‘Balunacy’: Colorado’s ‘balloon boy’ hoax is still a talker 10 years later


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Watch the helium-filled balloon at the center of 2009’s ‘balloon boy’ hoax land after a 50-mile flight through Northern Colorado. Erin Udell, erinudell@coloradoan.com

FORT COLLINS, Colo. – Like a sequence out of a comic book, a silver floating disc swept across Colorado’s dusty plains on a clear October afternoon.

“It looks like he’s going 500 mph,” someone observed from a news helicopter circling the craft – a homemade helium-filled balloon that had been strung and taped together out of plastic tarps and papered with aluminum foil to look like a flying saucer.

After working on it for weeks, Richard Heene – the eccentric, storm-chasing father of three boys – claimed he was testing the balloon in the backyard of his family’s Fort Collins home on Oct. 15, 2009, when unexpectedly and untethered, it launched into the sky.

Heene called KUSA-TV asking if they could get a helicopter up to track the balloon. Next, he called authorities. His 6-year-old son, Falcon, had been playing in the balloon all morning and unwittingly climbed into it before its unplanned take off, Heene claimed.

The Denver news station had a helicopter circling the balloon within an hour, broadcasting its journey live across three Colorado counties until the balloon eventually crashed into a desolate field of freshly planted winter wheat.

“If you’d stay here, I’d like to see the kid get out,” someone told the helicopter pilot as 9News filmed first responders rushing to the scene. They attacked the still-inflated balloon with pitchforks and pocket knives, clawing to get inside.

But Falcon wasn’t there. He never was.

Millions had watched the balloon soar over Colorado as TV stations and newspapers picked up the coverage and spread it across the world.

But just as soon as young Falcon became internationally known as “balloon boy,” his parents’ story started to fall apart.

The stunt had been staged to help the family get a reality TV show, Larimer County Sheriff Jim Alderden explained as the world kept watching.

When asked how he would describe the story of balloon boy 10 years later, USA TODAY reporter Trevor Hughes paused.

“That’s the great thing about this case. I don’t have to describe it to anyone,” said Hughes, who covered the hoax as a Coloradoan reporter in 2009 and 2010.

“It’s been years and years and years,” Hughes added. “I’ve covered many horrific things. … And yet this is one of those stories where people are like, ‘Oh, yeah! Balloon boy! I remember that!’ “

The launch

Students at Colorado State University got a front row seat to the breaking news on Oct. 15, 2009.

Hughes had been speaking to a lecture hall full of Colorado high school students during a journalism event early that afternoon when his phone started buzzing wildly.

“It was just vibrating and going off with all kinds of news alerts from all the TV stations, from Twitter, from text messages. You name it, I was getting an alert on it,” Hughes said.

Hughes cut his lecture short, ran out the door and jumped in his car. He drove southeast across Northern Colorado for what felt like a couple of hours, trying to get eyes on the balloon.

When he couldn’t, he returned to Fort Collins and joined other reporters that had already gathered outside the Heenes’ home.

“It was one of those crazy situations where you had local reporters like us at the Coloradoan, but then you had all these reporters from international TV stations,” Hughes said. “I mean, CNN showed up. All the broadcast networks showed up.”

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Almost 100 miles away in Central City, Alderden was monitoring the situation in between breaks during a state gaming commission meeting. He first heard about it when his lieutenant Andy Josey called.

“He said, you know, this balloon had taken off and it was a spaceship kind of thing and (there was) a kid in it and no one knew where it was going,” Alderden recalled this week from his Fort Collins home. “He laid this whole thing out and I said, ‘Yeah, come on, Andy, what do you really want?’ I didn’t believe it.”

After seeing some coverage on TV, Alderden sped back to Fort Collins. Standing before the hordes of reporters that had gathered in the Heenes’ neighborhood, Alderden laid out what he knew during a press conference. In the middle of it, he got word that Falcon had been found.

The 6-year-old was scared of getting in trouble for playing in the balloon earlier in the day and decided to hide in a box in the Heenes’ garage attic, his parents explained. He fell asleep there and woke up hours later, unaware of the hubbub outside.

“There was this collective sort of deep breath that everyone let out,” Hughes recalled.

