Colorado parents sentenced for "balloon boy" hoax

FORT COLLINS, Colo. Wed Dec 23, 2009 5:26pm EST

Richard (L) and Mayumi Heene leave Larimer County district court after their sentencing hearing in Fort Collins, Colorado December 23, 2009. REUTERS/Rick Wilking

Richard (L) and Mayumi Heene leave Larimer County district court after their sentencing hearing in Fort Collins, Colorado December 23, 2009.

Credit: Reuters/Rick Wilking

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FORT COLLINS, Colo. (Reuters) - A Colorado couple who riveted America with a bogus claim their son had floated away in a balloon received a 90-day jail term for the father on Wednesday, and both face thousands of dollars in restitution.

General contractor Richard Heene will spend at least 30 days behind bars -- the rest he can serve on work release if employed -- for masterminding a hoax and publicity stunt aimed at gaining the family their own reality television show.

His wife, Mayumi, was spared from any jail time for her part in the hoax, sentenced instead to 20 days of supervised public service work.

Both were also placed on probation for four years, during which time they must perform hundreds more hours of community service and forgo any financial benefit from their "balloon-boy" escapade, including potential earnings generated by book deals or other media ventures.

Still to be calculated are fines and restitution for the search-and-rescue operation unleashed by their bogus claims.

Prosecutors said an initial tally of expenditures by various government agencies came to $47,000 and could climb higher, not including an $11,000 fine sought by the Federal Aviation Administration.

"I do want to reiterate that I'm very, very sorry, and I want to apologize to all the rescue workers out there and people who got involved," said the father, his voice choking with emotion, moments before he was sentenced.

In a letter to the judge, Heene sought leniency for his wife, who lawyers for both sides characterized as a relatively minor player. She declined to make a statement in court.

Heene's lawyer, David Lane, also argued for leniency, saying no one was physically hurt by the family's stunt, and noted that no one was punished "when Orson Welles convinced America that Martians were landing" with his radio broadcast of "The War of the Worlds" in 1938.

'IT'S ALL ABOUT MONEY'

But Larimer County Judge Stephen Schapanski said the case was all about "deception ... exploitation of the children of the Heenes, exploitation of the media, exploitation of the emotions of people -- and it's about money." He said he wanted to deter others from following the Heenes' example.

The father was given until January 11 to begin serving his term, starting with 30 days of straight jail time.

The grim-faced couple said nothing as they walked out of the courtroom surrounded by media.

The parents drew worldwide attention on October 15 when they reported that the youngest of their three sons, 6-year-old Falcon, had been carried away in a homemade helium balloon that accidentally lifted off from their backyard.

The odd-looking silver craft, built to resemble a flying saucer, drifted over Colorado for 50 miles, trailed by National Guard helicopters as authorities scrambled to reroute aviation traffic in and out of Denver International Airport.

The episode was followed for hours on live television and the Internet, transfixing millions as the balloon came down in a wheat field and was found empty.

It turned out the family had squirreled the boy away in the attic of their garage.

The Heenes' account of events unraveled after they were interviewed on CNN's "Larry King Live," and Falcon was asked why he stayed in hiding so long. Looking first to his parents, the boy answered: "You said that we did this for a show."

A criminal probe was launched, and court documents later revealed the mother admitted to investigators the incident was concocted as a reality show gimmick. The family have previously appeared on the ABC reality show "Wife Swap."

The father, 48, pleaded guilty last month to a felony charge of attempting to influence a public servant. His wife, 45, pleaded guilty to the lesser offense of false reporting to authorities. Their lawyer said then the plea deal was accepted so that the mother, a Japanese citizen, would avoid the possibility of deportation.

(Reporting by Keith Coffman; Editing by Steve Gorman and Todd Eastham)

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