The “balloon boy” incident that commanded much of the nation’s attention Thursday appears to have been an elaborate PR stunt.
Authorities are alleging that a Fort Collins, Colo., couple concocted a plot to manipulate the news media to further their efforts to become reality TV stars, with the help of a weather balloon and their purportedly missing 6-year-old son.
Larimer County Sheriff Jim Alderden declared Sunday that Richard and Mayumi Heene perpetrated a hoax when they reported to local authorities that their 6-year-old son, Falcon, was hurtling away from their home in a flying saucer-like helium balloon on Thursday. In fact, the boy was found hiding in the family’s attic.
Eyebrows were raised about the veracity of the Heene’s story when it became known that the family had previously appeared on an episode of ABC’s “Wife Swap” and had been trying to develop a show with “Wife Swap” producer RDF Media. The show about a wacky family of amateur scientists was pitched several months ago to cabler TLC, which passed on the project.
Alderden said Sunday he expects to recommend charges of conspiracy, contributing to the delinquency of a minor, making a false report to authorities and attempting to influence a public servant. Some of the most serious charges each carry a maximum sentence of six years in prison and a $500,000 fine.
The sheriff added that the staged event was put on by a “couple who met in acting school in Hollywood” who “put on a very good show for us, and we bought it.” The sheriff’s department seized several boxes and a computer in a search of the Heene’s home on Saturday night.
The initial incident garnered blanket coverage on the all-news cablers for most of Thursday. The Heene family made the media rounds Friday, with the father steadfastly denying on NBC’s “Today” and other shows that there was any stagecraft involved.
But Falcon sparked speculation about the possibility of it being a planned stunt after declaring in an interview on CNN’s “Larry King Live,” “We did this for the show.” His father said Falcon’s comments to CNN were the result of confusion.
On the “Wife Swap” page on ABC’s website, a section devoted to that episode of the show described the Heene family as storm chasers who “devote their time to scientific experiments that include looking for extraterrestrials and building a research-gathering flying saucer to send into the eye of the storm.”