Hoax is such a flimsy word, far too feeble to describe the wickedness of which the Heenes, Richard and Mayumi, now stand accused. Theirs was sleight of hand for the soul: now we see it, now we don't; now we watch in horror and fear for their child's life, a 6-year-old boy, frightened, cold, lost in the clouds; now we learn he was up in the garage attic with snacks, while Mom and Dad auditioned for their 15 minutes of fame.
What would be the proper punishment for parents who used their child's safety as bait, then reeled us all in, calling the TV station even before the police? And how did they imagine this would end? They may have attended acting classes, but children have an acidic honesty that has a way of dissolving even the most artful adult deceptions. Storm chasers? They have no idea the gale forces coming their way.
It was Oct. 15, a Thursday afternoon, when anyone watching TV news had to stop whatever they were doing and shudder. The giant, silver, Jiffy Pop balloon was climbing higher over Larimer County, Colorado, and on the ground a 10-year-old boy named Bradford Heene had told the sheriff that his little brother Falcon was inside. Falcon? Was some Greek narrative poet scripting this tragedy? Their father Richard longed to live large, a scientist, storm chaser, wife swapper, aspiring reality-TV star. He had built the vessel in the backyard; they called it his "flying saucer."
Police officers and National Guard troops and volunteers fanned out in every direction; TV helicopters turned and circled overhead in the widening gyre. There were power lines to worry about; some planes heading into Denver were rerouted. The cable-news anchors called in experts to speculate about how high the balloon might drift, how cold it could get inside, how fast it might fall, the odds Falcon would suffer hypoxia, or worse. But the only thing you could think as you watched, was how frightened that child had to be, how crazed with fear his parents, and how there seemed no way that this could end well.
In that, at least, there was a glimmer of truth. When the balloon landed in a soft, freshly ploughed field north of Denver International Airport, there was a leap of hope; when the rescuers found no one inside to rescue, a second, sinking fear took old. Had Falcon fallen out, or tried to jump; would his body be found broken somewhere near his house?
It says something about either our goodness or gullibility, or both, that when Falcon was found to have been hiding out in the attic the whole time, we still sought the gentle explanation. Maybe it was an accident? He'd unleashed the balloon and then hidden out, for fear of getting in trouble. On Oct. 16, Larimer County sheriff Jim Alderden announced that he was "convinced" the parents were telling the truth about thinking their son was truly in peril; so were many other people when they heard the frantic father and sobbing mother on the 911 call. But this time it may have been police who were laying the bait, winning the family's confidence by appearing to believe them, even as they lured them toward confession.
"We have evidence to indicate it was a publicity stunt," said sheriff Alderden on Sunday afternoon at a news conference in Fort Collins, Colo., "done with the hope of marketing themselves to a reality-television show sometime in the future." Officials had interviewed the parents and children separately, searched the home and computers and financial records. But by then we already knew. We had watched the family ricochet from one talk show to the next like marbles in the pinball machine, tripping the lights, ringing the bells, savoring the spotlight until the moment on Larry King Live when Richard asked Falcon why he hadn't come down from the attic when called, and the child murmured, inconceivably, devastatingly, "You guys said that, um, we did this for the show."
For another chance to appear on Wife Swap maybe? Or the new show Richard was trying to develop, called Richard Heene: Science Detective? When it was the morning shows' turn to ask what had really happened, Falcon left the screen to go be sick; eventually he vomited on camera on Good Morning America. Richard, insisting this was no hoax, on Oct. 17 announced he would only answer questions submitted in writing and left in a cardboard box outside his home. It turns out that he and his wife had met at the Lee Strasberg acting school in Los Angeles. ABC News quoted his former business partner Barbara Slusser saying that he often put his kids in harm's way: "The last straw for us," she said, "was when Hurricane Gustav and Hurricane Ike were heading toward the Texas coastline and Heene wanted to go back there and take the kids."
The sheriff was looking into charges of conspiracy, contributing to the delinquency of a minor, false reporting to authorities and attempting to influence a public servant. "Needless to say, they put on a very good show for us and we bought it," sheriff Alderden said. The Heenes could face six years in prison and a $500,000 fine on each of two felony counts. In the meantime, we can thank all the people who tried to help a child they thought in trouble; and pity those children; and pity, especially, the next child who needs our help, if we pause and wonder if the screams we're hearing are for real, or for reality.