Colorado ‘Balloon Boy’ Parents Pardoned, But They Don’t Admit To Hoax

December 23, 2020
Richard Heene, Mayumi HeeneRichard Heene, Mayumi HeeneAP Photo/ Ed Andrieski, File
FILE - In this Jan. 11, 2010, file photo, Richard Heene, right, and his wife, Mayumi, arrive at the Laramie County Detention Center in Fort Collins, Colo. The couple convicted of criminal charges in the so-called balloon boy hoax that fascinated the country more than a decade ago was pardoned Wednesday, Dec. 23, 2020, by the governor of Colorado.

A saga that began in 2009 with a silvery balloon floating into the blue skies of Colorado may have ended with two signatures from Gov. Jared Polis this week.

“You and your wife were involved in a very high profile incident that garnered attention across Colorado and across the country,” Polis wrote in a letter pardoning Richard and Mayumi Heene of criminal charges resulting from the “balloon boy” incident.

The Heenes long ago finished their brief jail sentences, but Polis’ pardon will wipe away the lingering effects from their criminal records. Richard Heene will be able to pursue a general contractor’s license now that his felony is pardoned, Polis noted.

The Heenes still maintain their innocence, according to their longtime attorney, David Lane.

“I think, finally after 11 years, the balloon-acy has ended,” he said, making a pun on the word “lunacy.’

How the 'Balloon Boy' incident began

The Heenes became infamous on Oct. 15, 2009, when they alerted local media and authorities that they believed their son Falcon was aboard a homemade, helium-filled craft that was drifting away from their home in Fort Collins. The story quickly went national.

The boy was eventually found in the family’s garage and investigators later alleged that the parents had intentionally created a hoax to “make the Heene family more marketable for future media interests” — such as a reality TV show.

Richard Heene pleaded guilty in 2009 to a felony charge of attempting to influence a public servant, while Mayumi Heene pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor of false reporting to authorities. He was sentenced to 90 days and she to 20 days of jail time.

Mayumi Heene reportedly admitted to the scheme at the time, but later told ABC News that she had confessed out of fear of being deported. Lane echoed that claim, saying the prosecution had threatened to do everything in their power to see the legal resident removed from the U.S. 

Richard Heene has maintained that the aircraft got loose accidentally and that he honestly feared his son was aboard. 

The Heenes did not admit to committing a hoax in their application for a pardon, Lane said.

“I believe that they had a legitimate defense. They were not at all sure whether Falcon was or was not in that balloon, and they thought it was a real possibility that he was,” Lane said.

Lane and the Heenes submitted the request a year ago, Lane said. He suggested that Polis’ pardon was an acknowledgement of the flawed prosecution. 

“I commend the governor very strongly for realizing that despite all the public attention this case got, it was an unjust conviction. Given that, he recognized that you don’t coerce people into pleading guilty, so he has pardoned them, to his great credit,” Lane said.

The governor's office declined further comment on the case.

“You wrote to me that you regret that anything you did could have caused anyone harm or inconvenience,” Polis wrote in the clemency letter. “I believe you and trust that the legal and social consequences you have suffered in the intervening years will prevent you from ever repeating your past mistakes,” the governor continued.

The Larimer County District Attorney’s Office, which prosecuted the Heenes, didn’t immediately return a request for comment.

Where the 'Balloon Boy' family is now

Mayumi Heene has since become a naturalized U.S. citizen. The Heenes live in Florida, Lane said, where Richard Heene’s felony conviction has interfered with his ability to earn a living.

“You wrote to me that you have taught your three children to be honest and hardworking, and you have been diligently passing on your construction trade to your sons,” Polis wrote to Richard Heene. 

“You own a small business and have sought to contribute to your community by researching and educating about extreme weather events. I hope this pardon will create opportunities for you, such as being able to obtain your general contractor license.”

Polis’ pre-Christmas round of pardons included sixteen other people. He granted clemency to four others, including Anthony Martinez, an 84-year-old man who has dementia and was sentenced to life in prison for burglary in 1989.

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