Balloon Boy parents face sentencing in Colorado

Wednesday, December 23, 2009 - 11:22am

FORT COLLINS, Colo. – The parents who pulled off the balloon boy hoax are already facing the prospect of jail time and paying tens of thousands of dollars in restitution over their stunt. An investigator also wants to forbid the couple from making any money off their newfound fame.

Richard and Mayumi Heene are scheduled to be sentenced Wednesday after pleading guilty to charges that they carried out the stunt in October to promote a reality TV show. The husband faces up to 90 days and jail, and the wife faces up to 60 days.

An investigator thinks the judge shouldn't stop at jail time.

Bob Heffernan, a lead investigator in the case for the Larimer County Sheriff's Office, said there should be limits on how the Heenes might profit from the Oct. 15 hoax, such as through book or TV deals.

"This would hopefully stop the Heenes from being able to exploit their criminal behavior or their children any more than they already have," Heffernan urged District Judge Stephen Schapanski in a letter dated Nov. 30. "All the while the Heenes were playing us all in hopes of making themselves more marketable."

David Lane, Richard Heene's attorney, said nothing in the law allows a judge to impose any such limits.

"That's a First Amendment violation," Lane said.

The Heenes made frantic calls to 911, the news media and the Federal Aviation Administration to report that their 6-year-old son may have been aboard a runaway balloon. That triggered a desperate 50-mile chase as the craft drifted across northern Colorado's plains — and then another desperate search once the balloon landed and the boy was nowhere to be found.

In his letter to the judge, Heffernan described his pain at having to tell the Heenes that their boy was not inside the balloon when it landed in a field.

"I wish I could make you realize the anguish I had when I went into that room," Heffernan said. "To have the Heenes start the grieving process with me trying to comfort them and give them some hope. Then to find out later they were just acting."

He added, "Yeah, it's personal, but I ask you to seek some justice for me and others by ensuring the Heenes' sentence ... reflects this personal anguish the Heenes caused to so many people worldwide."

Lane said he will ask that Richard Heene be spared any jail time.

"Orson Welles didn't go to jail for convincing the world that it was being invaded by Martians, with people panicking and committing suicide," Lane said, referring to Welles' 1938 radio broadcast "War of the Worlds."

"Not everything that happens that's bad in the world requires somebody to go to jail," Lane insisted.

Mayumi Heene's attorney, Lee Christian, did not return phone calls Tuesday.

The Heenes also face possible restitution for search and rescue costs. It wasn't immediately known if District Judge Stephen Schapanski would take up the issue at Wednesday's hearing.

The Larimer County District Attorney's Office estimates total costs at $46,000, according to Lane.

That figure includes $8,000 in sheriff's department overtime. Another $13,500 was spent by law enforcement agencies from the nearby communities of Greeley and Weld County, along with Colorado State University and the U.S. Forest Service, Lane quoted the district attorney as saying. Two National Guard helicopters launched to track the craft cost about $16,000.

Also included are $8,500 in damages to the field where the craft landed.

Lane said he'll demand proof of all damages or extra costs.

The FAA has also informed the Heenes that they may be subject to an $11,000 fine for launching an unauthorized aircraft. The balloon flight forced some commercial aircraft to switch to a different runway at Denver International Airport.

On Monday, sheriff's officials announced that the Heenes acted alone and that their stunt did not include media outlets, as Sheriff Jim Alderden had speculated in October.

Several neighbors of the Heenes said the couple should be punished.

"First thing he should get, he should get a chance to publicly apologize to the nation and let them know that he is really remorseful for what he did because a lot of people were crying and very emotional with this whole saga," said Dean Askew, a friend of Richard Heene who was interviewed during the investigation. "The next thing he should get to do is his time."

Kenneth Seifert, who lives three doors down from the Heenes, said Richard Heene should pay restitution.

"And if he wants to go out and have his reality show, so let him do it," Seifert said.

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