SubscribeAvailable Now
The Heene family—(clockwise from top) Falcon, Ryo, Richard, Mayumi, and Bradford—in New York this past August. Photo by David Williams.

The Balloon Boy Hoax—Solved!

Ten years ago this month, the country was captivated by a bizarre spectacle in Fort Collins that was colloquially dubbed the Balloon Boy Hoax. Although Richard Heene, the so-called Balloon Boy’s father, pleaded guilty to charges related to the prank, it was never fully clear whether it was the scam that police made it out to be. For the first time, we reveal the true story.

|

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. That, perhaps, was the least bizarre part of my visit. During my time with Richard Heene, his wife, and their three sons, I was shown a video of the kids’ heavy metal band, the Heene Boyz; I got a demonstration of Richard’s back-scratcher, which he was selling online for $24.99; and I held a battery-operated fan encased in a small plastic box that men could shove down their pants to cool their genitals. “I want to sell that one to Tractor Supply,” Richard tells me. “Farmers sweat a lot.” He calls it the BlowJab.

It’s roughly two hours from Manhattan, but New Hampton, New York, might as well be on the other end of the earth. It’s not quite Upstate, and it’s definitely not the city. The Heenes, who came here in May, exist in a geographic limbo, which is a fitting metaphor for their lives today, 10 years after their helium-filled balloon took off from their Fort Collins backyard and crashed into America’s pop culture consciousness.

Today, the Heenes live in a camper trailer parked on the side of a twisting country road. 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 in August 2010 he moved his family 1,900 miles from Colorado to Florida. Now in the New York countryside for the summer and fall, the Heenes were, in all likelihood, the most famous people in their zip code.

Not that they were advertising that fact. Their trailer was parked between two homes; one neighbor had already called the police because one of the boys and a friend were trespassing on private farmland. The officers 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. The officers heard the family dog, Zinc, an enormous and energetic Belgian Malinois, barking. The officers told Richard to get the dog under control. “You can’t win with cops, man,” Richard says, recalling the visit, but not really talking about that particular interaction with the police. “We just want to be left alone. Like, please leave us alone.” There was, however, one positive takeaway from the encounter. At least for now, it seemed no one recognized the names Richard and Mayumi Heene or those of their sons: Bradford, 20; Ryo, 18; and Falcon, aka Balloon Boy, 16.

The Heene family—(clockwise from top) Falcon, Ryo, Richard, Mayumi, and Bradford—in New York this past August. Photo by Dave Williams.

Richard is 58 now. He’s let his thinning, graying hair grow out, and it’s pulled into a ponytail that runs toward the middle of his back. The corners of his eyes are creased and cracked. He prefers jean shorts and sleeveless T-shirts that show off his Gulf Coast tan. 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.

For her part, Mayumi is omnipresent, the glue of the family who prefers to work in the shadows. When Richard first saw her at the Lee Strasberg Theatre & Film Institute in Los Angeles in 1997, Mayumi was holding a clipboard and appeared to Richard to be the perfect counterbalance for his disorganized mind. After their marriage and the birth of three sons, it was obvious to anyone that—although Richard preferred the spotlight—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.”

The Heenes had promised to renovate the house by early fall, but a series of complications had already befallen them. Bradford broke an ankle riding a dirt bike and couldn’t work. Richard’s crew hadn’t arrived from Florida. “I think they ran out of marijuana,” he says. Richard worried they might never show up.

Advertisement

The home’s interior was a mess. The floors drooped; the stairwell bannister was falling apart in places. Sheets of plastic covered the windows. Saws, drills, and hammers were lying about. Inside one of the gutted rooms, Ryo held a 1930s newspaper the boys had discovered earlier. Falcon fetched some glass bottles that were once concealed in the walls. Their father smiled. “All these things were hidden, and now we’re seeing them,” Richard says, seemingly certain the house would give up all its secrets.

Diana Fields was home in Virginia when she turned on the television 10 years ago and saw the silver balloon in the air. “The news anchor said a boy might be inside,” Richard’s sister says. “I saw it was in Colorado, and I felt sick. I knew it had to be Rick.”

Richard, inside the house he’s remodeling, shows off his Bear Scratch back scratcher invention. Photo by David Williams.

The Great Recession was hammering American families by then, 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 needed a way to make some money. By the fall of 2009, he’d dreamed up a helium-filled, foil-backed insulation balloon of sorts. 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. A circular plywood basket was attached to the bottom of the balloon with string, wood, and more duct tape. Richard rested it atop a wooden frame.

