Jail term for father whose balloon trick fooled world

Couple also told to pay $42,000 to cover costs of emergency services
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The Independent US

The amateur storm-chaser from Colorado who launched a flying saucer-shaped helium balloon from his back garden one breezy day in October and told police that his six-year-old son was inside received a 90-day prison sentence yesterday.

The stunt, concocted jointly by Richard and Mayumi Heene, was riveting while it lasted. Millions of people around the world watched live television footage of the silver contraption as it soared over the high plains before eventually coming to rest in a prairie field, with ambulances in hot and dusty pursuit.

Ratings of 24-hour news channels soared, too. But it also resulted in the deployment of dozens of emergency teams and even a brief grounding of commercial planes from Denver International Airport.

When rescue workers caught up with the shiny disc and tore it open, the discovery that it was empty prompted new fears: that the child, Falcon, might have fallen out and died,

None of this amused the judge yesterday at the brief sentencing hearing in Fort Collins where the couple and their three children live. They had pleaded guilty several weeks ago, apparently in an effort to stave off the possible deportation of Mrs Heene, who is a native of Japan.

For a short while, the authorities had taken the Heenes' claims of an unlikely mishap – boy steps inside balloon, balloon untethers itself – at face value. They even continued to for a while after the boy was found hiding in the rafters of the garage. It was when the family subsequently gave an interview to CNN's Larry King and Falcon blurted about how the whole escapade had been for a "TV show" that they got suspicious.

He was right. Mrs Heene, 45, was the first to admit to the police that they had made up the story in an effort to win publicity and, they hoped, land their own reality television show. The couple caught the bug, it seems, when they appeared on Wife Swap, which goes out on ABC television.

Mr Heene, 48, will serve 30 days of his sentence behind bars and complete the remaining 60 on work-release from his job as a building contractor. His wife will serve 20 days in jail. Her time served is flexible – she can report to jail on 10 weekends, for example – so that the children continue to be cared for, the judge said. She also got 120 hours of community service.

The couple must also pay $42,000 to reimburse emergency service costs. They were also given four years probation during which they are barred from profiting from their notoriety.

"This, in simple terms, was an elaborate hoax," the judge said. "People around the world were watching this unfold, Mr Heene wasted a lot of manpower and a lot of money in wanting to get himself some publicity."

He added: "People will copycat this event. (The Heenes) need to go to jail so people don't do that."

Mr Heene said that he regretted the episode. "I do want to reiterate that I'm very, very sorry," he told the judge before sentencing was passed. "And I want to apologise to all the rescue workers out there, and the people that got involved in the community. That's it."

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