Balloon Boy Scandal: Deflated Dreams
01/17/2011 at 01:00 AM EST
Where's Falcon?" Richard Heene, panicked, scans a Bradenton, Fla., diner for his 8-year-old son, who has gone missing. A moment later Mayumi, the boy's mother, finds him hiding beneath the table. Richard groans. "He did the same thing two days ago at Walmart. We couldn't find him for about four minutes. It felt like hours," he says.
Remember the Heene family? If not, the minidrama over breakfast is a fine refresher: Falcon is the little boy who for several hours on Oct. 15, 2009 had a gripped nation glued to the television, believing he was adrift over Colorado in a silver, mushroom-shaped helium balloon his father had built. Eventually Falcon turned up in the attic, then later on TV (vomiting during interviews) with his parents. Soon public reaction went from sympathy to scorn after authorities questioned whether Richard had staged the whole scenario.
"It was absolutely and positively not a hoax," Richard, 49, says today. "I had one thing on my mind that day: 'Where is he?'" Despite professing their innocence, both he and Mayumi, 47, pled guilty in court: he to attempting to influence a public servant, and she to false reporting to authorities. He was sentenced to 30 days in jail and to pay a $44,000 fine, while she was ordered to perform 20 days of jail-supervised community service. Heene says he took the plea deal on the advice of his lawyer. "He said, 'they are going to hang you; public opinion has been swayed.'"
They felt that was most true at home in Fort Collins, Colo. "Everything around us was negative," says his wife, Japanese-born Mayumi. "We needed to change it to positive." Adds Richard: "I don't know if I was being followed or if my phones were tapped, but to alleviate that thought process, I had to get out."
So in August 2010, Richard and his three boys welded together a 20-ft. trailer, loaded their belongings, and the family moved to Bradenton, Fla., where Richard's mother, Rae Sprow, lives.
There the couple derided as publicity hounds-before the balloon incident they'd appeared on the reality television show Wife Swap-shunned the spotlight.
"We're pretty much keeping to ourselves, working to get the bills paid," Richard says. "Most of the time, my boys play with each other." Now they're speaking out because "we want people to see the real us so we can get on with our lives," says Richard, an amateur scientist with an interest in storms and electrical phenomena. "So I can market my inventions." The first big idea to be realized is a wall-mounted back-scratcher sold online as "the Bear Scratch." Though they report receiving orders from as far away as Spain, the family is mainly getting by on what Richard can earn as a freelance handyman.
Meanwhile Mayumi, whom Richard calls "the glue" of the family, is focused on homeschooling their sons Falcon, Bradford, 11, and Ryo, 10. The children "are doing sensational," mostly, Richard believes, because there's no TV and no talk of the scandal. "I miss our house in Fort Collins a little bit, but I like the alligators and geckos here," Bradford says. "I have a pet turtle we named Shelley." Before they left Colorado, the boys got guitars and a drum set and have formed a band, says Richard, who posts their homemade music videos on YouTube. They have one song about the Bear Scratch, and exactly none about balloons. When the topic is raised over breakfast, Mayumi gets teary and chides her husband, "I don't want you talking about that."
The infamous silver balloon now lies deflated under a tarp in their garage. "It looks sort of sad there," Richard says, "off in the corner, calling out, 'Don't forget about me.'"
It's telling that the balloon was packed among their worldly possessions for the cross-country drive. "[Inventing] is where my passion has always been, not trying to become some celebrity like everyone thinks."
So which is he: eccentric inventor or calculating fame seeker? "He seems like a solid guy who wants to do whatever he can to make things right," says Fort Collins pastor Rick Vannoy, whose Discovery Fellowship Church Richard painted last June as part of his restitution. And friends defend him, even as some admit to pushing him to better explain the balloon situation. "At the time it was happening, I didn't know what to believe," says longtime pal Smokey Miles, an L.A. musician. "But I've never known him to be a liar. He would never use his kids in that way."
In front of the boys, Richard calls his stint in jail "Yale" and, ever an optimist, says it wasn't so bad. He read a lot of science books and came up with ideas for a device to help empty shampoo containers more quickly and a faster way to lay patio tiles. "Do I want to wallow in the past? I do not. I have things to do." Though America may remember him as the Balloon Boy Dad, he sees himself another way: "I'm a lean, mean inventing machine."