FORT COLLINS, Colo. — An associate of the father accused of carrying out the now-infamous balloon boy ordeal to promote a reality TV show was wanted for questioning after e-mails surfaced showing the two had discussed a similar stunt months ago as part of a public relations campaign for the program.
Investigators said they want to interview Robert Thomas, a Denver man who claimed Richard Heene had told him he was planning a media stunt to promote a proposed reality show. Thomas, a self-described researcher, sold his story to Gawker.com and provided the Web site with e-mail exchanges between him and Heene. Thomas said the show would feature Heene as a mad scientist who carries out various scientific experiments.
“This will be the most significant UFO-related news event to take place since the Roswell Crash of 1947, and the result will be a dramatic increase in local and national awareness about The Heene Family, our Reality Series, as well as the UFO Phenomenon in general,” according to a copy of the show’s proposal provided to the site by Thomas.
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Gawker.com editor-in-chief Gabriel Snyder confirmed the New York-based Web site paid Thomas, but declined to say how much for the story billed with the headline: “Exclusive: I Helped Richard Heene Plan a Balloon Hoax.”
Snyder said Thomas was planning to meet with investigators Sunday night, though sheriff’s officials did not return messages seeking confirmation.
Messages left for Thomas by The Associated Press were not returned.
Thomas, 25, said in his Gawker.com story that the plan he knew about did not involve Heene’s children.
The alleged stunt temporarily shut down Denver International Airport, and the National Guard provided two helicopters in an attempt to rescue 6-year-old Falcon Heene, who was believed to be inside the flying-saucer shaped homemade balloon that hurtled more than 50 miles across two counties.
The drama played out on live television to millions of viewers worldwide. When the balloon landed without the boy, officials thought he had fallen out and began the grim search for his body.
Larimer County Sheriff Jim Alderden announced Sunday that he’s seeking charges, including felonies, against Richard Heene and his wife, Mayumi. Alderden said the stunt two weeks in the planning was a marketing ploy by the Heenes, who met in acting school in Hollywood and have appeared on ABC’s reality show “Wife Swap.”
“We certainly know that there’s a conspiracy between the husband and wife, you’ve probably seen some of the e-mails and some of the things on the Internet suggesting that there may be other conspirators,” Alderden said.
Alderden said documents show that a media outlet has agreed to pay money to the Heenes with regard to the balloon incident. Alderden didn’t name the media outlet but said it was a show that blurs “the line between entertainment and news.”
It wasn’t clear whether the deal was signed before or after the alleged hoax, or whether the media outlet was a possible conspirator.
“Let’s call it (my statement) short of speculation that a media outlet was in on the hoax, but let’s not discount the possibility,” he said.
In an e-mail Sunday to the AP, Snyder said editors at Gawker.com had not contacted the Heene family or offered them money for their story, referring to Alderden’s reference to a deal being struck by a media outlet.
“No, that wasn’t us,” Snyder said.
The parents weren’t under arrest, the sheriff said. He said he expected to recommend charges of conspiracy, contributing to the delinquency of a minor, making a false report to authorities and attempting to influence a public servant. Federal charges were also possible.
The most serious charges are felonies and carry a maximum sentence of six years in prison and a $500,000 fine. Alderden said they would be seeking restitution for the costs, though he didn’t have an estimate.
The cost for just the two military helicopters was about $14,500.
As Alderden told reporters Sunday that the whole thing was a hoax, the Heenes were shopping for snacks at Wal-Mart, where Richard Heene told the AP he was “seeking counsel.”
“This thing has become so convoluted,” Heene said, tears welling in his eyes. He said his wife was holding together better than he was.
The couple’s attorney, David Lane, issued a statement later Sunday saying the Heenes were willing to voluntarily turn themselves in to face charges. Lane said he advised the family against making public statements.
Once investigators got a good look at the “flying saucer” they determined that the thin mylar balloon covered with foil and held together with duct tape would not have been able to launch with the 37-pound-boy inside, according to Colorado State University physics professor Brian Jones.
Other parts of the story, including whether the 6-year-old had been hiding in the rafters of the family’s garage during an intense five-hour search also weren’t true, Alderden said.
“For all we know he may have been two blocks down the road playing on the swing in the city park,” the sheriff said.
The sheriff said all three of the Heenes’ sons knew of the hoax, but likely won’t face charges because of their ages. The oldest son is 10. One of the boys told investigators he saw his brother get in the balloon’s box before it launched.
Alderden said Heene, a 48-year-old storm chaser, inventor and self-described amateur scientist, has a high school education and most recently earned a living by laying tile.
Alderden said investigators had an “aha” moment that the story was a hoax when Falcon turned to his father during a CNN interview Thursday and said what sounded like “you had said we did this for a show” when asked why he didn’t come out of his hiding place.
On Friday, Falcon got sick during two separate TV interviews when asked again why he hid.
Alderden said they didn’t question the family Friday because they wanted to keep the family’s cooperation by maintaining the appearance that they believed their story.
Records show that police have responded to the house at least twice in the past year, including a possible domestic violence incident in February. No charges were filed.
Alderden said officials tried Saturday to persuade Mayumi Heene, 45, to go to a safe house, but she declined.
Alderden said the children were still with the parents Sunday and that child protective services had been contacted to investigate their well-being. On “Wife Swap,” Heene was portrayed as erratic, at one point throwing a glass of milk on a participant on the program.
“Clearly, from all indications, Mr. Heene has somewhat of a temper,” Alderden said.
The producer of “Wife Swap” said it had a show in development with the Heenes but the deal is now off. TLC also said Heene had pitched a reality show to the network months ago, but it passed on the offer.