The parents in Colorado’s “balloon boy” hoax have been handed jail sentences after pleading guilty to charges stemming from the incident.
Richard Heene, 48, showed no emotion on Wednesday as Judge Stephen Schapanski handed him a 90-day sentence – which will begin in January – before a packed court-room in Fort Collins, outside Denver.
“This in simple terms was an elaborate hoax that was devised by Mr and Mrs Heene,” Schapanski said.
“What this case is about is deception and exploitation – exploitation of the Heenes’ children, exploitation of the media, exploitation of the feelings of people. And it was all about money, making money.”
Under the terms of the sentence, Heene will serve 30 days behind bars while the remainder of the term will be “work release,” allowing the father-of-three to be free to work during the day but spending his nights in a jail cell.
Heene, who had pleaded guilty to a felony charge of attempting to influence a public servant, earlier apologised to the judge for the hoax in a brief statement to the court.
“I do want to reiterate that I’m very very sorry and I want to apologise to all the rescue workers out there and the people that got involved in the community. That’s it,” he said.
Heene’s Japanese-born wife Mayumi was handed a 20-day jail term after admitting a misdemeanor offence of false reporting to authorities.
However Mayumi Heene will only have to begin her sentence when her husband’s has been completed. She will also be able to serve the sentence on a part-time basis — two days each week, in order to continue to work.
Richard Heene also received four years probation and was forbidden from any activity which allows him to profit from the October hoax, which transfixed US television and caused a worldwide media sensation.
The hoax unfolded on October 15 after the Heenes alerted authorities and media that their six-year-old son, Falcon, had clambered into a home-made helium balloon shaped like a flying saucer and floated away.
Flights diverted in search
A massive air and land search was launched involving military helicopters and dozens of law enforcement officials.
Flights at Denver International Airport were also diverted during the incident, which ended when Falcon emerged from a hiding place at the family home roughly five hours into the drama.
But law enforcement later began to suspect the incident was a hoax when Falcon Heene let slip in a CNN television interview that the entire episode had been done “for the show.”
The hoax was confirmed within 48 hours of the interview, when Mayumi Heene broke down under police questioning, according to police. The couple had hoped to land a reality television deal after gaining publicity from the hoax.
Prosecutor Andrew Lewis told the court that the stunt had used up 389 man hours from law enforcement officers, and that the bill for the case so far was more than $US47,000 ($A53,640) and could increase.
The Heenes will be asked to foot the bill but the terms of restitution will be fixed at a later date.
Jail ‘to deter others’
Lewis urged the court to issue a jail term to deter other publicity-seekers from similar hoaxes in future.
“Mr Heene wasted a lot of manpower and a lot of money in order to get himself some publicity,” Lewis said. “Their needs to be deterrence to other people who want their 30 seconds of fame. This court needs to send a message to all the people who want to do something like this.”
However Richard Heene’s lawyer urged the court not to send his client to jail, comparing the hoax to Orson Welles’ legendary 1938 radio broadcast of “War of the Worlds,” which triggered fears of an alien invasion.
“When Orson Welles convinced Americans that Martians were landing people were committing suicide, people were panicked, they were running through the streets,” he said. “I don’t recall that he ever went to jail for it.”