A test launch was scheduled for October 12, 2009, Richard and Mayumi’s 12th wedding anniversary. By then, the family had spent more than a month on the project. The boys helped cut the plastic sheets and pieced them together. Once he determined the balloon was airtight, Richard covered the sheets with aluminum foil to help conduct the electricity that would propel the balloon.

Advertisement

After a few days of weather delays, Richard was feeling good about the prospect of a successful test run. When he emptied five tanks of helium into the balloon on October 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. The Heenes had filmed everything—from Home Depot trips to the boys taping up the plastic sheets. They recorded the boys on the couch a few days earlier, talking about their excitement for the launch. 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 that Richard and Mayumi claim 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. As the balloon floated out of sight, Richard thought someone at the FAA could track it on radar or at least might have the authority to shut down airplane traffic in the area. The person at the FAA said Richard needed to call 911. Mayumi dialed, but the emergency operator couldn’t understand her. With his wife crying on the phone, Richard called KUSA (Channel 9) in Denver from his cell. “I wanted to know if they could get a helicopter in the air and get eyes on it, because no one could see what was going on,” he says. Richard then jumped on Mayumi’s phone and talked to the 911 operator.

Advertisement

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. When Falcon wasn’t in those places, they went to friends’ houses. Deputies searched a wooded area nearby, a local reservoir, and a large park.

About an hour after the balloon’s launch, footage of its flight was broadcast across the country on cable news channels. “You see those power lines down there, and it just makes your stomach turn,” anchor Shepard Smith told Fox News viewers as a helicopter followed the balloon through the air. “We believe there is a little boy in this balloon… He can’t see out, and he’s just flying. A six-year-old child. A first grader.”

A news broadcast image of Richard Heene’s balloon after it landed. Photo courtesy of cbsnews.com.

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. One side sagged; the silver bag slowly circled a freshly planted field about 50 miles from the Heenes’ home. As the balloon plopped onto the ground, 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. For the next hour, the Heenes say they wondered if their son was dead. 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. He told police that he thought he’d get in trouble because he’d been climbing around the basket and had been scolded by his father before the launch. 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, via Richard, why he’d hidden for so long. “I don’t know if Falcon can hear me,” Blitzer began. “Did he hear anything? Did he hear you screaming out ‘Falcon, Falcon?’ ”

Advertisement

Richard posed the question to his son. “He’s asking, Falcon, did you hear us calling your name at any time?”

“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.”

“Man,” Richard said.

Advertisement

“No,” Mayumi said.

Two days later, Larimer County law enforcement officials asked Richard to come to their office. According to sheriff’s reports, “up to this point, all interaction [between Richard and Mayumi] showed emotions consistent with a grieving process or concern for a lost child.” Now, no one was sure what to believe.

At an investigator’s request, Richard and Mayumi agreed to take separate polygraph examinations. The results have been redacted in law enforcement files, but Richard seemed dodgy with his answers, the examiner later wrote in a report. At one point, Richard said he was living with type 1 diabetes; he appeared on the verge of falling asleep when the investigator’s questions became more accusatory.

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.

Sheriff Jim Alderden recommended felony charges against both Heenes for conspiracy, for contributing to the delinquency of a minor, and for attempting to influence a public servant. “They put on a very good show for us,” Alderden said at the time, “and we bought it.”

Advertisement

Television trucks camped outside the Heenes’ house, and the boys stayed home from school. Richard had a basement renovation lined up, but the client canceled at the last minute. “It was all bullshit,” 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. She also didn’t understand that she could stop her interview and ask for an attorney. Richard tried to get legal help, but he couldn’t reach anyone because it was a weekend. (The sheriff’s report backs up this claim. At one point, Richard even asked one of the investigators if he could help Richard find an attorney. The investigator declined.)

“Every bit of what happened to the Heenes was an injustice,” says David Lane, a Denver attorney who represented Richard. Lane claims the Larimer County district attorney’s office ultimately put the family in an untenable situation: If the Heenes took their cases to court and Mayumi lost, prosecutors promised to start deportation proceedings. (The Larimer County DA’s office has denied this charge.) “It would have been great to take the case to trial and make them all look stupid, but was Richard really willing to take unconscionable risks with his family over it?” Lane asks. “You’re talking about tearing a loving mother from her children and her husband as some kind of revenge. It was morally repugnant for the prosecutors to put the Heenes in that position, to let this case turn into a circus. For God’s sake, it was a balloon.”

During the infamous CNN interview after the balloon had landed, six-year-old Falcon (sitting on his father’s lap) suggested that the whole thing may have been a ruse. Photo courtesy of cnn.com.

