Balloon Boy revisited
Ten years ago, the nation was transfixed by the story of Falcon Heene, the boy trapped in a runaway balloon, said journalist Robert Sanchez in 5280 Magazine. His father still insists it wasn’t a made-for-TV hoax.
On the second day I visited Balloon Boy’s father, he was standing in the back of a pickup truck, inflating balloons and letting the family dog bite them. Now, 10 years after their helium-filled balloon took off from their Fort Collins, Colo., backyard, the Heenes—Richard, his wife, and their three sons—live in a camper trailer parked on the side of a twisting country road in New Hampton, N.Y.
A 160-year-old farmhouse slumps just a few yards away, a spray of mold running up the white siding. The house is a renovation project the Heenes are working on for an investor in Florida, where the family had been living since Richard pleaded guilty to one felony charge of attempting to influence a public servant in relation to what came to be known as the Balloon Boy Hoax. Richard served 30 days in jail and 60 nights of work release, and soon after moved his family 1,900 miles from Colorado to Florida.
The Heenes’ trailer was parked between two homes; one neighbor had already called the police because one of the three Heene boys and a friend were trespassing on private farmland. The officer pulled up to the trailer. Richard apologized and explained that the family was new to town and the boys were just doing a little exploring. “You can’t win with cops, man,” Richard says, recalling the visit, but not really talking about that particular interaction with the police. There was one positive takeaway from the encounter: At least for now, it seemed, no one recognized the names of Richard and Mayumi Heene or those of their sons: Bradford, 20; Ryo, 18; and Falcon, aka Balloon Boy, 16.
Richard is 58 now. He’s managed to retain enough of his energy to still seem youthful—if not in body then at least in spirit. It’s something he credits to raising three boys, to swinging a hammer for a living, and to his myriad inventions, which range from his Bear Scratch back scratcher to his HeeneDuty Truck Transformers to his Head Banger Energy Shots to the BlowJab fan designed to fit inside a man’s pants.
For her part, Mayumi is omnipresent, the glue of the family who prefers to work in the shadows. After their marriage and the birth of three sons, it was obvious to anyone that Mayumi was the silent force that kept everything together. “She’s traditional Japanese, which means she takes the caretaker role very, very seriously,” a family friend says. “She lives to serve Richard and the boys. She would never want embarrassment or shame for any of them.”
In the fall of 2009, the Great Recession was hammering American families, and people were out of work and struggling. Richard’s remodeling and home renovation services were luxuries most people couldn’t afford; Mayumi was running an at-home video-editing business, but that work had slowed, too. Richard had been trying to come up with an invention that could make some money, and had dreamed up a helium-filled, foil-backed balloon. With a successful launch, Richard imagined dozens of inventors building their own dirigibles and racing them across a desert, maybe in Arizona or Utah. If he could get enough balloons for the competition, Richard thought, he could find sponsors and maybe some airtime for the event.
The Heenes used whatever spare cash they had to buy the supplies and started building. The balloon was 20 feet in diameter and was constructed using 16 pie-shaped plastic sheets and two rolls of duct tape. When Richard emptied five tanks of helium into the balloon for a test run on Oct. 15, it expanded and began to take the shape of a Jiffy Pop popcorn container. Richard then hooked a stun gun to the basket and ran a million volts of electricity across the balloon’s surface. The plan was to tether the balloon to the ground, release it about 13 feet into the air, and then use the electricity to maneuver the balloon. A video camera was set up on a tripod. As they stood in the backyard, the Heenes counted down from three, Richard pulled a release pin, and the balloon slowly floated toward the tops of the trees out back. The Heenes cheered.
The balloon kept going.
Richard yelled at his wife and kicked the wooden frame on which the balloon had been sitting. It wasn’t until about 30 seconds later, Richard and Mayumi claim, that they realized Falcon wasn’t in the yard. He’d been playing inside the balloon’s basket all morning; earlier, Bradford filmed Falcon climbing around the plywood basket and their father yelling for the boy to stay away. Now Bradford was screaming at his parents: “Falcon’s in there! Falcon’s in there!”
Richard’s first call was to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), law enforcement reports say. Within minutes, Larimer County sheriff’s deputies began arriving at the Heenes’ rented house. They searched the family’s bedrooms, the basement, and the home’s garage. About an hour after the balloon’s launch, footage of its flight was broadcast across the country on cable news channels.
Television and newspaper reporters flooded the Heenes’ neighborhood. Nearly 90 minutes after Mayumi’s 911 call, with an entire nation watching, the balloon began deflating. As the balloon plopped onto the ground in a freshly planted field about 50 miles from the Heenes’ home, deputies and an ambulance converged. They searched the craft. Falcon wasn’t there.
A deputy reported seeing an object fall out a few miles earlier. “It was the worst moment of my life,” Richard says. With deputies still searching, Richard and Mayumi cried in the living room. As one investigator was making a call from the kitchen, he heard a shriek. Falcon had shown up. He told his parents he’d been hiding inside a box in the garage’s attic. Safe in his hiding place, he’d played with some toy cars and then had fallen asleep.
That evening, during an appearance on CNN, Wolf Blitzer asked Falcon if he heard Richard screaming out “Falcon, Falcon?” “Mmm-hmm,” Falcon answered. “You did?” Richard said, sounding a little surprised. “Well, then why didn’t you come out?”
