Storm-chasing inventor Richard Heene met with Colorado sheriff officials today amid lingering questions about whether he perpetrated a big hoax when his 6-year-old son vanished into the rafters of his garage for five hours while the world thought he was zooming through the sky in a flying saucer-like helium balloon.The saga grew stranger by the day.
Heene said he had a “big announcement” today, but left a news conference less than a minute after it started.
“Absolutely no hoax. I want your questions in the box,” Heene said, waving a cardboard box before going back in the home.
Heene also mentioned that he would address the questions in the box later today at 7 p.m. local time.
Sheriff’s investigators planned to talk to Richard and Mayumi Heene again to resolve lingering questions over whether the drama could have been a hoax. Richard Heene has called that suggestion “pathetic.”
A series of bizarre television interviews last week capped off the escapade in which Falcon Heene turned out only to be hiding in his family’s attic, apparently without his parents or two brothers knowing.
Yet doubts surfaced after a CNN interview in which Falcon told his parents “you said we did this for a show” after his father asked why he did not come down from the rafters during the search Thursday.
The family made the rounds on morning talk shows Friday, and Falcon threw up during two separate interviews when asked why he hid.
In an interview on CBS’ “Early Show” Friday, an obviously tired Richard Heene explained that Falcon was confused, and was referring to a previous request a cameraman made to show him his hiding spot in the attic.
Larimer County Sheriff Jim Alderden acknowledged that Falcon’s comments on CNN had clearly “raised everybody’s level of skepticism.” But, he said, investigators had no reason to believe the whole thing was a hoax.
“I was hiding because my dad yelled at me,” Falcon told CBS station KCNC-TV in Denver. When asked why his father yelled at him, Falcon replied, “I was playing in the flying saucer.”
The silver balloon, which looked like a flying saucer, came loose just after 11 a.m. Thursday at the boy’s home and started flying. It landed in a field near Denver International Airport after being airborn for more than 2 hours and flying about 50 miles, KCNC-TV said.
Alderden said the family seemed genuine during the panic, and he believed events could have unfolded just as they described: Falcon got frightened when his father scolded him for playing inside the balloon, and hid in the garage out of fear.
The sheriff said his office has been flooded with calls and e-mails about the matter. He added that officials “have to operate on what we can prove as a fact and not what people want to be done.”
The Heenes say that when they couldn’t find Falcon, they called the Federal Aviation Administration, then a local TV station with a news helicopter, and then dialed 911. The sheriff said the TV station call made sense because the helicopter could have provided immediate assistance.
In the 911 call, the boy’s mother, Mayumi Heene, told a dispatcher in a panicked voice that her child was in “a flying saucer.” She sobbed and said, “We’ve got to get my son.”
It was not the first time someone from the Heenes’ home has dialed 911. A Colorado sheriff’s deputy responded to a 911 hang-up in February at the home, hearing a man yelling and noticing Mayumi Heene had a mark on her cheek and broken blood vessels in her left eye. She said it was because of a problem with her contacts.
Richard Heene said he was yelling because his children stayed up past their bedtime. The husband and wife said nothing had happened, and the deputy concluded he did not have probable cause to make an arrest.
If the balloon ordeal was a hoax, the parents could be charged with making a false report to authorities, a low-level misdemeanor, Alderden said.
He said authorities would need to bring a criminal case before attempting to recoup costs for the thousands of dollars spent on aerial and ground searches for the boy. Officials rerouted planes around the balloon’s flight path and briefly shut down Denver International Airport.
Deputies searched the family’s home but didn’t look in the attic because they didn’t think it was possible Falcon could climb up there, Alderden said.
While the balloon was in the air, the sheriff’s department reached out to a university professor who determined that a balloon of that size could probably handle a payload of about 80 pounds, Alderden said. Falcon weighs about 37 pounds.
The balloon was supposed to be tethered to the ground when it lifted off Thursday. A video of the launch shows the family counting down in unison, “3, 2, 1,” before Richard Heene pulls a cord, setting the silvery craft into the air.
“Whoa!” one of the boys exclaims. Then his father says in disbelief, “Oh, my God!” He then says to someone, “You didn’t put the tether down!” And he kicks the wood frame that had held the balloon.
Over the years, Richard Heene has worked as a storm chaser, a handyman and contractor, and an aspiring reality-TV star.
Maj. Justin Smith of the sheriff’s office said social workers have been asked to get involved because of concerns about the family’s storm chasing. He said authorities want to make sure the children are in a healthy environment.
The sheriff said investigators asked social workers to wait to talk with the Heenes until the family talks to authorities again.
On Friday, two of the Heene boys could be seen playing in the backyard and peeking through windows at reporters on the street. One of the boys, Ryo, would occasionally crack open the door and tell journalists that the family was not talking today.
“My dad said he’s tired of this show,” the boy said.