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Sheriff: Balloon Boy Hoax May Have Conspirators

P. SOLOMON BANDA   10/19/09 10:29 PM ET   AP

Richard Heene

FORT COLLINS, Colo. — Investigators pored over e-mails, phone records and financial documents from the home of Richard Heene on Monday as they weighed felony charges and sought to determine who else might have helped the alleged balloon-boy hoax get off the ground.

The sheriff's office said its findings will be forwarded to prosecutors next week to decide if Richard and Mayumi Heene should be charged with falsely reporting that their 6-year-old son had drifted away in a large home-built helium balloon to drum up publicity for a reality TV show.

But the investigation could reach beyond the Heenes, possibly into the world of reality-show promotions.

Larimer County Sheriff Jim Alderden said documents show that a media outlet had agreed to pay the Heenes. Alderden did not name the organization but said it was in an industry that blurs "the line between entertainment and news."

It was not clear whether the deal was signed before or after the alleged hoax, or whether the media outlet was a possible conspirator. If so, the organization could face charges as well.

The Heenes are amateur storm chasers who apparently wanted to star in a reality show that focused on a range of absurd experiments, such as attracting UFOs with a weather balloon and conducting an electromagnetic analysis of a terminally ill patient's spirit before death.

Robert Thomas, a collaborator who worked with Richard Heene on the idea, provided an e-mail to the Web site Gawker.com outlining his plan for the show. The sheriff's department questioned Thomas on Sunday after he revealed that Heene was planning a media stunt to promote the show, according to the researcher's lawyer, Linda Lee.

Thomas' notes include Heene discussing a hoax – which Thomas opposed – that involved a hot air balloon, Lee said.

"Pretty much he wanted to recreate this Roswell effect making it seem like there's a UFO," Lee said.

"Heene believes the world is going to end in 2012," she said. "Because of that, he wanted to make money quickly, become rich enough to build a bunker or something underground, where he can be safe from the sun exploding."

Lee said her client worked with Heene from March until May.

Thomas told investigators what he observed about the couple and "intimate details about their home life," Lee said. "He noticed things that were definitely not right. ... Some of the things are kind of shocking that Mr. Heene did, but we're not going to discuss specifics," Lee said.

Lee said investigators told her Thomas does not face charges, but she is seeking immunity for him before he turns over documents and e-mails with Heene, "just to be safe." Thomas has said he had no idea that a possible hoax would involve the Heene children.

With television cameras and reporters set up outside the Heene home, Richard Heene's lawyer, David Lane, stressed that the Heenes are willing to turn themselves in to avoid the spectacle of a public arrest.

Lane declined to say directly whether he believes the incident was a hoax but said the Heenes are innocent unless convicted. The Heenes remained holed up in their home until mid-afternoon, when they left in a pickup truck without commenting.

If prosecutors "can prove their case beyond a reasonable doubt, that's one thing. If they can't prove their case beyond a reasonable doubt, that's another," Lane told The Associated Press.

Mayumi Heene retained her own lawyer, signaling the family is gearing up for a legal fight. The lawyer, Lee Christian, declined to comment on whether the couple still maintains they thought their son was in the balloon.

"I've got to see what the charges are before I can comment on the facts of the case," he said.

Alderden said the children were still with the parents and that child protective services had been contacted to investigate their well-being. Christian said neither he nor his client has been contacted by authorities about whether the couple's children might be taken from them.

Christian said it's routine for a couple to have separate lawyers if each might face criminal charges.

Lee said based on what Thomas has said about the couple, she hoped Mayumi Heene would not be charged.

"I think if Mr. Heene had it in his mind to do something, I just don't think she would have enough strength to stand up against him," Lee said.

Alderden said he is seeking charges against the Heenes that include conspiracy, contributing to the delinquency of a minor, making a false report to authorities and attempting to influence a public servant.

The most serious charges are felonies and carry a maximum sentence of six years in prison. Alderden said authorities would be seeking restitution for the costs, though he did not have an estimate.

It's also possible that Heene could face federal charges because he called the Federal Aviation Administration to report his son missing in the balloon. Those charges could include lying to the federal government, a count similar to the one that sent Martha Stewart to prison in her stock-fraud case.

On Fox News Channel's "The O'Reilly Factor" on Monday, Alderden said the FAA potentially could seek civil penalties and restitution.

The balloon spectacle was not the first time Richard Heene has run afoul of the law.

He was arrested in April 1997 and charged with three misdemeanors – vandalism, vehicle tampering and disturbing the peace, according to court documents. He pleaded no contest to vandalism and was sentenced to 30 days in jail, two years probation and ordered to pay $100 restitution, according to Frank Mateljan, a spokesman for the Los Angeles city attorney's office.

The other two charges were dropped. Details on the case weren't available.

It's still not known who else was working with Heene to launch the reality show. The sheriff's department refused to answer questions Monday.

Heene has a profile listed on a Web site that helps people get cast in reality shows, and the site said he last logged on in late September – around the time investigators said the hoax was taking root.

The site lists his occupation as a research scientist and general contractor with a high school education.

The Heenes twice appeared on ABC's "Wife Swap," including an episode in March in which they talk about their belief that they are the descendants of aliens and discuss their approach to parenting. At one point, Richard Heene is seen screaming and throwing a drink in a participant's face.

The producer of "Wife Swap" had a show in development with the Heenes but said the deal is now off. The TLC cable network also said Heene had pitched a reality show months ago, but it passed on the offer.

On the Heenes' front door Monday hung a paper sign that said, "civil liberties don't leave home without them." On the doorstep, some people left a box for letters of support, with an American flag on top.

___

Associated Press writers Dan Elliott and Colleen Slevin in Denver and Greg Risling in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

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Filed by Nicholas Sabloff  |