The Colorado sheriff investigating the bizarre balloon-boy incident on Thursday, when millions of Americans thought that a flying saucer-shaped mini-blimp zipping over the high plains was carrying a six-year-old child, said yesterday he considered it a "hoax" and that criminal charges would be filed.
The boy's parents "put on a good show for us and we bought it," said Sheriff Jim Alderden of Fort Collins at a press conference. "We believe that at some point we will present a case filing to the District Attorney. At this point we have not filed charges. We need time to regroup." The charges he envisaged would include conspiracy and false reporting to authorities. The most serious carry a maximum sentence of six years in prison and a $500,000 (£300,000) fine.
Asked whether he had been involved in a case such as this before, he said: "On a bizarre meter, this rates at 10."
Suspicion that the episode – which hijacked the schedules of every news channel in the land and sent the military and the Colorado police scrambling to avert a tragedy – may have been a hoax had been gathering since the boy, Falcon Heene, was found hiding in a box in the roof of the family garage.
Sheriff Alderden confirmed he had originally been inclined to accept the story offered by Richard and Mayumi Heene, the boy's parents, that the home-made contraption had slipped its tether ropes accidentally and that they had been led to believe by another of their sons that Falcon had climbed inside.
But he said the authorities had an "ah-ha moment" on Thursday night when Falcon looked at his father during a CNN interview and remarked, "You said we did this for a show". Falcon got sick during two separate TV interviews Friday when asked again why he hid. Sheriff Alderden said that all three of the Heene's children knew of the balloon hoax, but probably won't face charges because of their ages.
Interviews with the parents on Saturday resulted in enough information to get a warrant to search the house. The Sheriff said they were looking for computers, emails, phone records and financial records.
It had also surfaced that Mr Heene, an inventor and storm chaser, may have had marginally more show-business sense than most as an alumnus of an ABC TV reality show called Wife Swap.
"Clearly we were manipulated by the family and the media was manipulated," the Sheriff said. Questions might be raised whether any media outlets knew in advance of the hoax, he added.
In addition to the charges the Sheriff anticipated expected to file, he would be meeting with the Federal Bureau of Investigation and with federal aviation officials to see whether any further federal charges might be considered in the case, he said. All charges are likely to be filed against both parents.
Mr Heene and his wife were questioned separately by police on Saturday. Alderden said that plans were also made after the incident to conduct a polygraph test on the boy's father. He could not say if the test had happened or what the results were.
A lawyer representing the Heenes has said his clients were willing to turn themselves in to face any charges. Denver attorney David Lane said that he was representing Richard and Mayumi Heene. He says he wants to avoid "the public spectacle and humiliation" of police arresting them in the presence of their children. Mr Lane said he has advised the family not to make any statements on the matter.