Page last updated at 03:28 GMT, Monday, 19 October 2009 04:28 UK

US balloon boy case 'was a hoax'

Sheriff: It was a 'publicity stunt'

A US sheriff has said the case of six-year-old Falcon Heene who was believed to be adrift in a helium balloon, prompting a major alert, was a hoax.

Sheriff Jim Alderden said the parents of the boy were actors and had put on a "good show for us, and we bought it".

Falcon's disappearance became a media drama, but he was later found at home.

The Colorado sheriff said there had been no arrests yet but charges may include conspiracy and contributing to the delinquency of a minor.

Some of the most serious charges each carry a maximum sentence of six years in prison and a $500,000 (£305,000) fine.

A lawyer for Falcon's parents, Richard and Mayumi Heene, said the couple were prepared to turn themselves in to face charges, to avoid "the public spectacle and humiliation" of being detained in front of their children.

House searched

Sheriff Alderden said at first the parents' acting abilities had made them appear credible to the police.

But it had become clear when the son referred to his hiding as part of "a show" during a television interview that they were not telling the truth.

On the bizarre meter, this rates a 10
Sheriff Jim Alderden

He said the house of Richard and Mayumi Heene has been searched for evidence that the family was hoping to use the incident to obtain a lucrative contract for a television reality show.

"The plan was to create a situation where it appeared Falcon was in the craft and that his life was in jeopardy in order to gain a lot of publicity with the ultimate goal of gaining some notoriety and perhaps furthering their careers by gaining a contract for a reality TV show," he said.

"On the bizarre meter, this rates a 10."

The family has made previous appearances on a US reality show, Wife Swap.

Police had also found that the balloon was extremely flimsy, made of plywood, cardboard and held together with "string and duct tape".

Richard Heene had previously been described as an amateur scientist. Sheriff Alderden said he had recently earned a living by laying tiles.

"He may be nutty, but he's not a professor," he said.

Media 'knowledge'?

US news networks devoted hours of live coverage to the drama on Thursday after it was reported the boy might be in a balloon floating high over Colorado.

Richard, Falcon and Ryo Heene leave their house in Colorado, 18 October 2009
A lawyer said Richard Heene (l) was prepared to hand himself in

Denver International Airport was temporarily shut down during the incident.

When the balloon landed in fields there was no trace of him, prompting a major ground search and further fears for his safety.

The sheriff said the police may seek compensation for the time wasted.

He did not give an estimate, though the Associated Press news agency said the cost of two police helicopters sent out on a rescue mission was $14,500 (£8,900).

The boy, his two brothers and his parents gave numerous TV interviews late on Thursday and early Friday. Falcon Heene was repeatedly sick on camera.

Sheriff Alderden said authorities were investigating whether there were other conspirators, "including the possibility that even some of the media outlets may have had some knowledge about this".

He said one media outlet, which he did not name, had agreed to pay money to the Heenes in connection with the balloon incident, which he described as blurring "the line between entertainment and news".

He also said police had tried to persuade Mayumi Heene to go to a safe house on Saturday, because of a "concern" relating to domestic violence and to the safety of her and her children.

"Clearly, from all indications, Mr Heene has somewhat of a temper," he said.

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