The 'balloon show' seems to be taking a heavy toll of its perpetrators. The US couple who had millions peering at the sky, hearts thumping, praying for the rescue of their child, will now spend some time behind the bars, though on relatively lenient terms.
Larimer County Judge Stephen Schapanski in Colarado sentenced Richard Heene (48) to 90 days in custody, to begin January 11. Heene can spend the last 60 days of the sentence in a work release program but must return to the jail at night, the judge said.
AdvertisementHeene will be on probation for four years and must complete 100 hours of community service each year during that period.
His wife Mayumi Heene (45) was sentenced to 20 days in jail -- less than the 60 days sought by prosecutors. The judge said her term would begin after her husband's jail sentence ends, so at least one of them can be with their children during that time.
She was given the option of serving her time over 10 weekends. She also received four years' probation and must perform 120 hours of community service.
The couple also must pay restitution, but no exact amount was announced in court. The judge ordered that they not benefit financially from the incident.
In October last, the Heenes said their son Falcon appeared to have flown off in a runaway weather balloon, sparking a large scale rescue mission. The world watched this balloon fly randomly out of control at 7,000 feet above the ground. When the balloon came down, it was empty. Later that day, Falcon came out of his hiding in their own home. There were sighs of relief initially, but soon allegations of the "Balloon Ball" hoax started flying thick and fast.
It was the boy himself who gave the game away. CNN's Wolfe Blitzer wanted to know whether he had not heard his parents calling his name while he was hiding and the father innocent asked the boy in turn, "Did you hear us calling your name at any time?"
The son mumbled, "Uh huh." Taken aback, the couple persisted, "You did?"
It proved too much for the six-year-old. He retorted, "You guys said that we did this for the show." And the whole world came unraveling for the family.
Newspaper reports spoke of a dysfunctional family and said that Richard Heene was some kind of a violent man. He once got so angry he trashed a Volkswagon while fighting with the car's owner. He caused thousands of dollars worth of damage - and was convicted of vandalism and disturbing the peace. Heene was sentenced to 30 days in jail, but served just four and spent the remaining time on house arrest.
The police have responded to the Heene house at least twice in the past year, including a possible domestic violence incident in February, it was further reported.
The couple regularly pulled their sons out of school whenever they wanted to chase a hurricane or tornado - some 30 to 40 times a year. Heene would have them video the torrents - and himself - and post it all to YouTube or his MySpace page.
Heene's former partner Scott Stevens left him, feeling it was unsafe to bring kids into the eye of a hurricane.
Larimer County Sheriff Jim Alderden raised concerns about the safety of Heene's wife and kids.
"We have a concern, but we didn't have enough that would allow us or child protective services to physically take the kids from that environment," he said.
Say what? Heene and his wife told their kids to lie, had Falcon hide in a box for hours, and apparently don't think school is a priority for their kids. Richard and Mayumi Heene need counseling - and those kids need a sane environment, wrote newspaper columnist Joanna Molloy.
In the court, prosecutor Andrew Lewis outlined episodes that demonstrate the extensive planning he said occurred before the October 15 balloon flight, which was aimed at generating publicity for the couple, who sought a reality TV show.
"One of those episodes had to do with filling up a weather balloon with helium that looked like a flying saucer and making it move through electric charges," Lewis said. The episodes were discovered when authorities searched the Heenes' home.
Lewis said that a few weeks before the incident, the Heenes were told that no one was showing interest in their program proposal. He added that the couple was having trouble paying their bills.
Once the balloon was aloft, Richard Heene called the Federal Aviation Administration twice and a television station, Lewis said. Heene told everyone that his 6-year-old son, Falcon, was aboard the balloon.
Multiple agencies, among them the National Guard, sheriff's and fire departments, and the U.S. Forest Service, swarmed over the area to track the balloon.
The Larimer County Sheriff's Department tallied the cost, including the hours spent on the investigation, to be at least $47,000. In addition, the FAA plans to impose an $11,000 fine.
According to the judge, traffic at Denver International Airport was delayed during the incident. The balloon landed about 15 miles east of there, Schapanski said. The child was not found on the balloon; he came out of hiding at his parents' home several hours later.
Meanwhile, TV viewers were "transfixed" by the saga, he said. "This clearly was a planned event."
"In summary, what this case is about is deception -- exploitation of the children of the Heenes, exploitation of the media, exploitation of the emotions of the people -- and it's about money. This was all done for the purpose of making money," judge Schapanski said.
"I'm very, very sorry. And I want to apologize to all the rescue workers out there and the people who got involved in the community. That's it," Heene said quietly at his sentencing.
His wife, Mayumi, sat quietly and declined to speak.
Richard Heene's attorney, David Lane, said his client has expressed remorse and accepted full responsibility for what happened. He tried to convince the judge that Richard Heene didn't deserve jail time because there was no violence involved.
On his client's behalf, Lane asked that Mayumi Heene not go to jail.
"That is his primary concern. He has taken full and complete responsibility. Do not send his wife to jail. That is his plea," Lane said.