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THE NATION : Parents of 'balloon boy' say they'll plead guilty in hoax : They reach a deal to avoid Mayumi Heene's possible deportation to Japan, a lawyer says. Probation is expected.

November 13, 2009|DeeDee Correll | Correll writes for The Times.

DENVER — The Colorado parents who last month claimed their 6-year-old son floated away in a giant balloon -- a hoax that captivated a nationwide television audience -- will plead guilty to avoid the possible deportation of the mother, a Japanese citizen, a defense attorney said Thursday morning.

Richard Heene will plead guilty to one felony charge of attempting to influence a public official, and Mayumi Heene will plead guilty to a misdemeanor charge of making a false report to law enforcement, Richard Heene's attorney, David Lane, said in a statement.

Lane said that the pleas were part of a deal with prosecutors and that the Heenes would be sentenced to probation, although it's possible that Richard Heene also may serve 90 days in jail and his wife 60 days.

A spokeswoman for the Larimer County district attorney's office would not confirm the plea agreement -- which would be subject to a judge's approval -- but issued a statement announcing that criminal charges against the couple were filed Thursday.

Under the law, the charge against Richard Heene carries a maximum penalty of six years in prison and a fine of $500,000. The maximum penalty for Mayumi Heene's charge is six months in county jail and a fine of $750, according to prosecutors.

The Heenes, of Fort Collins, are amateur storm chasers who have appeared on the ABC show "Wife Swap" and allegedly staged the hoax to try to get their own reality television show.

They told authorities that their youngest son, Falcon, had sneaked into a helium balloon that lifted off accidentally from their backyard Oct. 15. The journey of the balloon -- a silvery craft reminiscent of a UFO or a package of Jiffy Pop popcorn -- was watched by millions of people on live television.

Some offered prayers for the boy's safe return, and flights in and out of Denver International Airport were rerouted. When the balloon landed in a field two hours later and was found to be empty, a search was launched for Falcon, who had presumably fallen to his death.

Falcon was later found hiding in the Heenes' garage.

Authorities' suspicions were raised a few hours after the incident, while the Heene family was interviewed on "Larry King Live." When Falcon was asked why he had stayed in hiding so long, he looked at his parents and said: "You had said that we did this for a show."

According to court papers, Mayumi Heene admitted to Larimer County sheriff's deputies several days later that the entire escapade was a publicity stunt.

Because of laws protecting spouses from testifying against each other, it's unlikely that she could be forced to serve as a witness against her husband, who stood "a good chance of acquittal" at trial, Lane said. But the family feared that she might be convicted and deported. "That was not an acceptable risk, thus these pleas," Lane said in a statement.

Lane criticized law enforcement officials for their "complete and utter disregard" for the Heenes' children.

"It is supremely ironic that law enforcement has expressed such grave concern over the welfare of the children, but it was ultimately the threat of taking the children's mother from the family and deporting her to Japan which fueled this deal," Lane said.

The Larimer County Sheriff's Department did not return calls seeking comment, but it issued a statement that Sheriff Jim Alderden was on "a well-deserved vacation."

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Times staff writer Nicholas Riccardi contributed to this report.

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