Mayumi and Richard Heene pleaded guilty and were sentenced to jail time… (Chris Schneider / Getty…)
Reporting from Denver — The Colorado father who admitted to staging the balloon hoax now says he genuinely believed his son was in danger but pleaded guilty to prevent his wife's deportation.
Richard Heene, an aspiring reality television star who has said he is descended from space aliens, told CNN's "Larry King Live" in an interview airing Friday that he believed 6-year-old Falcon was in a homemade balloon that took off from the family's Fort Collins backyard Oct. 15.
"We had searched the house, high and low," Heene said in the new interview with Larry King. "I knew he was in the craft. . . . In my mind, there was no other place."
Authorities' hours-long pursuit of the wayward balloon was broadcast live on television. After the balloon drifted to the ground empty about 50 miles away, Falcon emerged from the family's garage, saying he'd hidden and fallen asleep.
Relief ensued, along with a round of media appearances. But the Heenes' story began to fall apart during a television interview that night.
Heene and his wife, Mayumi, were charged with misleading authorities. Heene pleaded guilty last month to falsely influencing authorities, one of the original three felony counts. He was sentenced to four years' probation and 90 days in jail, which he was to begin serving Monday.
In the new interview, Heene said he took the plea bargain solely to protect his wife, who could have been deported to her native Japan if convicted of a felony. She was allowed to plead to making a false report, a misdemeanor, and sentenced to 20 days in jail.
"I'm not disputing the fact that I did have to plead guilty, and when I say have to, I had to do it to save my family and my wife," Heene said.
Calls to the Larimer County district attorney's office, which handled the prosecution, were not returned Wednesday night.
Prosecutors conceivably could ask the judge to revoke Heene's guilty plea and force him to stand trial.
"It's not in the prosecutors' interests to let a guy go around telling the media he was coerced into pleading guilty," said Jean Rosenbluth, a former federal prosecutor and USC law professor. "On the other hand, this particular guy has perhaps low credibility."
Heene is an amateur scientist who twice appeared on ABC's "Wife Swap" and, prosecutors say, was pitching his own reality television show. They say he staged the balloon hoax to draw attention after talks fell apart.
After Falcon turned up safe, the Heenes appeared on CNN, and the boy was asked why he hid so long. He hesitated, turned to his parents and said slowly, "You had said that we did this for a show."