Colo. parents plead guilty in balloon boy episode

Couple seeking job opportunities in New York, Calif.

By P. Solomon Banda
Associated Press / November 14, 2009

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FORT COLLINS, Colo. - A Colorado couple who reported their 6-year-old son was aboard a runaway balloon could land in jail after pleading guilty yesterday to charges that they made up the story to generate publicity for a possible reality TV show.

Richard Heene appeared before a Larimer County District Court judge first, pleading guilty to a felony count of falsely influencing the sheriff who led the rescue effort during the 50-mile balloon chase that captivated a global television audience Oct. 15.

Mayumi Heene pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of knowingly filing a false report with emergency services. Prosecutors said she had a lower level of culpability and cooperated with authorities, telling investigators the launch was a publicity stunt two weeks in the making.

The Heenes are amateur storm chasers and had twice appeared on ABC’s “Wife Swap.’’ Richard Heene’s business associates said he was trying to pitch a TV series based on science, and the couple had a tentative deal in the works with RDF USA, which produces “Wife Swap.’’

RDF has said it scrapped the plans after the balloon flight.

Comments by the Heenes’ attorneys in court set off speculation of talk show appearances or other deals. Judge Stephen Schapanski agreed to their request that the couple be allowed to travel to New York and California to explore “employment opportunities.’’ David Lane, Richard Heene’s lawyer, declined to elaborate as he left the courtroom, and Heene waved off questions.

Lane said the couple would have no public comment at least until sentencing, set for Dec. 23.

Under terms of the plea agreements, Richard Heene faces up to 90 days in jail, probation, and a fine. Mayumi Heene could get 60 days, likely to be served in a work-release program, and probation. Richard Heene also could have to pay restitution for tens of thousands of dollars in costs incurred by police.

The deal does not call for removing 6-year-old Falcon or the couple’s other two children - ages 8 and 10 - from the parents’ custody, according to Lane.

Larimer County Sheriff Jim Alderden has said the Heenes deliberately released the balloon and falsely reported Falcon may have been inside. The boy was later found safe at home.

Investigators found evidence Oct. 17 that the Heenes were working with RDF on a reality show, court documents released yesterday said.

It wasn’t clear when RDF’s plans were scrapped, or whether the company knew anything about the couple’s plan to release the balloon.