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Father's drive propels 'balloon boy' family, say friends

FORT COLLINS - Richard Heene lives an unusual and, at times, dangerous life and has long been content to bring his family along for the ride, no matter the consequences.

Spotlight on family

Heene and his clan quickly became Fort Collins' most well-known and controversial family. Authorities monitored the balloon's flight and rushed into the field where it landed, hoping to rescue the boy. He wasn't aboard the balloon, and that led authorities on a ground search for nearly three more hours. Meanwhile, Falcon was reportedly hiding in the family's garage attic, napping and playing with his toys. Now the world has had nothing but questions about Richard and Mayumi Heene's parenting approach and the lives of the three boys, 10-year-old Bradford, 8-year-old Ryo and Falcon. Slusser said because of Richard and Mayumi Heene's eccentric personalities, which rub off on their children, those questions are valid. She also said understanding Richard Heene goes a long way toward understanding the unusual activities of the family. The world has seen Richard Heene upset and defensive during the past three days. He was seen kicking the wooden stand for his experimental balloon as it floated away and admitted he yelled at Falcon on Thursday morning while he was preparing to do an experimental launch. "I yelled at him and I wish I hadn't done that," he told reporters gathered at the family home after the boy was found hiding in the attic. During the past year, authorities responded to a 911 hang-up call at the Heene home. Slusser worked with Heene for several years as a storm chaser and helped him with a documentary television show called "Psyience Detectives." She even appeared on "Wife Swap" when the Heene family was first featured on the prime-time television show. The experience on "Wife Swap" was when Slusser said she experienced the worst of Heene's "explosiveness." She said Heene attacked her during the filming of the episode. "He attacked me and shoved toilet paper down my throat," Slusser said. "The cameraman had to pull him off me. I thought, 'This is too over the top.' At that moment, I felt like he was no longer acting." The Heenes met at an acting class in California and lived in Burbank before moving to Fort Collins, Slusser said. The couple were members of the Screen Actors Guild, she added. SAG does not disclose member status and could not confirm if the Heenes are members, said Pamela Greenwalt, Screen Actors Guild communications executive director. The family left California because they were in debt, Slusser said. Since they've lived in Fort Collins, Richard Heene has worked as a contractor, and Mayumi Heene owns a film company called My You Me, a play on her first name. Children at risk? Still, Slusser said she and Scott Stevens, a Fort Collins man who was the third leg of the trio involved with the "Psyience Detectives" documentary show, quit working with Heene not because of his temper but because Heene always insisted on bringing his children along for storm-chasing expeditions. Stevens did an interview with ABC News last week and said he could not ethically continue to work with Heene because he brought his sons on storm chasing expeditions. "Hurricane Gustav was where I drew the line," Slusser said. "By then, Scott had already left our group." Heene brought his family along to shoot video of the eye of Hurricane Gustav and even submitted the video to CNN through iReport, a citizen journalism Web site. During the family's storm-chasing trips, Mayumi Heene serves as the official videographer. "He always wanted his children to experience everything he did," Slusser said, adding that the boys would sleep in their clothes in case they had to wake up in the middle of the night to chase a storm. "There were no limits to what Richard himself would do, but he always brought his kids along." The family's minivan, which is parked in the front yard, bears the scars of their storm-chasing trips - a broken-out back window and a hood pock-marked with hail dents. The Larimer County Sheriff's Office, which on Saturday continued its investigation into Thursday's balloon fiasco, has been in contact with child protective services. Sheriff Jim Alderden said the child protective services investigation is pending while his office finishes its work. "This is not a typical American family," Alderden said, adding that the Heenes' neighbors say the boys are curious, intelligent and "very energetic." He said the family is "somewhat unusual." "It's obviously a different (parenting) style than Middle America is used to," Alderden said. Neighbors said they have seen no signs at home that the children are at risk. "They're extreme with their actions," next-door neighbor Marc Friedland said. "The kids are well-adjusted. They're unusual neighbors, yes, but good people. We consider them part of our extended family." 'There's no such thing as bad publicity' Reports from TMZ.com on Friday indicated Heene has been in search of a deal with network and cable television stations for a reality television show. Slusser said Heene has long been interested in landing a reality show. Slusser said she could not offer any specific knowledge about the Heene family possibly staging Falcon's disappearance. "In the past, which is all I can speak to, is my own experiences with Richard, and that is that he could never have bad publicity," Slusser said. "He used to say, 'There's no such thing as bad publicity' and 'it's always good to be in the media's eye.'" The Heene family has a well-documented history of being in front of the camera. Youtube.com has videos of Bradford, Ryo and Falcon, including a rap video. In addition to videos of the "Psyience Detectives," Youtube also features a video in which Richard Heene questions whether the government and NASA staged the moon landing. And the family's best-known time in front of cameras, at least prior to Thursday, was spent on "Wife Swap." Heene family neighbor Bob Licko said if there was anything he learned from the Heenes two appearances on that show, it's that they're not camera shy.

"They're a family that doesn't mind playing to the cameras," he said. But does that mean the family is capable of trying to fool the world with a hoax? "I don't happen to think it's a hoax. I saw both Richard and his wife in the backyard on Thursday. I saw the boys on the roof saying Falcon was up in the air," Licko said. "I can see why there is some speculation based on some of the things from their past, but if people saw what I saw, they might feel differently. There was no one in their backyard for them to be acting for." Slusser said it's entirely possible the Heene family has been victimized during the past three days. "I agonize for them assuming if this is true," she said. "This has to be horrendous for them. First to experience the possible loss of a child and then to have the media coming down on them. There's a real possibility they're being victimized. This is something not for the media to decide, but for the authorities to decide."

Written by Nate Taylor, Fort Collins Coloradoan./>

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