When parents are poseurs, children may become props

Like millions of other people, I was riveted by the news story and video that tracked across the television screen Thursday afternoon. A balloon that bore a distinct resemblance to a flying saucer was floating across the Colorado sky, and authorities believed a 6-year-old boy from Fort Collins might be inside the small cabin at the base of the balloon, which had been built by the boy’s father.

The possibilities for how the drama might end ranged from tragic to heroic. I imagined some brave soldier or National Guardsman dangling from a line below a Blackhawk helicopter that had reportedly been mobilized for a rescue. The Mission Impossible-style effort would involve a soldier swooping down onto the balloon, somehow grabbing the tiny cabin door, and pulling the young boy from within just before the balloon deflated and cratered to the ground.

In reality, the balloon made a soft landing in Weld County, and authorities determined there was no one inside the cabin. By then I was beginning to wonder about this story.

When young Falcon Heene was discovered in the attic of the family garage a few hours later, I had serious suspicions.

By that time, I had read a Denver Post story from two years ago, identifying father Richard Heene as an independent weather investigator who was trying to prove a theory about magnetic energy created by large storms. The homemade balloon could be reasonably tied to that. Heene also runs a Web site called thepsyiencedetectives.com. Although the site was apparently still active, nothing showed up on it when I tried to access it Friday morning.

Then I learned that he and his wife and children had twice appeared on the television reality show, “Wife Swap.” That’s not some porno program about swingers, but a show in which a different mother comes into a household for a week to see how well she deals with the couple’s children. Nothing terribly wrong about that, but I began to picture Richard Heene as something of a publicity seeker.

What really set me on edge, however, was a video he posted to a CNN Web site last year. In it, Heene tried to convince viewers that new photos from Mars provide proof of a former civilization there. Additionally, he attempted to make the case that photos taken last year of Mars were tampered with to eliminate the evidence of the ancient civilization. You can see it for yourself at: http://www.ireport.com/docs/DOC-65548.

This guy is a little bit off, I thought, and he definitely wants attention.

So, when Falcon was found, safe and sound, in the attic in the family garage, I was more than a little dubious of this whole story.

It came as no great surprise, then, to go to my computer Friday morning and open up several Internet news sites with headlines such as this one from The New York Times: “Skeptics Say Balloon Drama Was Hoax.”

The primary reason for this widespread doubt was a comment by Falcon when the family was being interviewed on CNN Thursday evening. As Falcon hid in the garage Wednesday afternoon, family members and others frantically called his name. During the CNN interview, Richard Heene asked Falcon, “Why didn’t you come out?” The boy answered, “You had said we did this for the show.”

By Friday morning, Richard was busily trying to explain that comment away, saying the boy was referring to something else, although the story seemed to change.

Throughout the day Friday, the Heene family situation grew as dark as the storms Richard loves to chase. Although the Larimer County sheriff said Friday he believed the family, he announced his department would reinterview the Heenes and investigate whether fraud had occurred. If so, there is the possibility they could be billed for the massive, multi-county effort to track the balloon and rescue the boy.

But getting them to pay might be difficult because, as another news organization reported Heene and his wife, Mayumi, owe thousands of dollars in connection to a company called My You Me Productions. Foxnews.com said the couple were aspiring actors in Los Angeles who met at an acting school. They also have several tax liens against them in California.

I don’t know how this will all play out. Perhaps it was an innocent mistake as Richard Heene said it was. But, as one skeptical blogger noted, Falcon not only hid in the garage attic, he had lots of toys and plenty of food with him. That’s pretty good planning for a supposedly frightened 6-year-old.

I don’t care whether Richard Heene believes in UFOs and a lost civilization on Mars. He’s free to believe what he wants. But if he has exploited his son to further his desire for publicity and attention, that is simply wrong. I don’t think authorities should take his children away from him, but they should be monitoring the family and what’s occurring with the three sons.

And Heene needs some counseling.


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