Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

It’s been 10 years, but the Balloon Boy saga is only getting weirder

Illustration for article titled It’s been 10 years, but the Balloon Boy saga is only getting weirder
Screenshot: Denver7 (YouTube)

It might seem odd that, a decade on, humanity remains captivated by the 2009 saga of Balloon Boy, which found the nation collectively dumping its workloads to learn if a 6-year-old kid named Falcon Heene was truly trapped in a UFO-like balloon gusting across Colorado. He wasn’t, it turns out, and the agreed-upon account is that Falcon’s dad, Richard, called the authorities after telling his son to go hide. The plan, his wife eventually revealed to authorities, was that the attention could reignite interest in a science-based reality show Richard, a memorable Wife Swap participant, had unsuccessfully pitched to TV producers. He ended up serving 30 days in jail after pleading guilty to one felony charge of attempting to influence a public servant.


Not only is the tale strange enough to remain distinctive, but it serves as such an obvious perversion of the American dream that it’s nearly impossible not to consider its social implications, especially in an era defined by celebrity and the concept of “fake news.” MEL Magazine, for example, recently posited the saga as “the start of an ongoing, all-pervading failure to react skeptically and proportionally to what turns up on our personal screens.” It goes on to call Falcon’s journey “a literal object lesson, the commandeering of eyeballs by unchecked influence.” The obsession and dissection of Balloon Boy, a hoax propagated by one man who essentially fooled the entire media ecosystem, now feels par for the course; to be on Twitter these days is to endure endless speculation over the scantest of details, many delivered by bad-faith actors.

Things took another turn, however, with the publication of a new profile of the Heene family in 5280. In it, Richard and the rest of the family maintain their innocence, saying that they truly believed Falcon was in the balloon the entire time. “It was all bullshit,” Richard told the magazine’s Robert Sanchez. “This wound up being more about one sheriff’s ego and his search for 15 minutes of fame than anything having to do with us.” He goes on to tackle the damning testimony of his wife, Mayumi, who he says was “nowhere near proficient enough to understand—much less, to answer—polygraph-measured questions in English.” His sister, Diana, believes him. “If Richard was going to pull a stunt like that, he would have called me first,” she says. “He would have known I’d be worried, thinking one of my nephews’ lives was in danger. There’s no way he does something like that, worrying people he loves.”

Overall, the 5280 piece paints a humanistic portrait of the Heenes, of the passion of Richard and the dreams of his children. Sanchez does, however, secure Mayumi’s case file from her attorney, in which he discovers handwritten notes from her that dispute Richard’s take on the situation.

Here’s how Sanchez summarizes it:

With a video camera rolling, Richard would launch the balloon and freak out. He’d call the FAA and get the balloon tracked. There’d be a tearful reunion when Falcon emerged from the basement, where he’d been told to hide. Richard would call back and say his son wasn’t in the basket. They’d make sure the Fort Collins newspaper knew about the stray saucer and the drama behind it. The story might go nationwide. With publicity in full force and a recording of every moment, networks would fight over the Heenes’ story.

Except Falcon didn’t hide where he was told to. He hid in the garage attic, not in the basement. He played with his cars and he fell asleep. The FAA said Richard needed to call 911. Deputies showed up. Neighbors began searching for Falcon. And then that silvery balloon was careening across our television screens. That’s why Mayumi’s reunion with Falcon was so believable: For a few hours, she and Richard honestly worried their son had been swept away.

After Sanchez brings these notes to the family, Richard berates his wife and she claims she made it all up. The reporter, however, is unconvinced. “According to Mayumi’s notes, all of that had been an elaborate ruse. Now, it appeared, they were doing it again, this time for an audience of one.”

The truth remains murky, but the fascination continues. And while it’s easy to sympathize with the Heenes when they tell Sanchez they wish everyone would forget the situation, you then remember that the pro-Trump metal band Falcon and his two brothers formed, The Heene Boyz, wrote a whole song about it.


Yep, it’s as bad as you might think, but at least the video’s something to behold.

This one, however, is much better.

Send Great Job, Internet tips to gji@theonion.com


Randall Colburn is The A.V. Club's Internet Culture Editor. He lives in Chicago, occasionally writes plays, and was a talking head in Best Worst Movie, the documentary about Troll 2.