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balloon boy hoax, falcon heene balloon boy, heene family wife swap hoax
AP Photo/David Zalubowski
Six-year-old Falcon Heene sits cross-legged on the roof of his family's van outside his home in
Fort Collins, Colo., after being found hiding in a box above the garage on Oct. 15, 2009.

Is Balloon Boy Hoax the Start of a Broad Reality TV-Induced Fraud?

October 16, 2009 04:00 PM
by James Sullivan
As suspicion builds about the legitimacy of the Heene family’s claims, we examine evidence suggesting the balloon boy story is a hoax, look at past media frenzies incited by false claims and explore the possible legal fallout against the family.

Evidence of a Hoax?

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After the revelation that the family at the center of the “balloon boy” saga had formerly been contestants on ABC’s reality television series “Wife Swap,” rumblings began about the possibility of the story being an elaborate hoax or publicity stunt.

The discovery of 6-year-old Falcon hiding safely in a cardboard box in the family’s garage, and not in the balloon at all, intensified these rumblings. They were brought to a fever pitch last night when Falcon made a suspicious statement to Wolf Blitzer on “Larry King Live.” Asked by his father, Richard Heene, why he didn’t emerge from the garage upon hearing his name called, he responded, “You had said we did this for a show.”

When Blitzer followed up on the meaning of that statement, Richard, noticeably shifty and awkward, deflected the question, telling Blitzer that he was appalled by the insinuation.

Authorities in Colorado haven’t yet called the case a hoax, but are said to be investigating.

TMZ hosts the 911 call, during which the operator interviews a crying Hayumi (mother) for details, and later questions a distraught and distracted Richard (father), who attempts to describe the technology and structure of the balloon craft, and predicts its course.

Could this be a hoax? Sheree Silver, the “Wife Swap” contestant who switched places with Hayumi Heene earlier this year, told “The Early Show,” upon hearing of the drama, “My first thought was, ‘Oh my God, Richard, did you do this on purpose?’ … Because nothing’s bigger than the whole news following a flying saucer.”

Perhaps this is the case of a family that wasn’t content with their 15-minutes of fame, the taste of which can push some over the edge.

But deception of the media is nothing new; history is littered with hoaxes and elaborate falsifications. The case of balloon boy would just be another chapter.

Historical Context: Famous media hoaxes

In 1987, 15-year-old Tawana Brawley accused six white men—one whom she claimed was a police officer—of having kidnapped, raped and abused her. A six-month investigation resulted in the imprisonment of her mother, Glenda Brawley, with whom she fabricated the story. Tawana and Glenda are said to have concocted the story as a way of avoiding the violent retribution of Ralph King, Glenda Brawley’s partner, on a night when Tawana returned home after curfew. The falsified story got out of hand when a relative called reporters and notified the FBI.

In 2005, Jennifer Wilbanks gained notoriety as “the runaway bride.” The day before her wedding, she incited a media frenzy by calling her husband to say she’d been abducted and sexually assaulted. She later admitted to having cold feet. Wilbanks was indicted on felony charges for giving the police false information, a crime that carried a maximum penalty of five years in jail. In a plea bargain, Wilbanks received two years’ probation and 120 hours of community service, and was forced to reimburse the Gwinnett County Sheriff's Department $2,550. According to The New York Times, separate from the criminal case, she was forced to pay $13,249.09 restitution to the city of Duluth, Ga., for costs incurred during its search.

During the 2008 election season, John McCain supporter Ashley Todd filed a police report claiming to have been mugged and mutilated by a black Barack Obama supporter that carved a “B” on the side of her face while pinning her to the ground. Police doubted her story initially, partly because the B on her face was carved backwards, as if done in a mirror. Todd was arrested and charged with filing a false police report, a misdemeanor punishable by up to two years in jail, according to the AP.

The Legal Implications of a Balloon Boy Hoax

If the Heenes are found to have deliberately concocted this story, will they face criminal or civil charges? A MyFOXDetroit legal analyst gets animated on air, saying the family could be charged for a whole host of things. If it's not legitimate, "[t]hey’re in trouble for a couple things: filing a false police report, using the police improperly and they could get arrested, they could be charged and the worst part of it is restitution. They may have to pay for all these police helicopters … and the personnel, and that could go into a lot, lot, lot of money.”

The Christian Science Monitor talks about the great lengths the state of Colorado went to during the saga. Regarding restitution, it mentions the case of New Hampshire teenager Scott Mason, who was fined $25,000 after being rescued from Mt. Washington. Authorities in the case stuck him with the bill, explaining that he should have understood the danger of doing the 17-mile hike alone.

Reference: The Heene Family

The Heene family is described as being storm-chasing and science-obsessed on the official “Wife Swap” Web site. “When the Heene family aren’t chasing storms, they devote their time to scientific experiments that include looking for extraterrestrials and building a research-gathering flying saucer to send into the eye of the storm.”

ABC News’ coverage of Hurricane Gustav features an interview with the Heene family regarding their storm-chasing family holiday adventures.

Watch the Heene boys’ bizarre “Not Pussified” music video on YouTube. The copious fecal references, karate sequences, rocket launchings and rebellious antics reinforce that the Heenes are not your average family.

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