SPRING HILL, Florida — Not every family’s living space is part game room, part chicken coop, part rehearsal space, part music video backdrop. Not every family intersperses homeschool science experiments with circling the lawn on dirt bikes, exploring caves and learning to forage in the woods. Not every family boasts what it calls the world’s youngest heavy metal band or crafts a musical involving peyote, cactus people and a whole lot of poop.
And only one family can claim “Balloon Boy” as their own.
That’s the moniker given to Falcon Heene in October 2009 when he was just 6 years old. For nearly two hours, people around the world fixated on his fate — fearing he’d floated as high as 7,000 feet in a massive helium balloon resembling a flying saucer. It landed 90 miles from the family’s home in Fort Collins, Colorado, with no Falcon inside. He turned up in an attic over the garage, having never been tucked in the balloon as his parents said.
His discovery ended a frantic effort to save him. It also started legal woes for his parents, both of whom served time in jail after a story that started to unravel during an interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer.
A lot has changed in the nearly six years since. The family moved nearly 2,000 miles away, to Spring Hill, Florida, seeking what father Richard Heene calls the Sunshine State’s “great energy.”
Richard no longer chases tornadoes or creates inventions like he used to. He focuses instead on carpentry, contracting and managing his boys’ music career. And the three brothers — 15-year-old Bradford, 14-year-old Ryo and 12-year-old Falcon, the now-twice-as-old “Balloon Boy” — have grown bigger and have pursuits ranging from violent video games to a passion for thrashing.
Still, family is a constant.
They do most everything together, from meals to lessons to games to adventures. The boys are schooled at the same kitchen table, revel in the same off-color sense of humor, and share the master bedroom in a modest three-bedroom house. Their dad says he won’t let one stay over at a friend’s house unless all three can go.
The family wants to keep that tight-knit, free-spirited vibe as long as they can. The “Balloon Boy” ordeal is one reason why, as is their philosophy of starting from scratch every day, anticipating it will be a good one.
“That whole thing — if there was any effect whatsoever about that incident, it would be that we’ve become more positive, more close,” Richard says.
“We learned a lot,” he says. “We don’t want any negatives hanging over us, any black clouds.”
‘Falcon was at the bottom of the flying saucer’
Mayumi and Richard Heene met in Southern California, where he’d gone to pursue his dream of being a comedian and she had moved from her native Japan, where she played guitar in a rock band. They married three months later, starting an entertainment production business and family.
They moved to Colorado, but not away from the spotlight. All five Heenes appeared on ABC’s “Wife Swap,” in which mothers from two families who have opposite living or parenting styles switch places for two weeks. The Heenes come off as open, colorful, freewheeling types, exposing their boys to adventure, cursing and laying down few apparent rules.
The whole family would tag along to chase storms, watching Richard hop on a motorcycle to race toward a tornado and record scientific measurements. The Heenes shared their stories widely, including with CNN iReport chronicling the aftermath of Hurricane Gustav in 2008.
And after Hollywood gossip website TMZ.com reported they had pitched “a reality show about the wacky family,” one of the networks that was mentioned — TLC, then airing the hit reality series “Jon and Kate Plus 8” — told CNN that “they approached us … and we passed.”
Months after that pitch, on October 15, 2009, a 20-foot-long, 5-foot-high, silver helium balloon shaped like a flying saucer took off from the Heenes’ backyard. That it had come untied and floated away made it an instant curiosity; the fact that a young boy was said to be on it made it an emergency.
“My other son said that Falcon was at the bottom of the flying saucer,” Mayumi Heene told a 911 dispatcher. “… I can’t find him anywhere!”
Sheriff calls CNN interview a turning point
As soon as the story got out, the world couldn’t get enough.
News outlets from Al-Jazeera to the BBC to CNN beamed images of the floating spectacle, with the quickly-dubbed “Balloon Boy” presumably inside. Social media exploded. Seven of Twitter’s top 10 trending topics at one point that afternoon had to do with Falcon Heene.
It became clear soon enough that Falcon had not been in the balloon at all — he had been safe at home all along.
Rather than sit back and deal with the situation privately, the Heenes leaped into the limelight. Richard invited about 30 journalists into his home so they could see where Falcon hid. The boy took part in this media circus, though it didn’t always go smoothly. In an interview on NBC’s “Today” show, the 6-year-old leaned his head against his father and vomited, right in front of the camera.
The turning point for law enforcement, though, came during an interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer. Repeating Blitzer’s question to his son, Richard asked the boy whether he heard his parents call for him as they searched the house. The boy said yes.
“And why didn’t you come out?” Richard asked.
“You guys said that we did this for the show,” Falcon replied.
Later in the interview, the Heenes said their son was confused by a Japanese reporter’s earlier request to see the attic.
Larimer County Sheriff Jim Alderden saw it differently. Alderden initially said authorities believed the boy had fallen asleep in the garage’s attic without his parents’ knowledge. Now he called it a “hoax.”
“We believe that we have evidence at this point to indicate that it was a publicity stunt done with the hopes of marketing themselves, or better marketing themselves, for a reality television show at some point in the future,” Alderden said. “Clearly, we were manipulated by the family. And the media was manipulated by the family.”
‘Every day is a fresh start’
Mayumi Heene would plead guilty to a misdemeanor charge of false reporting to authorities, earning 20 days in jail and four years’ probation. Court documents said she admitted to authorities it was all made up. Her husband got 90 days after pleading to one felony count of attempting to influence a public servant, claiming later that he did so hoping to keep his wife from being deported.
