Belfast Telegraph

Friday 31 October 2014

Bizarre world of balloon dad Richard Heene

Falcon Henne (L), 6, and brother Ryo, 8, are shown outside their home October 15, 2009 in Ft. Collins, Colorado
Falcon Henne (C), 6, is shown outside his home October 15, 2009 in Ft. Collins, Colorado.
Falcon Heene at his home in Fort Collins

Richard Heene told a national TV audience of his belief that aliens are humanity's ancestors, his latest madcap inventions and his unconventional approach to raising a family.

Appearing on the US version of the TV show Wife Swap, he told of once passing out in a fast-food restaurant and hearing aliens speak to him.

He boasted of his plans to build a flying saucer covered in aluminium foil and send it into a tornado. He pulled his children around a hockey rink on a hovercraft-like device and took them on UFO-hunting expeditions.

"I'm very grateful that America has voted for us to be on a second time," he said of his second appearance on the show.

"(It's) like the best thing that's ever happened in our life. Seriously."

The signs of Heene's publicity-hungry ambitions appeared to culminate last week, when a helium-filled balloon floated away from his home with his six-year-old son thought to be inside.

In the end, investigators said it was all a hoax designed to drum up attention for his next reality TV endeavour on the heels of the Wife Swap appearance.

Heene now faces the possibility of criminal charges that could send him to prison for several years.

The case has cast the spotlight on the bizarre antics of Heene, a 48-year-old amateur scientist, handyman and aspiring reality TV star whose associates described him as a shameless self-promoter who would do almost anything to advance his latest project.

In this case, investigators say it involved making it seem like his youngest child had drifted away in a balloon when the boy was actually somewhere in the neighbourhood.

Heene has lived a fairly transient lifestyle over the years. He tried his hand at acting and stand-up comedy in Hollywood, where he met his wife Mayumi, 45. They had three children - aged 10, eight and six - and quickly immersed them in their storm-chasing missions that sometimes involved putting them dangerously close to tornadoes.

"Mom Mayumi is devoted to helping her fringe scientist and inventor husband Richard build a flying saucer and hunt for UFOs as they hope to find evidence to support their belief that all humans are descended from aliens", according to the Wife Swap episode in March.

"Mayumi also manages to take care of the three rough, tough Heene boys, who are completely out of this world."

The family has chased down one storm after another, and Richard Heene claims to have flown in a plane around the perimeter of Hurricane Wilma in 2005.

Heene was obsessed with launching various inventions into storms, something that developed in the 1970s after a storm ripped off the roof of a building he was working on.

"There's gotta be a way to dissipate the tornado," he said as he described one of his inventions. "Well, this is the tornado cannon."

Actor-comedian Perry Caravello said he met Heene in the early 1990s, when Heene was struggling in Hollywood. Caravello rented out a spot for a stand-up comedy show that ended up being a "total bomb", he said.

Heene was always trying to get people to invest money in his storm-chasing exploits, including riding a motorcycle into the middle of a tornado, Caravello said.

Caravello said Heene and his family eventually moved into a cramped office space packed with video equipment, clothing and other items. He said Heene was easily excitable, a complete contrast to his wife, who was quiet and reserved.

On Wife Swap, Heene was portrayed as erratic, at one point throwing a glass of milk on a participant on the programme.

The sheriff's office investigated a domestic violence complaint at the home in March after Mayumi appeared battered, but no charges were filed.

Heene assembled the infamous helium balloon in his back garden, piecing it together with foil, rope and duct tape.

It all played out on Thursday in stunning fashion on national television as Heene appeared shocked that his child had just vanished in the balloon.

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