“Um.” Falcon paused. “You guys said…[pause] that, um…[pause] we did this for the show.”
At a police investigator’s request, Richard and Mayumi agreed to take separate polygraph examinations. Mayumi crumbled during an interrogation after the polygraph. She admitted that the balloon was a setup. She explained that she and her husband wanted attention for a science-based reality show they’d pitched with producers who’d filmed their 2008 appearances on ABC’s Wife Swap. A runaway balloon with a kid inside could be television catnip.
"It was all bulls---,” Richard says now. “This wound up being more about one sheriff’s ego and his search for 15 minutes of fame than anything having to do with us.” For one thing, Richard says, his wife was nowhere near proficient enough to understand—much less to answer—polygraph-measured questions in English. To this day, Richard hasn’t changed his story. He’s been called a kook, a moron, an idiot, and a liar. An editorial once argued that his kids should be taken from him. Investigators, Richard said, “tried their best to ruin my family.” The media “wanted to humiliate and destroy us. Well,” he said, “I’m not going to let that happen.”
After the Balloon Boy incident, Richard, Mayumi, and the boys moved from Fort Collins to Florida. Richard and Mayumi homeschooled their kids, worried about the negative attention they might get at school. The boys had been playing guitars and drums for years, gravitating toward the heavy-metal interests of their father. Ryo was a natural on the drums. Bradford played the guitar. Little Falcon was the perfect, if unexpected, frontman and could command a stage. Richard marketed them as the youngest metal group in the world. One of their songs was titled “Balloon Boy No Hoax.”
It’s worth considering what the world might think of Richard had the incident not happened. Before that balloon took off from his yard, quite a few very serious people took him very seriously. Yes, Richard could be foolish. Yes, he was a wacky inventor/storm chaser/budding reality television personality. But he’d done it all so adeptly, playing a role he knew would sell.
In his 2008 Wife Swap appearance, his performance was a master class in reality TV idiocy. (“You’re not my wife,” he yelled in one of his more memorable exchanges with his TV spouse. “You’re a man’s nightmare!”) For Wife Swap’s 100th episode, producers asked viewers to pick their favorite families to reappear on the show. The Heenes were an easy choice.
That same year, he co-wrote a paper on electromagnetic fields for the National Weather Digest. He tagged along on a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration plane that passed through the center of Hurricane Wilma. His storm-chasing work was legitimate enough to earn him a profile in The Denver Post, which only bolstered his reality TV show aspirations.
Richard spent a lot of time thinking about how he could fix his family’s reputation. Ultimately, he learned he was the one who needed fixing. “I spent so much of my time before the incident doing the Richard thing,” he says. “Mayumi, the kids, all of them were following Richard, doing what I wanted to do. They didn’t complain. They didn’t question me. They just did it. But maybe what we went through, what I had to personally deal with, I think that was probably a message for me: no more Richard s---.”
A month after I visited the Heenes, Mayumi’s attorney, Lee Christian, emailed me to say he’d found her case file. If I got his client’s approval, he’d show it to me. Inside the box Christian put in front of me, there were at least 1,000 pages of investigative files, reports, and unreleased discovery. Buried among the final pages were copies of handwritten notes. The first page had a blue sticky note on it that read “Notes from Mayumi.” The following 12 pages appeared to have been created for her attorney, a blow-by-blow of the event.
Oct. 6: “We have a video of Falcon saying, ‘I want to get inside of it.’” Oct. 14: “Richard mentioned what if Falcon hid for ½ hours later and landed, then mention in [news]paper, Fort Collins…. Falcon can hide in the closet with a safe in the basement.” Oct. 18: “I found out when we visited our attorney’s [sic] that Richard revealed he came down to the basement to look for Falcon, but he wasn’t there. Richard thought really Falcon would be in the flying saucer.”
It’s not difficult to piece it together: With a video camera rolling, Richard would launch the balloon and freak out. He’d call the FAA and get the balloon tracked. There’d be a tearful reunion when Falcon emerged from the basement, where he’d been told to hide. The story might go nationwide. With publicity in full force and a recording of every moment, networks would fight over the Heenes’ story.
Except Falcon didn’t hide where he was told to. He hid in the garage attic, not in the basement. He played with his cars and he fell asleep. The FAA said Richard needed to call 911. And then that silvery balloon was careening across our television screens. That’s why Mayumi’s reunion with Falcon was so believable: For a few hours, she and Richard honestly worried their son had been swept away.
I decided to call Richard for what I thought would be the last time. He fumbled for words when I explained what I’d found. I could hear Mayumi in the background, denying to her husband that she’d written anything. Richard asked if he could call back the next day. Two days after our brief conversation, my cellphone finally rang.
“This whole thing, that never happened,” he told me. “So you didn’t suggest that Falcon could hide in the closet with the safe in the basement?” I asked. Mayumi suddenly broke in. “I made the whole story up.”
“What?” Richard said. “I wrote it,” Mayumi said. She started to cry. There was a brief back-and-forth. Mayumi continued to cry. It was difficult to understand what she was saying. Richard yelled some more. The moment reminded me of the video the Heenes made of their balloon floating away, when Richard yelled at Mayumi and kicked the wooden launch pad. According to Mayumi’s notes, all of that had been an elaborate ruse. Now, it appeared, they were doing it again—this time for an audience of one.
Excerpted from an article that originally appeared in 5280 Magazine. Used with permission. ■