To this day, Richard hasn’t changed his story, and his sister has never doubted her brother. “If Richard was going to pull a stunt like that, he would have called me first,” Diana says. “He would have known I’d be worried, thinking one of my nephews’ lives was in danger. There’s no way he does something like that, worrying people he loves.”

One warm summer day this past June in New Hampton, Richard sat in his trailer’s kitchenette drinking coffee and scratching out drywall estimates. Sunlight poured through the windows, streaking across the small kitchen where Mayumi was scrubbing dishes. Pots and pans were stacked on the kitchen counter and in the sink; papers and empty cups covered the table. The family’s black rabbit hopped from one end of the trailer to its litter box near the kitchen. Zinc, the dog, lazed atop a rug draped across the linoleum.

Richard wasn’t disappointed that this was their life, he said. He and his boys were getting paid for their work, and he was teaching them a trade that would last their lifetimes. (Later, on the phone with me, one of Richard’s clients used the word “exceptional” to describe the quality of the Heenes’ work.) Richard was enthusiastic about taking this abandoned home and turning it into a place where someone could spend his or her life. He liked the themes of renovation: the concept of reclamation and the possibilities of a teardown and rebuild. “You can change anything with hard work,” he says. “I’m a passionate guy. When I set my mind to something, I get it done.”

Advertisement

So all of this was really for the best, he said, except that this was not where he expected to end up—parked on a crumbling driveway, packed inside a 300-square-foot trailer with his wife and teenage sons, with a felony on his record and a past he felt like he couldn’t escape. He’d like more time to work on his inventions. He’d like to be back in Colorado, chasing storms and studying electromagnetic fields like the old days. More than anything, he’d like if everyone could forget the whole Balloon Boy thing.

Of course, that would prove impossible. He was sure the incident had cost him jobs and friends. He knew a quick Google search could scuttle potential business opportunities. Worst of all, his felony disqualified Richard from the holy grail of reality television for inventors: Shark Tank. “I know I could impress the Sharks,” he says. “Just give me the shot and let me do my thing.” His only chance at redemption, he learned, was a pardon.

Colorado Governor Jared Polis is the one person with the authority to make the stain of Richard Heene’s past decade disappear—at least on paper. Richard thought the governor and his people would be sympathetic to his story if they understood the case’s details and what had happened in the years since: the polygraphs; the media attention; how Richard and Mayumi raised three children in the aftermath; how Mayumi recently became a naturalized citizen of the United States; how the family survived.

Richard turned back to the drywall estimates on his paper pad, but it was obvious his mind wasn’t into the work this morning. A back scratcher had been sold on the bearscratch.com site and needed to be shipped to Jacksonville, Florida. He was waiting for Mayumi’s video edits on a Richard-written heavy metal rock opera called American Chilly that featured the Heene Boyz. It was filmed four years ago at a Florida theater, and Richard wanted to pitch it to a Hollywood agent. So far, no one had returned his emails. “I can see that on Amazon Prime, for sure,” he says. On top of all that, he’d been getting calls from reporters about the upcoming anniversary of the worst moment of his life.

He’d 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.”

Advertisement
Richard and the family’s dog, Zinc, play with a balloon this past summer while Mayumi records the fun. Photo by David Williams.

In 1982, a truck driver named Larry Walters tied 42 weather balloons to a Sears lawn chair and took off from a backyard in San Pedro, California. After Walters reached an altitude of 16,000 feet, pilots taking off and landing at nearby Los Angeles International Airport began reporting the balloon-propelled chair to the air traffic control tower. Less than an hour after leaving his home, Walters started his descent by shooting out seven of the balloons with an air pistol. By the time he became tangled in power lines and electricity was shut off in a Long Beach neighborhood, Walters had traveled about 10 miles. Police picked him up, and the legend of Lawnchair Larry began to spread.

Walters appeared 10 days later on Late Night With David Letterman. He explained that the flight was the culmination of a childhood dream, financed—in large part—by an understanding girlfriend. Lawnchair Larry planned to call the FAA in advance of the launch, but, he told Letterman, the balloon took off. It wasn’t all improvisation, though. The flight was filmed; the audio between Walters and his girlfriend on the ground was recorded.

“Would you do this again?” Letterman asked Walters.

“No,” he replied. “This was the fulfillment of a 20-year dream. I’ve achieved inner peace. I’m a happier person today.” The audience whooped and applauded.

