Balloon boy parents sentenced to jail

A Colorado father and mother who orchestrated a hoax to convince authorities that their six-year-old son had been carried away in a helium balloon in October have both received jail time for their role in the stunt.

Barred from profiting from what judge deemed an elaborate hoax

A Colorado father and mother who orchestrated a hoax to convince authorities that their six-year-old son had been carried away in a helium balloon in October have both received jail time for their role in the stunt.

Fort Collins District Judge Stephen Schapanski sentenced Richard Heene to 90 days in jail, with Heene to serve 30 days straight time. For the remaining two months, he could work during the day but would be imprisoned at night. He is to start his sentence on Jan. 11.
Richard and Mayumi Heene arrive at court for sentencing in Fort Collins, Colo., in connection with the balloon boy hoax. ((Ed Andrieski/Associated Press))

His wife, Mayumi, was sentenced to 20 days in jail. Schapanski said the sentence could be served on weekends or during the week and could involve Mayumi doing work for the community during the day and being allowed to go home at night.

But she would begin her sentence after her husband served his time, to ensure their children would have one parent with them.

They were also both sentenced to four years probation.

As well, the judge ordered that neither could benefit financially from the incident.

Chief Deputy District Attorney Andrew Lewis had argued that Heene wasted a lot of manpower and money in wanting to get publicity.

He said, for that, both parents needed to be punished, and the court needed to send a message of deterrence.

"Jay Leno said it best when he said, 'This is copycat game.' And people will copycat this event. They need to go to jail so people don't do that."

But Lane said his client never anticipated the "ripple effects" from the incident would be so severe. He said Heene has taken full reponsibility for the incident and apologized profusely. But he argued that no one was injured in the incident and that Heene should be spared jail time.

Referring to it as an elaborate hoax, Schapanski said the intent of the stunt was to deceive the public, law enforcement officials and the media. 

The helium balloon constructed by the Heene family travelled more than 80 kilometres after it broke free of its tethers in October. ((KMGH-TV/Associated Press))

He said it was hard to understand how Heene wouldn't expect the "ripple effects" since the hoax was designed to attract attention.

The couple could also be on the hook for thousands of dollars to cover the expenses involved in the search and rescue of their son.

The Larimer County District Attorney's Office estimates total costs at $46,000. Schapanski ordered them to pay restitution, but said the exact details would be taken up at a later date.

Last month, Richard Heene pleaded guilty in district court in Fort Collins to attempting to influence a public servant.

His wife, Mayumi, pleaded guilty to the misdemeanour of false reporting to authorities.

Police also concluded the incident, which started a media frenzy, was a hoax.

Richard and Mayumi Heene had told authorities they were certain that Falcon, the youngest of their three children, had crawled inside the helium balloon — built in their yard as a science experiment — before it floated away on Oct. 15.

Television cameras followed the balloon for 80 kilometres before it landed; a search then showed no one inside. A few hours later, Falcon was found safe at home, hiding in the rafters of his family's garage.

Six-year-old Falcon Heene sits in the box of his family's pickup truck outside the family home in Fort Collins, Colo. ((David Zalubowski/Associated Press))

But questions about the veracity of the story were raised after the family was interviewed by CNN's Wolf Blitzer on the Larry King Live show. During questioning, Falcon is heard telling his father that he didn't come out of the attic when called because they were "doing this for the show."

The Heene family has been featured twice on the ABC television reality show Wife Swap — the last time in March fuelling speculation they may have been seeking more publicity.

On Oct. 17, deputies questioned both parents separately. Richard Heene denied the incident was a publicity stunt. But his wife admitted it was a hoax, according to a search warrant affidavit.

She told an investigator the couple devised the hoax two weeks before the flight "to make the Heene family more marketable for future media interest" and that they built the balloon specifically for that purpose. Mayumi also said she and her husband had instructed their three children to lie to authorities and the media, the affidavit said.

With files from The Associated Press