Colorado sheriff sees no hoax in balloon incident

DENVER Fri Oct 16, 2009 5:48pm EDT

1 of 13. Richard Heene reacts as he holds his son six-year-old Falcon Heene outside their house in Fort Collins, Colorado October 15, 2009.

Credit: Reuters/Rick Wilking

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DENVER (Reuters) - A Colorado sheriff largely dismissed suggestions on Friday that a family of amateur scientists staged a hoax by reporting their 6-year-old son had floated away in a home-made helium balloon.

The bizarre incident on Thursday gripped U.S. television viewers as the silver balloon raced across the Colorado sky, tracked by U.S. National Guard helicopters for hours before the boy, Falcon Heene, was found alive and well in his attic.

Questions about the saga were raised after Falcon was asked on CNN's "Larry King Live" why he had stayed in hiding so long when family members and other searchers were desperately calling his name.

"You guys (his parents) said that, um, we did this for the show," he said.

The boy's father strongly denied in television interviews on Friday that the incident was a stunt.

"We believe at this time that it was a real event," Larimer County Sheriff Jim Alderden told a news conference on Friday.

"We have to operate on what we can prove as a fact and not what people want to be done or what people speculate should be done," Alderden said.

He acknowledged the boy's comment "has raised everybody's level of skepticism again and we feel its incumbent on us to go back to the family and re-interview them and establish whether in fact this was a hoax," Alderden said.

Authorities had considered desperate measures to bring the craft down safely and, after discovering the boy was not inside, had begun scouring the countryside amid fears he had fallen out.

Richard Heene and his wife, Mayumi, and three sons have appeared on the ABC television reality show "Wife Swap" in which families swap mothers to deal with family problems. Richard Heene said the balloon was part of an experiment by the family, which is known locally for its storm-chasing and scientific experiments.

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A new videotape surfaced of the balloon leaving the family's yard, which showed Richard and Mayumi Heene and at least one of their sons loudly counting down to the moment of lift-off.

Richard Heene then appears to fly into a rage, kicking a wood framing that had once held the craft.

That video seemed to be at odds with earlier accounts, in which Heene said he was inside the house when the device somehow broke loose from its tethers and floated away.

Alderden told reporters he had not yet seen that videotape but said Heene would be questioned about it as part of the investigation.

The sheriff said that if the balloon incident were found to be a hoax, it could lead to misdemeanor charges of filing a false police report and that law enforcement could seek restitution for the cost of the search-and-rescue operation.

Alderden said the re-interviews had been scheduled for Saturday because the family was exhausted and overwrought after appearing on a series of morning shows.

"Absolutely not, this is not some sort of hoax," a visibly irritated Richard Heene said on NBC's "Today" show in an interview during which Falcon vomited while his father talked.

"What have I got to gain?" asked Heene.

Mayumi Heene said on CNN: "What we went through the whole day is real. ... I really thought we might have lost him."

(Additional reporting by Robert Boczkiewicz in Denver; writing by Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Mary Milliken and Peter Cooney)

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