities and attempting to influence a public servant.
The most serious charges are felonies and carry a maximum sentence of six years in prison. Alderden said authorities would be seeking restitution for the costs, though he did not have an estimate.
Some flights at Denver International Airport had to be changed to a different runway. The National Guard provided two helicopters in an attempt to rescue the child, costing several thousand dollars. When the balloon landed without the boy, officials thought he had fallen out and began the grim search for his body. Alderden said the children were still with the parents and that child protective services had been contacted to investigate their well-being.
It's also possible that Heene could face federal charges because he called the Federal Aviation Administration to report his son missing in the balloon. Those charges could include lying to the federal government, a count similar to the one that sent Martha Stewart to prison in her stock-fraud case.
The balloon spectacle was not the first time Richard Heene has run afoul of the law.
He was arrested in April 1997 and charged with three misdemeanors _ vandalism, vehicle tampering and disturbing the peace, according to court documents. He pleaded no contest to vandalism and was sentenced to 30 days in jail, two years probation and ordered to pay $100 restitution, according to Frank Mateljan, a spokesman for the Los Angeles city attorney's office.
The other two charges were dropped. Mateljan said he did not know who the victim was, and no details on the case were available. It's still not known who else was working with Heene to launch the reality show. The sheriff's department refused to answer questions Monday.
The Heenes twice appeared on the TV reality show "Wife Swap," in which wives from two different families trade places for two weeks. During one episode in March they talked about their belief that they are the descendants of aliens and discuss their approach to parenting. At one point, Richard Heene is seen screaming and throwing a drink in a participant's face.
The producer of "Wife Swap" had a show in development with the Heenes but said the deal is now off. The TLC cable network also said Heene had pitched a reality show months ago, but it passed on the offer.