The “Balloon Boy” story is now an official hoax, and the boy’s parents, Richard and Mayumi Heene—who reportedly met during drama school, no kidding—will be charged with crimes ranging from filing a false claim with law enforcement to conspiracy, contributing to the delinquency of a minor, and attempting to influence a public servant.
The Heenes allegedly told their little boy to hide while they pretended he was in the balloon, then they let the story fly to generate publicity for a new reality show. Possible punishment ranges from minor fines to six years in prison. The children, all of whom apparently knew of the hoax, will not face charges, according to Larimer County Sheriff Jim Alderden.
Fortunately for them, nobody was killed during the rescue effort, or they would be looking at manslaughter charges. Nonetheless, the relatively minor charges they face will probably land them in jail because the natives are restless about being played—and they want more than a pound of flesh.
Making a child participate in a fraud is like using a kid as a mule to sell drugs. Any parent with the capacity to so disrespect their own flesh and blood deserves to lose custody of all their children.
The Heenes managed to destroy property during the search, as emergency vehicles drove like crazy in pursuit of the balloon, over private farmland and through the property of several landowners. The hoax also shut down the Denver International Airport for a while and overall forced the wasteful spending of countless tax dollars, which will probably lead to so many lawsuits and civil fines that the family could be paying claims for the rest of their lives.
It might not have gotten so out of hand if we were a more cynical society. But we still believe enough in the goodness of people that it’s hard to believe a seemingly ordinary couple could take advantage of their own child and exploit the emotions of a compassionate public.
I wish I could say I was among those who knew right away it was a hoax. A physics professor would have known that a balloon filled with helium and only 20 feet wide could hardly have stayed afloat, much less sped along at such a fast clip, with a small person inside.
• The 10 Craziest Media Hoaxes• Lee Siegel: Why We Watched Balloon BoyBut I was one of the idiots. And I was thinking like a mom—focused on the child, and imagining the kid’s parents running down the street, banging into telephone poles while looking up and screaming at the sky, begging the clouds to let the boy live. I thought about their helplessness, and how it must have felt like a bad dream, the kind I’ve had so many times, where something horrible is about to happen, and no matter how hard I try, I can’t save my child.
Such dreams are common for parents because we worry about letting go. We know it’s the right thing to do, to give kids “wings” so they can make it on their own. But it’s scary, too, because we want to protect them, no matter their age.
I’m thinking the Heenes also had a dream about helping their kids take flight—but it wasn’t a metaphor for independence so much as a money-making scheme. The Heenes had appeared in the reality show Wife Swap twice and were in the process of pitching other ideas for new shows. They were allegedly savvy enough to know the press would pay no mind to a story about a helium-filled balloon that became detached from its tether in the backyard of a nobody family in Colorado.
Richard Heene says the family sincerely believed their son was inside the balloon when it first took off. But Heene built the balloon himself, which means he would have known the device could never have taken flight with a 37-pound child inside. It was a one-of-a kind item, so cops had to depend on the things Heene told them to determine whether they really needed to dispatch the Federal Aviation Administration and a fleet of emergency vehicles to track and chase the balloon to its ultimate destination.
Some suggest Heene saw dollar signs only after the balloon went up. But the guy allegedly called the FAA first, the news media second, and 911 third—a sure sign of a hoax because even an idiot would know that 911 dispatchers can mobilize the FAA faster than a dad calling from his backyard. That Heene could have called the media at all, much less before 911, is so stupid the only possible explanation is that he wasn’t really worried about the child.
Heene then propped up his son up on television to answer questions from a skeptical media. To the boy’s credit, he said the family did it “for the show” when asked why he didn’t come out of his hiding place. And he barfed, twice, on news programs. Lucky kid, he’s maintained a conscience despite his parents.
When child protective services tries to figure out whether the Heenes should be stripped of the privilege of parenthood, it won’t go unnoticed that they used their child to further their alleged fraud, and then subjected the boy to circumstances that made him vomit repeatedly on national television.
Making a child participate in a fraud is like using a kid as a mule to sell drugs. Any parent with the capacity to so disrespect their own flesh and blood deserves to lose custody of all their children, at least long enough for the kids to tell the whole truth about what’s going on behind closed doors, away from the influence of “Mommie and Daddie Dearest.”
No matter where the truth lies, the Heenes are losers who will never make a dime off the story, or get their own reality show—though reports of domestic violence suggest Mayumi might be considering the benefits of a real-life Husband Swap, otherwise known as a divorce.
Advertisers know that audiences tune in to reality shows when they can identify with the stars. The Heenes will never attract viewers because among all the moms and dads who sat glued to their televisions last week, not a single one can relate to people who see value in the fraudulent exploitation of their own 6-year-old child.
Wendy Murphy is a former child abuse and sex crimes prosecutor who teaches at New England Law/Boston. Wendy specializes in the representation of crime victims, women and children. Her expose of the American legal system, And Justice For Some , came out in 2007. A former NFL cheerleader and visiting scholar at Harvard Law School, Wendy lives outside Boston with her husband and five children.