FORT COLLINS, Colo. — The parents who pulled the balloon boy hoax in hopes of landing a reality TV show were sentenced to jail Wednesday — 90 days for him, 20 days for her — and barred from profiting from their newfound celebrity status for the next four years.
Choking back tears, Richard Heene apologized in court for the frenzy he caused when he claimed his 6-year-old son Falcon had floated away in a giant helium balloon shaped like a flying saucer.
“I’m very, very sorry. And I want to apologize to all the rescue workers out there, and the people that got involved in the community,” said the 48-year-old Heene, a UFO-obsessed backyard scientist who turned to storm-chasing and reality TV after his Hollywood acting career bombed.
The sentencing was the culmination of a saga that transfixed the nation in October with the sight of the silvery balloon hurtling through the sky on live television. In the end, it was all a publicity stunt by a family broke and desperate for attention and money after networks kept rejecting their reality TV show pitches.
Never miss a local story.
“What this case is about is deception, exploitation — exploitation of the children of the Heenes, exploitation of the media and exploitation of people’s emotions — and money,” District Judge Stephen Schapanski said.
Heene’s 90-day sentence includes 60 days of work release that will let him pursue his job as a construction contractor during the day as long as he reports back to jail at night.
The Heenes were also put on four years’ probation, during which they cannot earn any money related to the stunt. That means any book, movie or reality TV deals are off limits.
Richard Heene’s wife, Mayumi Heene, 45, looked sullen and did not speak during the sentencing.
Afterward, the Heenes walked past a crowd of reporters without comment.
Prosecutors asked for the 90-day maximum for the husband, saying that a stern message needs to be sent to people who stage hoaxes for the publicity.
Prosecutor Andrew Lewis also asked that the Heenes be forced to reimburse authorities for the full cost of chasing the balloon and investigating the hoax — an amount that could exceed $50,000. The exact sum will not be determined later.
“People around the world were watching this unfold,” Lewis said. “Mr. Heene wasted a lot of manpower and a lot of money in wanting to get himself some publicity.”
He added, “Jay Leno said it best when he said, ‘This is a copycat game.’ And people will copycat this event.” The Heenes “need to go to jail so people don’t do that.”
The judge gave Richard Heene until Jan. 11 to report to jail so that he could spend the holidays with his family. His wife will serve her 20 days behind bars after her husband completes his sentence. Her time served will be flexible — she can report to jail on 10 weekends, for example — so that the couple’s three children are cared for, the judge said.
At the sentencing, the prosecutor provided a more detailed timeline of the hoax.
He said Richard Heene was working with a collaborator throughout the year to pitch a reality series about madcap experiments and inventions. By late September, it became clear that the networks weren’t biting.
At the same time, the Heenes’ finances were collapsing — they weren’t paying bills, checks were bouncing, and banks were threatening to close accounts, Lewis said.
The Heenes set in motion the balloon hoax in early October as a way to jump-start the reality TV effort and get some attention.
Heene began seeking money to buy helium tanks and studying weather patterns to find the right day for the launch. He eventually settled on Oct. 15; the weather was right, and his kids were home from school with parent-teacher conferences.
The balloon floated away that afternoon with Falcon thought to be aboard. The Heenes first called the Federal Aviation Administration, then a TV station and finally 911.
Authorities launched a desperate search for little Falcon, using military helicopters and a mounted posse, before the boy turned up at home hours later. The Heenes said they realized he had been hiding all along in the rafters after his father had yelled at him for fooling around with the balloon.
But the story soon began falling apart, especially after Falcon blurted out to his father during a CNN interview that evening: “You had said we did this for a show.”
The parents were brought in for questioning, with Richard Heene feigning sleep during his lie-detector test and claiming his drowsiness was a diabetic reaction, Lewis said.
They were ultimately arrested and pleaded guilty in November under deals with prosecutors that called for up to 90 days behind bars for the husband and 60 days for the wife, a Japanese citizen who could have been deported if convicted of more serious charges.
She pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor of knowingly filing a false report with emergency services, while her husband pleaded to a felony count of falsely influencing authorities.
David Lane, Richard Heene’s attorney, pleaded for leniency and said the couple “learned a lesson they will never forget for the rest of their lives.” He also said that if someone has to go to jail, it should be Richard Heene and not his wife.
Afterward, Lane called the judge’s sentence for his client “a measured response” — but said he was surprised Mayumi Heene got jail time.
“This is payback,” he said of her sentence.
Lane said the FAA also plans to fine the Heenes $11,000 for disrupting flights. FAA spokesman Les Dorr said he could not confirm that.
Asked by reporters if his client was done with reality TV, Lane joked: “I don’t know if they’re done with reality television. Is reality television done with them?”