Later that night, in a CNN interview with Wolf Blitzer, the Heenes – Richard; his wife, Mayumi; Falcon and the couple’s older sons Ryo and Bradford – were answering questions about the ordeal when Blitzer posed one to Richard Heene: “Did he hear anything (while hiding)? Did he hear you screaming out, ‘Falcon! Falcon!’ ”

Richard Heene asked his son: “He’s asking, Falcon, did you hear us calling out your name at any time?”

Falcon nodded.

“You did?” the dad replied. “Why didn’t you come out?”

“You guys … said that we did this for the show,” Falcon responded.

“That changed everything,” Alderden said.

The burst

Even before Falcon had been found safe, Hughes said he remembers a healthy bit of skepticism floating around the huddles of reporters outside the Heene house.

“There was a lot of discussion internally about whether a balloon that big could have carried off a kid,” Hughes recalled. “And the family had done a lot of reality TV stuff to begin with.”

In 2008, the Heenes had been featured on ABC’s reality show “Wife Swap,” where wildly different families switched matriarchs for two weeks.

The episode was a fan favorite, showing Richard Heene, an eccentric inventor with a laid-back parenting style, butting heads with his “swapped” wife — the head of a Connecticut family that owned a child-proofing business.

In the episode, the boys raced down supermarket aisles to the horror of their temporary mom.

After the Heene family’s Oct. 15 interview with Blitzer, investigators brought in Richard and Mayumi for questioning. Mayumi ultimately confessed in a videotaped interview, telling an investigator that she and her husband had been planning the stunt for two weeks in hopes of generating interest in one of the various reality TV shows they had pitched to the “Wife Swap” production company.

Richard Heene later told reporters his wife didn’t understand what she was saying and that she had misinterpreted the word “hoax” because Japanese was her native language.

Richard Heene, however, has always maintained that the balloon incident was authentic.

More recently, in a series of interviews with Denver’s 5280 magazine, he took aim at Alderden.

“It was all bulls—,” he told the magazine. “This wound up being more about one sheriff’s ego and his search for 15 minutes of fame than anything having to do with us.”

Messages from the Coloradoan to Richard Heene’s Facebook page and website had not been returned as of Friday.

In November 2009, Richard Heene pleaded guilty to attempting to influence a public official, a felony. He was sentenced to 90 days in the county jail, 60 days of which was to be served through work release.

Mayumi Heene pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor count of false reporting. She was sentenced to 20 days alternative jail time – 10 weekends of community service to nonprofits – because of her cooperation.

“The Fort Collins DA’s office basically said if Richard doesn’t take a felony and go to jail, they will prosecute Mayumi, who is not a U.S. citizen; she’s a Japanese citizen,” said David Lane, a Denver criminal defense attorney who represented Richard Heene in 2009.

After serving their sentences, the Heenes moved out of their Fort Collins neighborhood.

According to the 5280 magazine article, after moving from Colorado to Florida in 2010, the Heene family is now temporarily living in New York, where they’re working to restore a farmhouse. Bradford is 20, Ryo is 18 and Falcon is 16.

‘The balloon boy thing’

 After leaving the Larimer County Sheriff’s Office due to term limits in 2010, Alderden worked the next six years an investigator for the Colorado Department of Revenue’s liquor and tobacco enforcement division. So how does he feel being the “balloon boy” sheriff today?

“I guess it comes with the territory,” he said, adding that around the same time as balloon boy, his office had done “some extraordinary things” that didn’t get even a fraction of balloon boy’s coverage.

“We solved some homicides, we arrested some homicide suspects out of state,” he said. “You know, we had some really big cases that we worked, and the troops did such an outstanding job, but everything was focused on the balloon boy thing.”

To Lane, it’s one of the most widely covered cases he’s ever worked on.

“You would have thought that nuclear secrets had been stolen from he Pentagon the way the media descended upon Fort Collins,” Lane said. “I refer to it as the ‘balunacy.’ “

To Hughes, it had things most stories don’t.

“I’ve covered presidents and Nobel Prize winners, and this is one of those stories that sticks with you,” he said. “It was so unusual and had all these elements of a great tale, you know? Plot twists, confusing motivations and lots of live television.”

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