Balloon boy hoax

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Balloon boy hoax
Date October 15, 2009 (2009-10-15)
Coordinates 40°30′38″N 105°4′27″W / 40.51056°N 105.07417°W / 40.51056; -105.07417Coordinates: 40°30′38″N 105°4′27″W / 40.51056°N 105.07417°W / 40.51056; -105.07417

The balloon boy hoax occurred on October 15, 2009 in Fort Collins, Colorado, when Richard and Mayumi Heene allowed a gas balloon filled with helium to float away into the atmosphere, and then claimed that their six-year-old son Falcon was inside it. At the time, it was reported by the mass media that the boy was apparently traveling at altitudes reaching 7,000 feet (2,100 m)[1] in a homemade balloon colored and shaped to resemble a silver flying saucer-type of UFO.[2][3][4] The event attracted worldwide attention.[1][5] Falcon was nicknamed "Balloon Boy" by some in the media.[6]

After more than an hour-long flight that covered more than 50 miles (80 km) across three counties,[7] the balloon landed about 12 miles (19 km) northeast of Denver International Airport. Authorities closed down the Denver airport and sent several National Guard helicopters and local police in pursuit. After the balloon landed and the boy was found not to be inside, authorities began a manhunt of the entire area, raising fears that he had fallen from the balloon; it was reported that an object had detached from the balloon and fallen to the ground.[3] Later that afternoon the boy was reported to have been hiding in his home's attic the entire time.[8]

Suspicions soon arose that the incident was a hoax and a publicity stunt engineered by the boy's parents Richard and Mayumi Heene, particularly following the Heenes' interview with Wolf Blitzer on Larry King Live that evening. In response to a question about why he was hiding, Falcon said to his father, "You guys said that, um, we did this for the show."[9] On October 18, Larimer County sheriff Jim Alderden announced his conclusion that the incident was a hoax and that the parents would likely face several felony charges.[10][11] Richard Heene pleaded guilty on November 13, 2009, to the charge of attempting to influence a public servant. On December 23, 2009, Richard Heene was sentenced to 90 days in jail and Mayumi Heene to 20 days of weekend jail;[12] Richard was also ordered to pay $36,000 in restitution.[13]

Background[edit]

Richard Heene and Mayumi Iizuka (飯塚雅弓 Īzuka Mayumi?) first met at an acting school in Hollywood, California and married on October 12, 1997 in Clark County, Nevada.[14][15][16] Richard Heene had pursued careers in acting and stand-up comedy without success and, for a time, he and his wife ran a home business producing demo reels for actors. Heene is a handyman and an amateur scientist, whom associates have called "a shameless self-promoter who would do almost anything to advance his latest endeavor".[17] Heene is a storm chaser who started in the 1970s after a storm ripped the roof off a building he was working on.[17] Heene's storm chasing has included riding a motorcycle into a tornado and reportedly flying a plane around the perimeter of Hurricane Wilma in 2005.[17] He regularly involved his children in his endeavors, taking them along on UFO-hunting expeditions and storm-chasing missions.[17][18] The Heenes have three sons named Falcon, Bradford and Ryo.

The family had been featured on the reality television show Wife Swap on two occasions, the second time as a fan-favorite choice for the show's 100th episode.[19][20] During his time on the show, Heene expressed his belief that humanity descended from aliens and spoke of launching home-made flying saucers into storms.[17] Heene had unsuccessfully sought the media's interest in a proposed reality show called The Science Detectives, which he envisioned as a documentary series "to investigate the mysteries of science".[18] Months before the balloon incident on October 15, 2009, Heene pitched a reality show idea to the television channel TLC, but the network passed on the offer. After the balloon incident, the producer of Wife Swap said that a show involving the Heenes had been in development, but that the deal was now off. The producer declined to provide specifics.[18] The Lifetime channel had been set to air one of the Wife Swap episodes involving the Heenes on October 29, 2009, but the station pulled the episode because of the balloon incident.[21]

The helium balloon[edit]

Richard Heene said the saucer-shaped balloon was an early prototype in an experiment for an alternative form of transportation, in which "people can pull out of their garage and hover above traffic" at about 50 or 100 feet (15 or 30 m).[22] He also stated that, once "the high voltage timer" was switched on, the balloon "would emit one million volts every five minutes for one minute"[23] in order to "move left and right — horizontal".[24]

The balloon measured 20 feet (6.1 m) in diameter and 5 feet (1.5 m) in height,[1] and was constructed from plastic tarps taped together, covered with an aluminum foil and held together with string and duct tape. The base of the balloon, which Falcon allegedly crawled into, was a utility box made from a very thin piece of plywood and cardboard on the side. It was held together with string and duct tape.[25][26]

