Lawyer: US parents to plead guilty in balloon boy saga so family can stay together

The Colorado parents who reported their 6-year-old son floated away aboard a helium balloon will plead guilty to some charges so that the family can stay together, the attorney for the boy’s father said Thursday.

In this TV publicity image released by ABC

In this TV publicity image released by ABC

FORT COLLINS, Colo. — The Colorado parents who reported their 6-year-old son floated away aboard a helium balloon will plead guilty to some charges so that the family can stay together, the attorney for the boy’s father said Thursday.

Richard Heene will plead guilty in the alleged Oct. 15 hoax to attempting to influence a public servant, a felony, his attorney David Lane said. Mayumi Heene — a Japanese citizen who could have been deported if convicted of more serious charges — will plead guilty to false reporting to authorities, a misdemeanour, he said.

The Larimer County district attorney’s office announced the criminal charges against the Heenes on Thursday. Spokeswoman Linda Jensen said the office would not discuss whether a plea agreement had been reached.

The charge against Richard Heene carries a possible sentence of two to six years in state prison and a fine of up to $500,000, prosecutors said. His wife could face up to six months in county jail and a fine up to $750.

Lane said he expects prosecutors to ask for jail time for both parents. He said under the conditions of the deal, Richard Heene could face up to 90 days in jail and Mayumi up to 60.

The most serious of the charges recommended by Sheriff Jim Alderden would have carried a maximum sentence of six years in prison.

The saga gripped a global audience, first with fear for the safety of 6-year-old Falcon Heene and then with anger at his parents when authorities accused them of perpetrating a hoax.

After the boy was found safe at home, sheriff’s officials contacted social workers to make sure the children were in a healthy environment.

Lane said the Heenes’ agreement with prosecutors doesn’t call for removing Falcon or the couple’s other two children — ages 8 and 10 — from the parents’ custody.

Mayumi Heene’s attorney, Lee Christian, did not return a call. The Heenes didn’t answer when reporters knocked on the door of their home Thursday morning, and Mayumi and Richard Heene left the home without commenting to reporters. The children weren’t with them.

The Heenes have agreed to turn themselves in and are scheduled to appear in court on Friday, according to the district attorney’s office.

Lane said prosecutors insisted on a “package deal” that required Richard Heene to plead guilty to a felony so Mayumi Heene could plead guilty to a misdemeanour and avoid deportation.

“He feels like he’s got to do what he’s got to do to save his wife from being deported,” Lane said.

Lane accused law enforcement officers and prosecutors of hypocrisy for professing concern about the Heene children’s welfare but threatening “to deport a loving, kind, caring mother.”

Asked if the deportation threat was explicit, Lane said, “That was all out there, all the time. That was part of the discussion.”

Lane said he has been negotiating with prosecutors since shortly after the case broke. He said Mayumi Heene’s attorney also was part of the talks.

The couple’s frantic calls to authorities, saying they feared their son Falcon might be aboard a homemade balloon that had escaped from their suburban Fort Collins back yard, triggered a frenzied response before the balloon landed in a dusty farm field without the boy inside. The Heenes said they found Falcon at home — hiding, they said.

Relief soon turned to suspicion. During a live interview on CNN hours after the balloon chase, Falcon looked to his father and said, “You had said that we did this for a show.”

The Heenes are amateur storm chasers and had twice appeared on the ABC reality show “Wife Swap.” Former business partners said Richard Heene wanted a show of his own called “The Science Detectives” or “The Psyience Detectives.”

On Oct. 17, deputies questioned both parents separately. Richard Heene, 48, adamantly denied the saga was a publicity stunt. But Mayumi Heene, 45, admitted the incident was a hoax, according to a search warrant affidavit.

According to the document, Mayumi Heene told an investigator the couple devised the hoax two weeks before the flight “to make the Heene family more marketable for future media interest” and that they built the balloon specifically for that purpose. Mayumi also said she and her husband had instructed their three children to lie to authorities and the media, the affidavit said.

At the time, Lane dismissed the alleged statement as hearsay and claimed it could only be used against Mayumi Heene, not her husband, whom Lane insisted had made no incriminating statements to authorities.

Spouses generally can’t be forced to testify against each other partly because of laws that extend privilege to conversations between husbands and wives, similar to those protecting lawyers from talking about their discussions with a client.

Lane said Thursday that Mayumi Heene’s statements could have been used to convict her but couldn’t have been used against her husband because of marital privilege, which can keep a person’s spouse from testifying against him or her.

He said prosecutors have acknowledged their case against Richard Heene had problems.

“I’d love to take Richard’s case to trial,” he said.

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