Lawnchair Larry was ultimately fined $1,500 on the charge that he didn’t establish two-way communication with the airport tower. He eventually quit his job as a truck driver and found himself in demand as a motivational speaker. His story appeared in newspapers and in magazines. The Smithsonian Institution asked for the chair. Nearly a decade after Lawnchair Larry’s exploits, the watch company Timex created an advertisement celebrating “adventurous individuals” that featured Walters’ smirking, gray-mustachioed face.

Advertisement

In the decade following his stunt, Lawnchair Larry never got rich. He eventually broke up with his girlfriend. He made occasional speaking appearances. He did volunteer work for the U.S. Forest Service in Southern California. On October 6, 1993, Lawnchair Larry hiked alone into the Angeles National Forest and died by suicide. He didn’t leave a note.

After the Balloon Boy incident, Richard, Mayumi, and the boys moved from Fort Collins to Bradenton, a city outside Tampa, then later to a home about an hour and a half farther north. Richard and Mayumi home-schooled 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, and they started playing covers of songs from bands like Slipknot and Iron Maiden. 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.” Richard set up gigs in front of five people, in front of 50, in front of 2,000.

It’s worth considering what the world might think of Richard had the incident not happened. After all, it’s easy to forget that 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!”) When Wife Swap was preparing to celebrate its 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 that appeared in 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.

Advertisement

For someone with just a high school diploma whose only previous work experience had been cutting demo reels for actors in Los Angeles and working on homes as a contractor in California and Colorado, Richard had done more than most might have expected. “He’s a smart man,” says Daniel Liu, a real estate investor who’s worked with Richard on two properties in Florida. “He might come off a little strange at first, but it’s because he’s passionate about what he’s doing. You need to step back and see the full person. Don’t Google him. Don’t make a judgment, because that guy on the internet isn’t the real Richard Heene.”

When the incident happened, the family was spiraling. Richard’s over-the-top shtick had run thin with the meteorologists he was hanging with. He wanted too much attention. After Richard dragged his kids to chase storms in dangerous conditions, one member of his team accused Richard of putting fame above his family’s safety. In April 2009, the family signed an option with the Wife Swap producers to pitch a series about outrageous homemade science experiments and the equally outrageous family that created them. A balloon made in the shape of a flying saucer was one of the ideas. In the meantime, Richard took menial jobs. He was paid to change light bulbs. He once cleaned a backyard piled with dog poop. There was Richard Heene, budding reality TV personality and licensed contractor, shoveling canine excrement and weeds into a trash bag for $300. “I’d never been so embarrassed,” Richard says, his voice suddenly dropping. “That time in our lives….” He didn’t finish the sentence.

The males in the Heene family have an affinity for dirt bike riding. Photo by David Williams.

If the Balloon Boy fiasco seemed to define their father, it was the opposite for the Heene kids. When I met them, they said they didn’t feel trapped. They didn’t feel like a joke. For boys who grew up with an eccentric father like Richard, they’re remarkably normal. They didn’t want the spotlight. They ate lunches and dinners together; they slept next to one another in the trailer. They worked together. Ryo seemed content to hang out and play video games. Bradford enjoyed playing guitar and talking about the opposite sex. “A girl once asked me to autograph her boobs,” he says. Falcon liked the autonomy home-schooling gave him; it allowed him to spend days working on houses and earning money for dirt bike parts.

One evening, I asked the family when they’d last watched the infamous CNN interview. I didn’t get a definitive answer. Some YouTube commenters reported hearing a farting sound after Falcon spoke, which, they joked, marked the exact moment when Richard crapped his pants. I played the video on my phone. The boys listened, their faces flat. They heard the high-pitched splat. “No fucking way,” Bradford howled. Richard did not laugh.

“People rarely recognize me from that,” Falcon told me later of the CNN appearance, in a way that seemed he was avoiding the words “balloon” and “boy.” “I don’t look like the same kid. I was six. I’m a completely different person.” He says he can’t remember what he was thinking at the time. “That was such a long time ago,” he says. It was obvious he’d left the whole thing behind him, even if his father could not. Falcon Heene isn’t Balloon Boy. He’s Falcon Heene, regular teenager. He wants to ride dirt bikes and buy a truck. Someday, he might want a family of his own. He wants to finish renovating this house and move on.

Advertisement

The next afternoon, the farmhouse was quiet; a breeze ruffled a plastic sheet covering a window. Richard was alone in one of the downstairs rooms, waiting for Falcon and Ryo to come out of the trailer and help put in a support beam across the ceiling.

Richard has spent a lot of time thinking about how he can 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 shit.”

