November 12, 2009 / 8:10 PM / 10 years ago

Colorado parents to plead guilty in balloon hoax

DENVER (Reuters) - The parents of a Colorado boy thought to have floated away in a homemade helium balloon will plead guilty to criminal charges of staging the incident in a publicity-seeking hoax, their lawyer said on Thursday.

Richard Heene (L), gets emotional as he holds his son, 6-year-old Falcon Heene, outside their house with son Bradford (R) looking on in Fort Collins, Colorado October 15, 2009. REUTERS/Rick Wilking

Richard and Mayumi Heene agreed to the plea deal under threat that prosecutors would seek to deport the boy’s mother, a Japanese citizen, if she were convicted of more serious charges in the case, defense attorney David Lane said.

Mayumi Heene will plead guilty on Friday to a misdemeanor charge of false reporting to authorities, while her husband will enter a guilty plea to a felony charge of attempting to influence a public servant, Lane said in a statement.

The Heenes drew worldwide attention on October 15 when they reported that their 6-year-old son, Falcon, had accidentally sailed away in a silver, saucer-shaped helium balloon.

The odd-looking airship drifted over Colorado for 50 miles, trailed by National Guard helicopters as authorities mounted a search operation that riveted television viewers.

The balloon later landed empty near Denver International Airport and the boy turned up safe in the family attic. Public sympathy turned to outrage when the Heenes’ account of the incident began to unravel.

A criminal investigation was launched and court documents revealed the mother admitted the incident was a publicity stunt aimed at making the family marketable for a reality TV show.

Lane said prosecutors had agreed to recommend a sentence of probation for both parents, with the possibility of up to 60 days in jail for the wife and 90 days in jail for the husband.

The Larimer County District Attorney’s Office confirmed that the couple had been formally charged with the offenses cited by Lane. Prosecutors said the Heenes had agreed to appear for a court hearing set for Friday morning.

A judge will ultimately determine the Heenes’ penalty a month from now after pre-sentencing reports are filed.

Prosecutors said a conviction for attempting to influence a public servant carries a penalty range of two to six years in prison and fines of up to $500,000.

Lane said the mother’s statements to investigators left her vulnerable to a felony conviction, and thus deportation, but said this plea would avoid that possibility. “Prosecutors insisted upon a package deal where Richard would have to fall on his sword and take a felony plea,” Lane said.

Writing and additional reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by Catherine Bremer and Cynthia Osterman

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