By JERUSALEM POST STAFF
The balloon boy's supposed life-threatening journey in a runaway balloon riveted the nation for hours. But it will be years before the perpetrators of the October hoax - his parents - can benefit financially from the publicity stunt.
The sentencing of Richard and Mayumi Heene was the culmination of a saga that turned out to be a ruse by a family broke, desperate and hoping to land a reality televison show.
A tearful Richard Heene apologized in court Wednesday for the frenzy he caused when he claimed his 6-year-old son Falcon had floated away in a giant helium balloon shaped like a flying saucer.
"I'm very, very sorry. And I want to apologize to all the rescue workers out there, and the people that got involved in the community," said the 48-year-old Heene, a UFO-obsessed backyard scientist who turned to storm-chasing and reality TV after his Hollywood acting career bombed.
He was sentenced to 90 days, including 60 days of work release. She was given a 20-day sentence. Both terms included a clincher: four years' probation during which they cannot earn any money related to the stunt - meaning no books, movies or reality TV deals.
"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," District Judge Stephen Schapanski said.
Prosecutor Andrew Lewis asked for the 90-day maximum for the husband, saying that a stern message needs to be sent to people who stage hoaxes for the publicity.
"Jay Leno said it best when he said, 'This is a copycat game.' And people will copycat this event," said Lewis. The Heenes "need to go to jail so people don't do that."
The judge gave Richard Heene until Jan. 11 to report to jail so that he could spend the holidays with his family. His wife will serve her 20 days behind bars after her husband completes his sentence. Her time served will be flexible - she can report to jail on 10 weekends, for example - so that the couple's three children are cared for, the judge said.
At the sentencing, the prosecutor provided a more detailed timeline of the hoax.
He said Richard Heene was working with a collaborator throughout the year to pitch a reality series about madcap experiments and inventions. By late September, it became clear that the networks weren't biting.
At the same time, the Heenes' finances were collapsing - they weren't paying bills, checks were bouncing, and banks were threatening to close accounts, Lewis said.
The Heenes set in motion the balloon hoax in early October as a way to jump-start the reality TV effort and get some attention.
Heene began seeking money to buy helium tanks and studying weather patterns to find the right day for the launch. He eventually settled on Oct. 15; the weather was right, and his kids were home from school with parent-teacher conferences.
The balloon floated away that afternoon with Falcon thought to be aboard. The Heenes first called the Federal Aviation Administration, then a TV station and finally 911.
Authorities launched a desperate search for little Falcon, before the boy turned up at home hours later. The Heenes said they realized he had been hiding all along in the rafters. But the story soon began falling apart and the parents were arrested and pleaded guilty in November.
David Lane, Richard Heene's attorney, pleaded for leniency and said the couple "learned a lesson they will never forget for the rest of their lives."
Asked later by reporters if his client was done with reality TV, Lane joked: "I don't know if they're done with reality television. Is reality television done with them?"
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