FORT COLLINS, Colo. (AP) — The father who orchestrated the balloon boy hoax is taking advantage of his final days of freedom by making the rounds on news shows and telling anyone who will listen that he is innocent and being framed.
Authorities are not amused by Richard Heene’s media blitz, and legal experts say he should be careful about thumbing his nose at the system.
Heene now says there was no balloon hoax, even though he pleaded guilty and agreed to be sentenced to 90 days in jail. He says he truly believed his son was inside the runaway balloon when it floated away in October, and that he only pleaded guilty to appease authorities and save his wife from being deported to Japan.
The interviews are also pushing the boundaries of the strict conditions of his probation that he not profit in any way from his newfound fame for four years. Interviews on CNN and NBC do not violate the probation, but he’s clearly tempting fate by basking in the spotlight of a national TV audience.
“Talk about waving a red cape in front of a bull,” said Stan Goldman, a criminal law professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles.
Heene reports to jail Monday after pleading guilty to a felony count of attempting to influence a public servant. He falsely reported that his 6-year-old son, Falcon, may have been aboard the balloon, setting off a frantic and costly chase for the boy.
Heene now says he’s innocent and that the sheriff who led the investigation unfairly targeted him to advance his political ambitions. In an argumentative interview Friday on NBC’s “Today Show,” Heene said that “the sheriff is a liar.”
Larimer County Sheriff Jim Alderden brushed aside Heene’s claims. Alderden told The Associated Press there is “overwhelming evidence” of a hoax — much of it provided by Heene’s wife, Mayumi, who pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor and faces a 20-day jail term.
“She gave us the details of the plan, how long they have been planning it, who was in on it, you know, and there’s evidence that we have documented beyond just her statement,” Alderden said. “They knew that he wasn’t in the balloon and had orchestrated this thing and coached the children as to what to say, to say that Falcon was in the balloon.”
Authorities claim the publicity-hungry Heenes wanted to launch a reality TV show and hoped the stunt would generate publicity.
“To now to try to go back and say that it didn’t happen, it wasn’t a hoax? It’s almost incomprehensible,” said Alderden.
“All I can assume is that he’s trying to rehabilitate his image and still hoping to profit from this escapade at some point. You wonder if there is some sort of deal cut with somebody else to hold money in escrow. Four years from now he may still end up being a wealthy man because of this,” the sheriff said.
Despite his stunning turnabout, there’s little the justice system can do at this point about Heene’s media appearances, District Attorney Larry Abrahamson said.
“He can say anything he wants. It’s not in violation of his probation,” Abrahamson said.
Others said Heene can thumb his nose at the system as long as he doesn’t break the law or violate probation.
But Dan Recht, a former president of the Colorado Criminal Defense Bar who handles First Amendment cases, called Heene’s actions “strategically foolish.”
“He subjects himself to increased scrutiny where a little technical violation of his probation, if there was to be one, they would tend to treat him much more harshly,” Recht said.
Larimer County District Judge Stephen Schapanski wasn’t available to comment.
At sentencing, Schapanski said he believed Heene “does regret this incident.” He also declared: “What this case is about is deception, exploitation — exploitation of the children of the Heenes, exploitation of the media and exploitation of people’s emotions — and money.”
Schapanski ordered Heene to serve 30 straight days in jail and an additional 60 days under work release. Heene must also pay restitution for search and rescue. Prosecutors were expected to submit an estimate to Schapanski later Friday.
Heene also faces an $11,000 civil penalty from the Federal Aviation Administration. The balloon briefly shut down a runway at Denver International Airport.
Heene’s attorney, David Lane, didn’t return telephone messages for comment.
“I’ve done absolutely nothing wrong to deserve this. I’m being persecuted I think for the benefit of Alderden,” Heene insisted on “Today,” less than three weeks after choking back tears at his sentencing and apologizing for the stunt.