Balloon dad never shy about his bizarre stunts

FORT COLLINS, Colo. — Richard Heene provided a glimpse of the chaos he was about to spark this week when he described for a national TV audience in March his belief that aliens are humanity's ancestors, his latest madcap inventions and his unconventional approach to raising a family.

Appearing on the ABC reality TV show "Wife Swap," he told of once passing out in a fast-food restaurant and hearing aliens speak to him. He boasted of his plans to build a flying saucer covered in aluminum foil and send it into a tornado. He pulled his children around a hockey rink on a hovercraft-like device and took them on UFO-hunting expeditions.

"I'm very grateful that America has voted for us to be on a second time," he said of his second appearance on the show. "(It's) like the best thing that's ever happened in our life. Seriously."

The signs of Heene's publicity-hungry ambitions appeared to culminate last week, when a helium-filled balloon floated away from his home with his 6-year-old son thought to be inside. In the end, investigators said it was all a hoax designed to drum up attention for his next reality TV endeavor on the heels of the "Wife Swap" appearance.

Heene now faces the possibility of criminal charges that could send him to prison for several years.

The case has cast the spotlight on the bizarre antics of Heene, a 48-year-old amateur scientist, handyman and aspiring reality TV star whose associates described him as a shameless self-promoter who would do almost anything to advance his latest endeavor.

In this case, investigators say it involved making it seem like his youngest child had drifted away in a balloon when the boy was actually somewhere in the neighborhood.

Heene has lived a fairly transient lifestyle over the years. He tried his hand at acting and standup comedy in Hollywood, where he met his wife Mayumi, 45. They had three children — ages 10, 8 and 6 — and quickly immersed the kids in their storm-chasing missions that sometimes involved putting them dangerously close to tornadoes.

"Mom Mayumi is devoted to helping her fringe scientist and inventor husband Richard build a flying saucer and hunt for UFOs as they hope to find evidence to support their belief that all humans are descended from aliens," according to the "Wife Swap" episode in March. "Mayumi also manages to take care of the three rough, tough Heene boys, who are completely out of this world."

The family has chased down one storm after another, and Richard Heene claims to have flown in an airplane around the perimeter of Hurricane Wilma in 2005. Heene was obsessed with launching various inventions into storms, something that developed back in the 1970s after a storm ripped off the roof of a building he was working on.

"There's gotta be a way to dissipate the tornado," he said as he described one of his inventions. "Well, this is the tornado cannon."

Actor-comedian Perry Caravello said he met Heene back in the early 1990s, when Heene was struggling in Hollywood. Caravello rented out a spot for a standup comedy show that ended up being a "total bomb," he said.

Heene was always trying to get people to invest money in his storm-chasing exploits, including riding a motorcycle into the middle of a tornado, Caravello said.

Caravello said Heene and his family eventually moved into a cramped office space packed with video equipment, clothing and other items. He said Heene was easily excitable, a complete contrast to Mayumi Heene, who was quiet and reserved.

On "Wife Swap," Heene was portrayed as erratic, at one point throwing a glass of milk on a participant on the program. The sheriff's office investigated a domestic violence complaint at the home in March after Mayumi appeared battered, but no charges were filed.

Headshot photographer Carrie Cavalier, of Burbank, Calif., bristles when asked about Richard Heene. She told The Associated Press that the Heene family rented a one-story Burbank house from her month-to-month from June 2006 until June 2007.

After she gave them an eviction notice, she said, the family picked up and left without notice, leaving behind a home in disarray. The family still owes her a $2,000 security deposit, and $6,000 in damage to the home, she said.

They ran a business out of the home called My You Me Productions, according to records. The business, which produced demo reels for actors, had also been housed at one point in an office building in West Los Angeles.

"They were barely surviving financially," Cavalier said. "She was doing all the work and trying to take care of the kids. It was very chaotic."

Heene recently realized that the lucrative reality TV business provided a golden opportunity to promote his endeavors. He and his family made it onto two episodes of "Wife Swap," and the producer of the show said it had another show in development with the Heenes. The deal is now off; the producer did not provide specifics. TLC also said Heene had pitched a reality show to the network months ago, but it passed on the offer.

All the while, Heene began assembling the infamous helium balloon in his backyard, piecing it together with foil, rope and duct tape. It all played out on Thursday in stunning fashion on national television as a stunned Heene appeared shocked that his child has just vanished in the balloon.

Neighbors were stunned by the news that the Heenes allegedly perpetrated a hoax. Many of them believed that Falcon was in the balloon, and they helped search for the child.

Sarah Duty, who lives down the street, said her two sons often play with the Heene children and they had been in her home. She said it would be hard on her children if it does turn out to be a hoax.

"My main concern right now is those three little boys. I just love those kids," she said.

Associated Press writers contributing to this report include Catherine Tsai and P. Solomon Banda in Denver, and Lynn Elber and Solvej Schou in Los Angeles.