Fully inflated, a balloon of this size would contain just over 1,000 cubic feet (28 m3) of helium.[27] Helium's lift capacity at sea level and 0 °C is 1.113 kg/m3 (0.07 lbs/ft3) and decreases at higher altitudes and at higher temperatures. The volume of helium in the balloon has been estimated as being able to lift a total load, including the balloon material and the structure beneath it, of 65 pounds (29 kg) at sea level and 48 pounds (22 kg) at 8,000 feet (2,400 m).[27]

Fort Collins is at an elevation of about 5,000 feet (1,500 m) and the balloon was estimated to have reached 7,000 feet (2,100 m).[1][28][29]

Incident[edit]

Location of Fort Collins in Larimer County in Colorado

The family said they first suspected Falcon Heene was missing when, immediately after the balloon had taken off (from 40°30′38″N 105°4′27″W / 40.51056°N 105.07417°W / 40.51056; -105.07417), Falcon's brother told them that he had seen the six-year-old climb into the basket of the balloon beforehand. A home video released the following day shows the launch of the balloon. Richard inspects the basket, then his family count down in unison "three, two, one" before releasing the cord.[30][31] Apparently believing the balloon to be tethered a few feet from the ground,[30] the family starts screaming in distress when it floats off into the sky. Richard Heene, who can be seen kicking the wood frame that supported the balloon, yelled amidst a myriad of obscene words, "You didn't put the fucking tether down!"[31] Falcon is nowhere to be seen and nobody mentions the possibility of Falcon being in the runaway balloon.[30]

According to initial reports from the sheriff, the family first called the Federal Aviation Administration, although later the sheriff's office stated that "they had no confirmation that Richard Heene actually made the call to the FAA."[32] They then called Denver NBC affiliate KUSA-TV; they reportedly requested that the station send a news helicopter to track the balloon's progress,[33][34][35] and then called emergency services. During the call to 911 at 11:29 AM local time (MDT) Richard Heene said, "I don't know whether it's possible you guys could detect the electricity that it emits ... it emits a million volts on the outer skin."[36][37]

The balloon, tracked by helicopters, drifted for 60 miles (97 km), passing through Adams County and Weld County. Planes were rerouted around the balloon's flight path and Denver International Airport was briefly shut down.[19] The balloon finally landed two hours later at around 1:35 PM local time near Keenesburg, 12 miles (19 km) northeast of Denver International Airport,[38][39] (at 40°1′36″N 104°30′14″W / 40.02667°N 104.50389°W / 40.02667; -104.50389).

When the boy was not found inside the balloon, officials expressed concern that he might have fallen out during the flight. Although it was reported that it did not appear breached,[1] Margie Martinez of the Weld County Sheriff's Office said that the door was unlocked in the balloon. A sheriff deputy reported seeing something fall from the balloon near Platteville, Colorado and a photograph of the balloon in flight with a small black dot below was said to suggest the boy may have fallen out or that something had detached from the balloon.[40] Search and rescue crews in Colorado searched for the boy.[41]

At approximately 4:14 PM, CNN and other news reported that the boy was found hiding in a cardboard box in rafters above the garage,[1] but county sheriff Jim Alderden later said, "For all we know he may have been two blocks down the road playing on the swing in the city park."

The New York Post estimated that the total cost of the rescue operation would be about $2 million, although this has yet to be verified.[42] The helicopter flights alone during the rescue operation cost about USD $14,500.[43] The Colorado National Guard assisted the effort with UH-60 Black Hawk and OH-58 Kiowa helicopters.[44]

Hoax allegations and criminal investigation[edit]

After the incident, several news agencies began questioning whether it was a hoax.[45] As Editor & Publisher pointed out, "Few had raised the issue of whether such a balloon could even lift off with a 50-pound kid inside and then float the way it did" during the flight.[46] The police initially said it did not appear to be a hoax,[47] but when Falcon and his family were being interviewed by Wolf Blitzer on CNN's Larry King Live he asked Falcon, "Why did you not come out of the garage?" After his parents repeated the question, he responded, "You guys said that, um, we did this for the show."[9] Wolf Blitzer declined to question the boy further after the statement was made. The next day, during interviews on ABC's Good Morning America and NBC's Today, the boy vomited when he was asked about his comment and again when his father was asked about it, fueling more suspicion.[48]

Falcon's answers prompted the sheriff's office to pursue further investigations as to whether the incident was part of a publicity stunt.[49] On October 16, Alderden said, "the suggestion that the boy ... was coached to hide seems inconceivable."[50] Alderden indicated on October 17 that search warrants were being drawn and that charges would likely be filed with regard to this incident.[51] The charges had not yet been released to the public. The sheriff confirmed that making a false report to authorities would result in Class 3 misdemeanor charges and expressed that this charge "hardly seems serious enough given the circumstances."[52]

A researcher named Robert Thomas sold a story to Gawker.com alleging that he had helped plan a publicity stunt involving a weather balloon,[53] and investigators have expressed a desire to interview him.[54] According to Thomas, Heene was a fan of David Icke who was motivated by fears stemming from the 2012 phenomenon to raise money to build a bunker as a survivalist strategy for 2012. In 2008, Heene had participated in a six-part series on YouTube titled "2012 - The Best Evidence - by The Psyience Detectives."[53]

