Balloon boy charges may not come until next week

FORT COLLINS, Colo. — Investigators pored over e-mails, phone records and financial documents from the home of Richard Heene on Monday as they weighed felony charges and sought to determine who else might have helped the alleged balloon-boy hoax get off the ground.

The sheriff’s office said its findings will be forwarded to prosecutors next week to decide if Richard and Mayumi Heene should be charged with falsely reporting that their 6-year-old child had drifted away in a large home-built helium balloon to drum up publicity for a reality TV show.

But the investigation could reach beyond the Heenes, possibly into the world of reality-show promotions.

Larimer County Sheriff Jim Alderden said documents show that a media outlet had agreed to pay the Heenes. Alderden did not name the organization but said it was in an industry that blurs “the line between entertainment and news.”

It was not clear whether the deal was signed before or after the alleged hoax, or whether the media outlet was a possible conspirator. If so, the organization could face charges as well.

The Heenes are amateur storm chasers who apparently wanted to star in a reality show that focused on a range of absurd experiments, such as attracting UFOs with a weather balloon, launching a model rocket into space and conducting an electromagnetic analysis of a terminally ill patient’s spirit before death.

Robert Thomas, a collaborator who worked with Richard Heene on the idea, provided an e-mail to the Web site outlining his plan for the show. The sheriff’s department questioned Thomas on Sunday night after he revealed that Heene was planning a media stunt to promote the show, according to the researcher’s lawyer, Linda Lee.

Lee said investigators told her Thomas does not face charges and is not a person of interest in the case. Thomas has said he had no idea that a possible hoax would involve the Heene children.

With television cameras and reporters set up outside the Heene home, Richard Heene’s lawyer, David Lane, stressed that the Heenes are willing to turn themselves in to avoid the spectacle of a public arrest.

Lane declined to say directly whether he believes the incident was a hoax but said the Heenes are innocent unless convicted. The Heenes remained holed up in their home until midafternoon, when they left in a pickup truck without commenting.

If prosecutors “can prove their case beyond a reasonable doubt, that’s one thing. If they can’t prove their case beyond a reasonable doubt, that’s another,” Lane told The Associated Press.

Mayumi Heene retained her own lawyer, signaling the family is gearing up for a legal fight. The lawyer, Lee Christian, declined to comment on whether the couple still maintains they thought their son was in the balloon.

“I’ve got to see what the charges are before I can comment on the facts of the case,” he said.

Christian said neither he nor his client has been contacted by authorities about whether the couple’s children might be taken from them.

Alderden has said child protective services was contacted to investigate the children’s well-being.

Christian said it’s routine for a couple to have separate lawyers if each might face criminal charges.