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Page last updated at 14:03 GMT, Monday, 19 October 2009 15:03 UK

Profile: 'Balloon Boy' family

The Heene family: Richard and Mayumi with, from left to right, Bradford, 10, Falcon, six, and  eight-year-old Ryo
The Heene family: Richard and Mayumi with, from left to right, Bradford, 10, Falcon, six, and eight-year-old Ryo

The world watched in horror as the drama of a six-year-old boy feared to be in a runaway helium balloon unfolded live on TV. Now the boy's parents have been accused of carrying out an elaborate hoax and publicity stunt. So what is known about the Heene family from the US state of Colorado?

Richard and Mayumi Heene and their three young boys first came to public attention when they appeared in the reality TV programme Wife Swap.

They were billed then as a family of storm-chasers who "devote their time to scientific experiments that include looking for extraterrestrials and building a research-gathering flying saucer to send in the eye of the storm".

But that image of an eccentric family whose obsession with science nearly brought them tragedy has been badly tarnished since the story broke on Thursday.

The unravelling of this image began a few hours after the boy, Falcon, was found safe and well after reportedly hiding in the family's garage attic.

When asked, in an interview on CNN's Larry King Live show, why he did not come out when his name was called, Falcon said: "You guys said we did this for the show," turning to his parents.

He may be nutty, but he's not a professor
Larimer County Sheriff Jim Alderden

A day later, he was sick in two separate TV interviews when questioned about the incident.

Richard Heene has strongly denied it was a set up, saying his son was referring to the media assembled outside the family home in Fort Collins, Colorado.

But the police have confirmed what many had begun to suspect - and say they plan to charge the Heenes over allegations they carried out the hoax to generate publicity to secure a lucrative contract for a new reality TV show.

Storm-chasing

According to Larimer County Sheriff Jim Alderden, Richard and Mayumi Heene had met at a Hollywood acting school, and "put on a very good show for us". He said there was evidence of a "conspiracy" between husband and wife.

He also laughed off descriptions of Mr Heene as an amateur scientist, saying: "He may be nutty, but he's not a professor".

Mr Heene has a high school education and was most recently earning a living by laying tiles, he added.

Balloon over Colorado
The balloon was apparently built by Richard Heene to track the weather

Nicole Vap, a journalist for Colorado's Channel 9 television station, told the BBC they had learned Richard Heene was self-employed.

"He has had a lot of people sue him for little bits of money and he has filed plenty of lawsuits against other people over little bits of money. Nothing very big. $2,000 here, couple of hundred dollars here," she added.

Whether he had money worries or not, what is clear is that in his spare time Mr Heene avidly pursued his passion for science.

In 2007, the Denver Post followed him and former TV weatherman Scott Stevens in their quest to collect data to prove that storms create their own magnetic fields.

If proved, they said, it could lead to more accurate weather forecasting, and ultimately save lives.

The whole Heene family came along as Richard attempted to launch a magnetometer-carrying rocket into the eye of a storm.

A faulty ignition cord meant the rocket failed to launch, but, the report said, it failed to dampen the group's spirits.

"I think they really are having fun," Mayumi Heene said at the time. "They get so much more that they can't get from any other entertainment."

Mr Heene and Mr Stevens called themselves the Science Detectives - and had a posted a series of videos about their scientific theories on the web.

Emailed concerns

Robert Thomas, a 25-year-old self-described researcher, says he came to work for the Heene family earlier this year after seeing the videos and believing they had the same interest in developing new technologies through electromagnetics and applied physics.

Falcon Heene
Falcon and his brothers regularly joined their parents storm chasing

In a paid-for article for Gawker.com, he said that for much of the time he was writing down Richard Heene's proposals for a new reality TV show - including modifying a weather balloon so that it resembles a UFO and "utilize the media" to generate publicity. He never heard talk of a son being used.

Nicole Vap said that, on the day of the incident, Mr Heene contacted the TV station to ask them to send up a helicopter to track the balloon, which he said contained his son.

He did this after contacting the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the local airport to alert them to the runaway balloon, she added.

The police and emergency services obviously took the incident seriously - temporarily shutting down the airport and mobilising two National Guard helicopters.

But, if it was a hoax, it seems the viewers of Channel 9 were not so easily deceived.

According to Ms Vap, even before the CNN interview, the station was inundated with emails from people suggesting it was a hoax because of the publicity Richard Heene had sought in the past.

We may never know the truth, but the curious case that has become known as "Balloon Boy" is set to rumble on for some time to come.



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SEE ALSO
US balloon parents 'face charges'
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US balloon boy case 'not a hoax'
16 Oct 09 |  Americas
Balloon boy father denies TV fake
16 Oct 09 |  Americas
'Balloon boy' found safe at home
16 Oct 09 |  Americas
Family talk of air balloon drama
16 Oct 09 |  Americas

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