FORT COLLINS, Colo. — The parents accused of pulling a spectacular hoax by reporting that their 6-year-old son had floated away aboard a helium balloon have agreed to plead guilty in a deal that could send them both to jail but protect the wife from deportation.
Richard Heene will plead guilty Friday to attempting to influence a public servant, a felony, said his attorney, David Lane. Heene’s wife, Mayumi, a Japanese citizen who could be deported if convicted of more serious charges, will plead guilty to a lesser charge of false reporting to authorities, a misdemeanor.
Lane said the threat of deportation “fueled” negotiations with prosecutors. An attorney for Mayumi Heene said her immigration status was a factor in reaching the deal but would not comment further.
Prosecutors announced criminal charges against the couple Thursday.
The Oct. 15 saga gripped a global audience, first with fear for the safety of 6-year-old Falcon Heene and then with anger at his parents when authorities accused them of perpetrating the hoax to drum up attention for a possible reality show.
Lane said the deal does not call for removing Falcon or the couple’s other two children — ages 8 and 10 — from the parents’ custody.
The plea deal would spare the Heenes the maximum jail time, but Richard Heene could still get up to 90 days and Mayumi up to 60, Lane said.
Without the deal, the charge against Richard Heene carries a possible sentence of two to six years in state prison and a fine of up to $500,000. The charge against his wife is punishable by up to six months in the county jail and a fine up to $750.
Mayumi Heene’s attorney, Lee Christian, said he expects her to serve any jail time in a work-release program that would involve some detention and some time at home.
The parents still face a civil investigation by the Federal Aviation Administration. Possible penalties range from a letter of reprimand to a fine. The balloon briefly forced some planes to switch to a different runway for takeoff from the Denver airport.
Prosecutors said the Heenes agreed to turn themselves in and went to court Thursday to sign documents promising to appear before a judge today. They held hands as they walked into the courthouse.
Richard Heene also had a booking photo taken at a county jail and was released.
Lane said prosecutors insisted on a “package deal” that required Richard Heene to plead guilty to a felony so Mayumi Heene could plead guilty to a misdemeanor and avoid deportation.
“He feels like he’s got to do what he’s got to do to save his wife from being deported,” Lane said.
On the day in question, the couple made frantic calls to authorities, saying they feared Falcon might be aboard a homemade balloon that had escaped from their backyard in suburban Fort Collins. That triggered a frenzied response by emergency crews before the balloon landed in a dusty farm field without the boy inside. The Heenes said they later found Falcon hiding at home.
The Heenes’ lawyers expect prosecutors to seek restitution in the case. Local and federal authorities spent at least $62,000 chasing the balloon and then searching for Falcon after it landed.