FORT COLLINS — Richard and Mayumi Heene thought that by staging a drama-filled balloon emergency involving their 6-year-old boy, they could win a reality-television show of their own.

That's the contention of investigators, who say that what the Heenes may get instead is prison time, a seven-figure fine and a bill for a massive rescue effort involving scores of deputies and emergency workers from three counties.

The couple are under investigation for felony counts of contributing to the delinquency of a minor and attempting to influence a public official, and for a misdemeanor count of providing false information to authorities.

"It became very evident to us they were lying," Larimer County Sheriff Jim

Alderden said. "There is absolutely no doubt in our minds this was a hoax. It was a publicity stunt done with hopes of better maneuvering themselves for a reality-TV show."

The couple could face up to six years in prison and a fine of up to $500,000 on each of two felony counts for reporting that one of their children had been carried away in a homemade balloon, Sgt. Ian Stewart said.

The couple's three boys — Falcon, 6, Ryo, 8, and Bradford, 10 — were actively involved in the "conspiracy" but are likely too young to face criminal charges, Alderden said.

"The kids were 100 percent involved," he said.

The Larimer County Sheriff's Office is also investigating whether other co-conspirators, including employees of reality-television shows, had prior knowledge of the hoax.

They also are determining whether the family violated federal laws.

Denver lawyer David Lane said he is representing the Heene family and has notified the Sheriff's Office that if charges are filed, the Heenes are willing to surrender, in part so they aren't arrested in front of their children.

"Any public arrest will be deemed merely an effort by law enforcement to aggrandize themselves at the expense

A wooden structure that might have once held Richard Heene's balloon still sits in the Hee nes' backyard. A website said Heene had been planning an elaborate hoax using a weather balloon, but officials have not been able to confirm that. (Judy DeHaas, The Denver Post )
of the Heenes, who are prepared to turn themselves in upon request," Lane said.

He said he advised Richard Heene, 48, and his wife, Mayumi, 45, not to talk while charges against them are pending.

What started out as a "good acting" job slowly unraveled as misstatements, inconsistencies and flat-out lies piled up, authorities said.

For example, the balloon dimensions that Heene originally provided were for an aircraft big enough to carry a 37-pound boy up in the air, according to Colorado State University physics professor Brian Jones.

But the dimensions of the actual, saucer-shaped balloon — constructed with plastic tarps, aluminum poles, duct tape and string — were smaller, and the balloon was not large enough to lift the child, Alderden said.

With concerns for the safety of the children, deputies Friday called child-protective officials and requested an investigation.

Records show that police have responded to the house at least twice in the past year, including a possible domestic-violence incident in February. No charges were filed.

Alderden said officials on Saturday counseled Mayumi Heene about the risk of domestic violence to her and her children.

"Clearly, from all indications, Mr. Heene has somewhat of a temper," Alderden said.

Search warrant

The Heene family stayed together at a hotel Saturday night while authorities exercised a search warrant on their home.

When they drove up to their house Sunday morning, the couple quickly shuttled their kids inside without commenting.

In addition to jail and fines, the Sheriff's Office could also seek restitution for the costs related to the search-and- rescue operations launched Thursday morning when the Heenes reported that their helium-filled craft had become untethered and flown away with Falcon stowed in a battery compartment.

The air and land pursuit covered 50 miles across three counties, until the craft set down in a farm field near a reservoir north of Denver International Airport. Flights at DIA were briefly diverted and the balloon caused the National Guard to scramble two helicopters in an attempt to rescue the boy.

Falcon appeared at the family home a few hours later. His parents said he had been hiding in the attic of the garage at their Fort Collins home. Deputies had twice searched the house.

At a news conference Sunday morning, Alderden said investigators at first believed Falcon's life was in peril and at one point were searching for his body. Investigators, however, quickly found inconsistencies in the story.

He said the Heenes had been planning the hoax for at least two weeks.

The sheriff said investigators are trying to confirm a posting on the website Gawker.com. The post is a first- person account from Robert Thomas, who said he is a friend and business partner of Richard Heene's.

The post says Heene had been planning an elaborate hoax using a weather balloon to drum up network interest in a science-focused reality show.

The Associated Press reported late Sunday night that Gawker editor Gabriel Snyder said Thomas, 25, was planning to meet with investigators, but the sheriff's office did not return messages requesting confirmation of the report.

The Heenes, who met in a Hollywood acting school, initially were able to fool authorities with a plausible emergency scenario bolstered by good acting, Alderden said.

"Needless to say, they put on a very good show for us, and we bought it," he said.

Sheriff's investigators had their first "aha" moment during a CNN interview when Falcon answered a question about why he hid in the attic by saying to his father: "You had said that we did this for a show."

On Saturday, sheriff's investigators took the couple to the Sheriff's Office separately and gained enough evidence from them and their children, who were interviewed separately at home, to get a search warrant.

Alderden said he could not say whether the couple took polygraph tests or whether any of the family members confessed. He did say that to get enough evidence to warrant charges, they needed a confession or some stronger evidence than suspicion.

Investigators searched for computer records, e-mails, documents, videotapes and financial records.

They found a document in which an unnamed media outlet offered money to the Heene family to tell their story for publication, Alderden said.

Alderden did not name the media outlet or show and did not say when the offer had been made. He said it was a show that blurs "the line between entertainment and news."

"On the bizarre meter, this rates a 10," he said.

Alderden also said Richard Heene has only a high school education, dispelling the belief that he is some kind of a "nutty professor."

"He may be nutty, but he's not a professor," Alderden said.

Kirk Mitchell: 303-954-1206 or kmitchell@denverpost.com