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A Conversation With The Man Who Got To The Bottom Of The Balloon Boy Hoax

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Dave Williams
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Courtesy of 5280 Magazine
The Heene family — (clockwise from top) Falcon, Ryo, Richard, Mayumi, and Bradford — in New York this past August. ";s:

Ten years ago, on Oct. 15, 2009, an event happened here in Northern Colorado that held audiences spellbound for hours. At the center of it all — one Fort Collins family and their silver, helium-filled balloon.

We're talking about the now-infamous Balloon Boy hoax. Robert Sanchez, a senior staff writer for 5280 Magazine recently wrote about the family and the stunt. Colorado Edition co-host Henry Zimmerman spoke with Sanchez about his article covering the hoax, the family and the cultural impact 10 years later.

Interview Highlights:

These interview highlights have been lightly edited for length and clarity. 

Henry Zimmerman: Describe what the hysteria was like along the Front Range.

Robert Sanchez: Yeah, people were really freaked out about this whole thing. I'm a parent myself, and I remember watching it thinking this six-year-old boy must be so scared. And is this real? And is he going to fall out? Is it going to crash? People were just captivated by it across the country, including Richard Heene’s sister who was watching on TV in Virginia and had no idea what was going on.

It was a very frightening time for people because you don't want to see the death of a child at any time, but especially not on television. People were just so tuned into this thing. I cannot tell you how many people have come up to me after this story who know exactly where they were when this happened.

I'm old enough to remember the Challenger explosion. I remember where I was with that. Some people remember where they were when John F Kennedy was shot. And for a lot of people who were, you know, living in 2009, this is like that moment for them. Where were you when Richard Heene’s balloon went up in the air, and we all thought Falcon was in it?

Let's pick up with your story now, which was published this month in 5280 Magazine. You traveled to New York to meet with the Heene Family. What was it like? Ten years after the incident, what are they up to now?

Sanchez: They were in New York, working on a house renovation, though they still live in Florida. Richard was teaching his sons the ins and outs of renovation. They had run into several people who had paid them to do renovations on homes and one of them had a place in New York.

The Heene family went up to work on this very old, like, 1860s farmhouse that was in just terrible condition. They had pulled up an old trailer, and they were living on one side of the driveway. They had a dog and were living out of the trailer while working on the renovation. And when I caught up with them, they were just starting the renovations on this place and hanging out. They've now since finished the renovation.

What was going through your head as you were heading out there to meet the Heene family?

Sanchez: From previous stories and the times that they had been on TV, you know, you kind of get an idea of who Richard Heene is. People think he's a little nuts and kind of the inventor type — definitely the inventor of brain; kind of all over the place. Mayumi had always kind of struck me as very quiet and kind of more put together. She was more the glue that held the family together.

So when I got out there, I was expecting to see a lot of what I saw, but at the same time, I was very, very interested in getting into all the ways that Richard had thought that the family had been wronged. They had felt that the sheriff's office had basically concocted the story that they (the family) had made this up. That the sheriff’s office had railroaded them with a deportation threat, which the District Attorney's Office denies was ever made.

But there was a lot of evidence, I had felt, that kind of supported the Heene’s side. If not, maybe this was still a hoax, but maybe law enforcement took it too far. And so when I came there, I was trying to suss that out. I was trying to understand where they were coming from, and, you know, all the ways that they had felt they were wronged. I thought after 10 years, people still remember it. I thought, what the heck, I'm gonna give it a try.

And speaking of evidence, in your story, you write that you got access to notes from Mayumi Heene’s attorney. Tell us about that.

Sanchez: I had spoken to her attorney. Richard and Mayumi had separate attorneys because they had their own cases that they were dealing with. I went over to interview Mayumi's attorney and at the end, I asked if he had any documentation from the case. He said he thought he had thrown it out. But after several weeks, I had gotten an email from this attorney who said he had found this box. He told me to look through it all, I had to get Mayumi to say it was okay.

So I reached out to Mayumi, and I said, “Hey, your attorney has this this box from your case. Can I see it?” And up to that point, I had gone to the Larimer County Sheriff's Office and paid the money for all their printouts, the reports, all of that, but a bunch of them were redacted — heavily in some places. And I wanted to see unredacted sections.

So I went over to the attorney’s office with the thought that I'd be able to see that and maybe a few other things. I began digging through this box, which had mouse feces in it, and everything. I was toward the back of it after several hours then I found something interesting. Lo and behold, there were handwritten notes from Mayumi.

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Credit Sgt. Benjamin Crane / Colorado National Guard
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Colorado National Guard
Colorado Army National Guard aviators search for 6-year-old Falcon Heene over the skies of northeastern Colorado on Oct. 15, 2009.

Tell us about those notes and your reaction to what you were reading as you were reading it.

Sanchez: Initially, when I saw them, I thought it would explain at that exact moment how they were feeling and what they were doing. There were several pages, almost like a dozen, and there was a little sticky note with them saying that these were Mayumi’s notes, so I knew where they came from.

I started going through it and it starts out very basically with a note that she had made referring to a time earlier in the year when they were talking to a production company about potentially getting a reality show off the ground. It wasn't going anywhere. And Mayumi and Richard had asked, “Is there anything we can do?” And they basically said, “Well, you know, you can kind of do your own thing and just kind of see where it goes. And maybe we can help you after that.”

And then fast forward, to like, late September or early October of 2009, and it's very basic stuff. Richard made a shop list, and then they got this stuff. The boys were involved. And then notes describing that they started recording — they recorded a ton of their life up to that point. They were recording all the time because they were still, you know, constantly trying to get a reality show. So the notes are just kind of this mundane kind of stuff.

But then, something just stopped me cold. I can't remember the exact date, but it was like October 6, and it said, “We have video of Falcon saying, ‘I want to get in it.’” And I just completely froze. You know, it was kind of like a push-yourself-away-from-the-desk moment.

I started going through it and it just gets deeper and deeper and deeper until on October 15, Mayumi explains that they've talked about this man named Lawn Chair Larry, who in the 1980s had tied balloons to a lawn chair and floated up into the sky in Southern California. And there's some explanation of how Richard says to Mayumi, “Hey, wouldn't it be interesting if we just told Falcon to go hide in the basement next to a safe for 30 minutes, the balloon goes up, we come down, we call the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration), we go down, we find them, we call them back. And then we have a nice little story to tell the newspaper in Fort Collins.” And all of this is written down.

And so on October 15, the balloon goes up. And what ends up happening is everything is being recorded on video because this is what they want to sell to a production company for a reality show. But instead, Richard goes to the basement and Falcon is not there. And — I can't prove this — I think they probably looked around the house a little bit for him. And when they talked to the FAA, they were told to dial 911, so they did. And all of this starts cascading on them.

Shortly afterward, once the sheriff's deputies arrive and there’s helicopters in the air and you've got news crews following and you've got neighbors descending on this house in this neighborhood looking for little Falcon Heene, Falcon comes out and it turns out he has been hiding in the attic in the garage. And apparently, he says that he had played with some Hot Wheels cars and then had fallen asleep. So he was missing this whole time.

The Heenes, even though this was all a setup, had — I believe — legitimately thought that their son had climbed into the basket probably because they had talked about it so extensively. And then Falcon went missing. They thought he was gone. They have a very tearful reunion in front of someone from the Larimer County Sheriff's Office that looks very real, very believable to that person from the sheriff's office. And I honestly believe it was because Mayumi especially had thought her son had floated away.

Robert Sanchez is a senior staff writer for 5280 Magazine. His story, “The Balloon Boy Hoax – Solved!” can be found in the October issue of 5280 Magazine.