Larimer County sheriff's officials had consulted a Colorado State University physics professor, Brian Jones, who initially determined, based on the dimensions provided by Richard Heene, that the balloon could plausibly lift off with a boy of Falcon's reported size (37 pounds or 17 kilograms). However, when authorities later measured the balloon, they concluded it was not large enough to lift the child.[7][25] Upon inspecting the balloon, authorities learned it weighed 18 pounds (8.2 kg) more than Heene had said. Alderden said the base of the balloon could have handled 37 pounds without breaking, but to get airborne with those 37 pounds inside it would have to have been attached to a more powerful balloon.[26]

After viewing the home video of the balloon launch, Alderden said it appeared the balloon, which was supposed to have a child inside it, was rising very quickly.[30]

During a press conference on October 18, Alderden called the incident a hoax, stating "we believe we have evidence at this point to indicate that this was a publicity stunt in hopes to better market themselves for a reality show." He also said that charges in the case have not yet been filed but that the parents could face both misdemeanor and felony charges, including conspiracy to commit a crime, contributing to the delinquency of a minor, filing a false report with authorities and attempting to influence a public servant.[10][11] Alderden stated that his comments on October 16 were part of a "game plan" to keep the Heenes' trust.[55]

Richard Heene's lawyer, David Lane, announced on October 19 that Richard and Mayumi Heene would surrender to police as soon as charges are filed.[56] Lane said it would be "abusive" if the Heenes were handcuffed where their children and the news media could watch.[56] Lane said they would plead not guilty.[56]

The balloon incident is also under investigation by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration. FAA rules prohibit flying balloons or kites within 5 miles (8.0 km) of an airport.[57]

According to the supporting affidavit that law enforcement submitted with their application for a search warrant, Mayumi later admitted that she "knew all along that Falcon was hiding in the residence."[58] The affidavit alleges that the couple planned the hoax about two weeks before releasing the balloon on October 15 and "instructed their three children to lie to authorities as well as the media regarding this hoax", for the purpose of making the family "more marketable for future media interests."[59]

Guilty plea[edit]

Richard Heene's attorney announced on November 12, 2009 that both parents intended to plead guilty to the charges filed against them, for which the prosecutor would recommend probation.[60] The attorney's statement said that the threat of deportation of his wife, Mayumi Heene, who is a Japanese citizen, was a factor in the plea negotiations.[61] On November 13, Richard Heene pled guilty to a felony charge of attempting to influence a public servant. Mayumi Heene did not appear with him, but still faced a misdemeanor charge of false reporting to authorities.[62] However, on January 7, 2010, Richard Heene told authorities that he only pled guilty to prevent his wife's potential deportation.[63]

On December 23, 2009, a judge sentenced Richard Heene to 90 days in jail and 100 hours of community service. He was also ordered to write a formal apology to the agencies that searched for Falcon. Mayumi Heene was sentenced to 20 days in jail, to be served through jail-supervised community service for two days a week. Mayumi was also allowed to begin her sentence after her husband's ended in order to ensure her children would be cared for.[64] The Heenes were also banned from receiving any profits from the hoax for several years.[65] Richard Heene was also ordered to pay $36,000 in restitution.[13]

Media attention[edit]

For hours, the incident received extensive media coverage in many parts of the world, with local TV helicopters broadcasting live video of the balloon and rescue operation.[66] The incident also sparked a "balloon boy" Internet meme, as the events were closely followed in blogs and social networking sites in real time, generating speculation, image editing jokes and parodies[67][68] of the story, which started even when the boy's safety was uncertain.[69][70] "Balloon boy" became the No. 1 search on Google within hours of the event and 34 of the top 40 searches on Google were related to Falcon Heene and the incident.[71]

In July 2011, Richard Heene auctioned the balloon, selling it to Mike Fruitman, an Aurora, Colorado businessman, for $2,502.[72] Heene said that proceeds would go to victims of the March 2011 Sendai earthquake and tsunami.[72]

Criticism[edit]

Editor & Publisher noted that "only after the crash did TV hosts stress that reports of [a] boy in it were 'unverified' and raise the possibility of a hoax."[73]

Experts and commentators also criticized the media's vetting process, questioned the separation between journalism and reality television and raised concerns about the exploitation of children for news stories.[74] Robert Thompson, of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University, said that the incident "was a wake-up call to the media but it's a wake-up call that every single one of us is going to sleep through." Thompson blamed technology rather than the media for the problem: "There are two technological phenomena driving this -- one is television satellite trucks and the ability to broadcast from anywhere and two is an unlimited number of platforms to place this stuff."[75]

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External links[edit]

External images
Picture of balloon landing in a field