He paused. He picked up a hammer and stood in the room’s shadows. “I’m getting older, and I have to think about my sons and the lessons I want to pass to them. I’m setting them up to be millionaires. I want them to be happy. I want to teach them all the things I know. I want them to do better than I’ve done, and I want their road to be easier than the one I’ve taken.”

But it’s never easy. A month after I visited the Heenes, Mayumi’s attorney emailed me to say he’d found her case file. If I got his client’s approval, he’d show it to me.

Lee Christian had the cardboard box on a conference room table when I arrived at his Fort Collins office the next week. The room had a wall of windows facing a baseball field. One night 10 years ago, Christian had his first meeting with Mayumi and Richard in here. As they sat to talk, the room was bathed with white light. Television crews had set up on the other side of the windows; reporters were trying to watch the meeting. “It was like, ‘What the hell?’ ” Christian remembers. For a veteran attorney like Christian, the stakes seemed so low, the alleged crime so inconsequential, that everything about the moment seemed absurd. Of course, he can laugh about it now. The Bear Scratch back scratcher is on the floor in his office. A mock presidential campaign button that reads “Sarah Palin/Richard Heene 2011” is on a bookcase.

Advertisement

Inside the box Christian put in front of me, there were at least 1,000 pages of investigative files, reports, and unreleased discovery. There were dozens of pages of photocopied past-due notices from 2009. The Heenes’ bank had sent a letter informing the family that their account was overdrawn and was being canceled. There was a copy of the contract between the Heenes and the production company that wanted to film the home-science show; there was a Larimer County sheriff’s report that said the filmmakers were no longer doing business with the family. There were interviews with the kids’ teachers, with former business partners and friends.

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. The first entry was dated April 27, 2009. The production company had gotten five rejections on the reality show over five months. “What could we do to help them?” Mayumi wrote. “They wouldn’t put up money, but we can do our own project…. Then they can make a ‘one-off’ out of it.”

For September 30, Mayumi wrote: “Richard redesigned flying saucer many times. He started 30 feet. He called around to see if it’s feedable [sic], but he found it away [sic] expensive. Also he found it wouldn’t fit in our back yard.”

October 1: “Richard made a shop list.”

October 2: “We shot intro of this project on the couch with kids.”

Advertisement

October 3: “We started building a flying saucer and shooting the process inside of the house because it was snowing.”

Then things get weird.

October 6: “We have a video of Falcon saying, ‘I want to get inside of it.’ ”

October 14: “At night, Richard asked me to remember about the story of ‘Lawnchair Larry,’ then 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.”

October 15: “To my understanding, we’re never going to launch the flying saucer because the strong wind changed our mind. Because of the wind, it might crash on somebody, cars or anything…. Richard said we would do the third test and quit. That’s why I thought he was acting so strange. After the flying saucer went off, he went so hysterical. Because he started so hysterical, I started taking it seriously. After it was launched, we did not know whether Falcon was in the flying saucer or in the house or anywhere.”

Advertisement

October 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.”

The notes explained everything. Here it was in black and white: For all the times Richard had claimed everyone had the story wrong, for all the tall tales he told me, Mayumi’s notes showed a motive and a plan.

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. Richard would call back and say his son wasn’t in the basket. They’d make sure the Fort Collins newspaper knew about the stray saucer and the drama behind it. 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. Deputies showed up. Neighbors began searching for Falcon. 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. He wanted to know where I’d gotten the notes and if he could see them. I could hear Mayumi in the background, denying to her husband that she’d written anything. I emailed photos of the notes to Richard, and he asked if he could call back the next day.

Advertisement

He didn’t. Two days after our brief conversation, my cell phone finally rang.

“This whole thing, that never happened,” he told me. Lawnchair Larry? He said someone mentioned it to the family after the balloon fiasco, not before.

“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.”

Advertisement

“What?” Richard said.

“I wrote it,” Mayumi said. She started to cry.

“What do you mean you wrote this?” Richard yelled. “What the fuck are you talking about? You said you didn’t know what this was. Why would you write this?”

“To save myself, because of our kids.”

“Oh, my God. Fuck! What the fuck? Every time you write something you cause a fucking shit storm.”

Advertisement

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.

“I’m sorry,” Mayumi said.

I asked her if she was saying she’d made up the story in the notes she’d made for her own attorney.

“Yeah,” she said. Several seconds of silence passed.

“Mayumi, you’re covering your mouth,” Richard said, slowly. “I don’t think he could hear you.”

Advertisement

“Yeah,” Mayumi said, again, this time more clearly.

Fall in Colorado

Newsletter Signup

Keep me up to date on the latest trends and happenings around Denver. 5280 has a newsletter for everyone. Sign Up