Yet, even though he apologized to rescue workers and community members involved in the chase, Richard Heene never admitted outright that it was a sham. He still doesn’t.
“I didn’t get charged for a hoax,” he said, accusing Colorado authorities of going after him so they could look good publicly. “It was a typical … public official (who) redirected it to him so he could get attention. That’s fine. I just want to walk from it.”
The Heenes decided to start over. They built a huge trailer, hooked it up and headed to Florida. After some time south of Tampa, they settled about 50 miles north of the city, in Spring Hill. Richard says he was drawn by the area’s low cost of living and high opportunity for work fixing and flipping houses.
The family’s collectively vibrant, wacky personality is the same, though. Richard, after all, is still the man behind the Bear Scratch (a giant scratching post for humans) and HeeneDuty Truck TransFormer (a robotic lift device for quickly getting massive material in and out of a truck), and he appeared as an Occupy Wall Street-inspired superhero “Aluminum Man” in 2011 on CNN’s sister network HLN.
Nowadays, his hair is longer. His paunch is a little bigger. But his 100-mph energy is there, as is his intent to keep his family smiling and looking forward rather, not dwelling on the past.
“I teach the boys that every day is a fresh start, and that when you start your day, you’re in complete control of the way things are going to go,” Richard says. “We wake up in the morning and greet everybody, ‘Good morning,’ because it is.
“You can choose positive or negative. My kids are pretty much positive all the time.”
That includes how they look at the 2009 incident that, for a time, put them in the headlines. They don’t talk about it much, but they don’t ignore it, either. Promotional material for their proposed musical “American Chilly” refers to “‘Balloon Boy’ Falcon Heene,” and the brothers wrote a song called “Balloon Boy No Hoax.”
“(A promoter once told us) instead of hiding it, we should embrace it,” explains Bradford, who was among those wrapped up in the saga. “So we started writing melodies and thought, ‘Dude, this fits. This sounds really cool.’ So we went along with it.”
The world’s youngest metal band
The Heenes don’t want “Balloon Boy” to define them. But if you want to identify them with their music, they’d love it.
For all their time homeschooling, for all their weekly trips to the beach or sojourns to the neighborhood park, the one thing they do every day is rock. Their parents planted the seeds. Bradford recalls hearing his mother play Judas Priest’s “Breaking the Law” on guitar and thinking that was something he and his brothers would like to do.
“We were like, ‘Dude, we’ve got to make a band,'” the 15-year-old says, a big smile on his face. “Because you can get a lot of girls and stuff, and it’s way better than working at McDonald’s.”
This is how the Heene Boyz were born. “The world’s youngest metal band” started playing gigs in 2012, and the next year even played in New York City and as far north as Rochester, New York. Richard says he felt they’d arrived one New Year’s Eve in Daytona Beach a few years back, when a howling Falcon jumped on a speaker and they racked up $750 in tips, thanks in part to a tipsy fan.
Some parents might not like the idea of their prepubescent children rocking out in a room with drunken patrons. Some might not expose them to near-deafening sounds. While the Heene boys have rules, like not riding their dirt bikes in the street, they don’t have a lot of the structure or activities typical for many children.
“The thing we like about our average day is that it’s not really average. It’s really abnormal.” Bradford says. “It’s awesome, though.”
His dad concurs.
“Every once in a while, maybe every once a week, something will dawn on us on how grateful we are to have what we have and be what we are,” he says. “It’s just amazing.”
‘We all love each other’
Walk through the Heenes’ front door and you’ll see Ryo’s drum kit at one end of the living room, opposite the chickens and rabbit cage. The drums sit in front of a backward piece of linoleum that acts as a green screen for music videos. Bradford doesn’t let a little wound stop him from riffing on his guitar, and Falcon looks little like the “Balloon Boy” of the past and everything like a smooth, energetic lead metal vocalist, throwing all his energy (and his long hair) into each lyric.
The boys are refining their skills and picking up new ones, often from YouTube — which, after the parents’ musical knowledge ran out, has been their go-to site to learn more. Lately, they’ve also been brushing up on their lines for “American Chilly,” their “rockestra.”
Richard unwittingly kick-started this project in 1999 with a script about a man, Morgen Enright, who inherits a desert gas station that doubles as a restaurant and hotel. All are cursed because one of his ancestors killed Native Americans after consuming the hallucinogen peyote. Enright loses his mind after taking peyote, setting off a gross and grisly escapade involving laxative-laced chili, “serpent monsters” hiding in toilets, and so on.
While their father never made his script into a movie, the boys read it a few years ago. Intrigued, they refashioned the contents to incorporate Enright’s three metal-loving sons, wrote some original songs — including their favorite, “Psycho,” about Enright’s descent into madness — and incorporated a few of their old ones into the musical. They’re shopping the show to theaters and investors.
They dream of taking “American Chilly” to Broadway. Richard calls it a mix of “Rocky Horror Picture Show” and “Rock of Ages.”
Whether or not that happens, what Richard Heene wants most is for the family to stick together.
“The ideal situation for us would be to have 10 to 15 acres, and have the kids live on that,” he says. “And if they want to build a house over there, that’s fine. Or if we live like the guys from ‘Dallas'” — with each family member occupying their own wing of a huge house.
His boys seem game. Falcon says they might fight about “video games … and whoever gets to go first” but not much else. Ryo wants to “keep rocking.” And Bradford, who says his parents are also his friends, adds, “We want to stick together as a band until we’re about 80 years old.”
Why? It’s simple, says Bradford: “We all love each other.”