FORT COLLINS, Colo. - The parents who pulled the balloon-boy hoax in hopes of landing a reality-TV show were sentenced to jail yesterday - 90 days for him, 20 days for her - and barred from profiting from their newfound celebrity status for the next four years.
Choking back tears, Richard Heene apologized in court for the frenzy that he caused when he claimed that his 6-year-old son, Falcon, had floated away in a giant helium balloon shaped like a flying saucer.
"I'm very, very sorry, and I want to apologize to all the rescue workers out there, and the people that got involved in the community," said Heene, 48, a UFO-obsessed backyard scientist who turned to storm-chasing and reality TV after his Hollywood acting career bombed.
The sentencing was the culmination of a saga that transfixed the nation in October with the sight on live television of the silvery balloon hurtling through the sky. In the end, it was all a publicity stunt by a family broke and desperate for attention and money after networks kept rejecting their reality-TV-show pitches.
The case - along with the White House party-crashing by a Virginia couple last month - illustrated vividly the lengths to which people will go to become TV stars in this 15-minutes-of-fame world.
"What this case is about is deception, exploitation - exploitation of the children of the Heenes, exploitation of the media and exploitation of people's emotions - and money," District Judge Stephen Schapanski said.
Heene's 90-day sentence includes 60 days of work release that will let him pursue his job as a construction contractor during the day as long as he reports back to jail at night. The Heenes were also put on four years' probation, during which they cannot earn any money related to the stunt. That means any book, movie or reality-TV deals are off limits.
Richard Heene's wife, Mayumi, 45, looked sullen and did not speak during the sentencing. Afterward, the Heenes walked past a crowd of reporters without comment.
Prosecutors asked for the 90-day maximum for the husband, saying that a stern message needed to be sent to people who stage hoaxes for publicity.
Prosecutor Andrew Lewis also asked that the Heenes be forced to reimburse authorities for the full cost of chasing the balloon and investigating the hoax - an amount that could exceed $50,000. The exact sum will be determined later.
"People around the world were watching this unfold," Lewis said. "Mr. Heene wasted a lot of manpower and a lot of money in wanting to get himself some publicity."
He added: "Jay Leno said it best when he said, 'This is a copycat game.' And people will copycat this event." The Heenes "need to go to jail so people don't do that."
The judge gave Richard Heene until Jan. 11 to report to jail so he could spend the holidays with his family. His wife will serve her 20 days behind bars after her husband completes his sentence. Her time served will be flexible - she can report to jail on 10 weekends, for example - so that the couple's three children are cared for, the judge said.