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5 years later: 'Balloon Boy' is still iconic

It's a bird. It's a plane. It's ... the fifth anniversary of the Balloon Boy incident.
Balloon Boy hoax

KUSA - It's a bird. It's a plane. It's ... the fifth anniversary of the Balloon Boy incident.

Believe it or not, five years ago on Wednesday, Falcon Heene and his family gripped the nation for days as rescuers searched frantically for the boy, then 6, whose parents said had floated away in the balloon. Fears quickly turned to skepticism and then outright hostility when the boy eventually appeared at his parents' Fort Collins home. Richard and Mayumi Heene insisted the boy had hidden in the garage.

Then their history began spilling out. The family had appeared on a reality television show. Richard Heene brought his family along when he chased tornadoes and hurricanes, with his wife serving as videographer.

Court records eventually showed the Heenes were in financial trouble and were working with a production company to create a reality television show based on their lives. Those documents said Richard Heene told a friend he planned to stage a hoax involving a UFO-shaped balloon that would grab worldwide attention.

The evening after Falcon's reappearance, when Richard Heene during a CNN interview asked Falcon why he didn't come out when he heard his parents calling his name during the search, the boy said, "You guys said that we did this for the show."

Falcon's comment fueled the skepticism, and within days, the Larimer County Sheriff's Office announced that investigators believed the whole thing was a hoax. Investigators got a confession from Mayumi Heene and persuaded Richard to take a lie-detector test during which he apparently faked low-blood sugar in an effort to avoid answering questions.

From the start, Larimer County Sheriff Jim Alderden was front and center. He gave multiple press conferences and answered hundreds of questions on live television from reporters who flooded in from around the country to focus on the hot story of the moment.

Now, Alderden said he regrets being as accessible and open with the media as he was. His effort to answer all of the media's questions only complicated matters, he said. The Boulder District Attorney's Office investigated and then cleared Alderden for telling reporters that a child-welfare investigation had begun.

"I would have been better off issuing a prepared statement and walking away," he said.

Previously, Alderden had told reporters he believed the Heenes' explanation of events when, in fact, investigators suspected they were dealing with a hoax. He didn't want to tip off the Heenes about the direction the case was going.

"The only way we were going to get to the bottom of this was through a confession," he said this week. "Without a confession, we couldn't prove it was a hoax."

While Alderden said how the case was handled has prompted him to reconsider how he might handle the media, it also has prompted changes in how investigators handle reports of missing children, he said.

Those responding to the Heene home first should have done a more thorough search, Alderden said. And thermal-imaging equipment, while expensive to use, would have located the boy inside the house, he said.

In the future, "missing-kid" reports might be handled more like criminal cases, he said, with investigators interviewing parents separately. But such cases are "very sensitive," and those making reports shouldn't be treated like criminals, he said.

Richard and Mayumi Heene in November 2010 pleaded guilty for the hoax. Richard Heene was given a 90-day sentence that included jail time, work release and home detention. And Mayumi Heene spent 10 weekends performing community service.

They both served their sentences without fuss.

The Heenes moved to Florida in August 2010. Richard Heene's mother lives there, and he received permission from county probation officials to move.

(KUSA-TV © 2014 Multimedia Holdings Corporation)

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