Falcon "Balloon Boy" Heene and his brothers are flying high in a heavy-metal band
Inside a single-story house on a quiet street an hour north of Tampa, nine-year-old Falcon Heene plugs in his bass guitar and fires up his amp.
The scrawny, barefoot kid, four and a half feet tall, launches into "Burnin' to Play," off his band's first, home-recorded album, Heene Boyz Rock.
Falcon's brother Ryo, age twelve, tears up the drums, and Bradford, thirteen, shreds a guitar. All three are dressed in black T-shirts and jean shorts. They have long, luxurious black hair that falls to their waists and would make a Kardashian look bald by comparison. These manes whip around like windmills as the boys thrash.
Falcon wails, "What do we do? Hang out in the park/Joey's out playing in the dark/Oh, my God — bored out of my mind/Adults don't treat kids so effin' kind."
When it's time for the guitar solo, Bradford nails it one-handed, Eddie Van Halen style. Falcon plucks bass strings with his teeth. When finished, they grin, make devil horns and do handstands.
This living room is basically a rehearsal space. Amid a clutter of cardboard boxes and mountain bikes are the instruments, a mixing board, speakers, and stacks of amplifiers. A homemade green screen, crafted from linoleum, takes up an entire wall and blocks the front window.
The walls are covered with faded family photos, kids' paintings, chore charts, to-do lists, printouts of scientific data, and schedules ("Get up, read books, work out, do schoolwork, rehearse, rehearse, rehearse"). Then there are the typed affirmations on plain white office paper. A couple of these say, in all caps: "HEENE BOYZ WANT RECORD DEAL!" and "HEENE BOYZ WILL TOUR WITH METALLICA."
Here the Heene Boyz, who are touted by their notorious dad as "the world's youngest metal band," dress up like medieval warriors and film themselves playing their song "World of Warcraft."
"Can't stop playin' World of Warcraft," Falcon shrieks. "That's what I'm sayin'."
This might be any kid band. But it's not. Three years and a massive backlash ago, the boys' mom and dad were branded as America's most famous liars. On October 15, 2009, Richard Heene called the Federal Aviation Administration and two Colorado TV stations to report that Falcon, then six years old, had floated away in a homemade flying saucer that had been in the family's back yard in Fort Collins. The National Guard was called out, tens of thousands of dollars' worth of police time was wasted, and the family's alleged trauma was broadcast on live television, riveting people around the world. Falcon would forever be known as "Balloon Boy."
Hours after the empty balloon landed in a field, the sheriff announced that Falcon was safe and had been hiding in the attic during the saga. But public opinion turned from relief to anger when the incident was deemed a hoax and the family was accused of orchestrating the incident in hopes of landing a reality-TV show.
Richard Heene was ultimately fined $47,000 and pleaded guilty to felony charges of attempting to influence a public servant. His wife, Mayumi, pleaded to a misdemeanor. Richard was sentenced to ninety days in jail. Mayumi was ordered to perform community service. The judge stipulated they could not profit from the incident during four years of probation.
In 2010, the family moved to Florida, to the town of Spring Hill, about fifty miles north of Tampa, and little has been reported about them since. The kids, who are home-schooled, have turned their attention to music. Richard works as a handyman and develops odd inventions like a bear-sized back scratcher. The kids, with Dad as their manager, have played a dozen shows since May.
As the Heene Boyz' popularity grows and the kids continue to gig, surely Richard, 51, will face criticism that he's exploiting his kids — again.
"Exploitation?" he asks incredulously. "Nobody has said anything about that."
When Mayumi and Richard Heene wake up every morning, they jump out of bed, stand facing one another, and give each other giant bear hugs while furiously scratching each other's backs. They giggle as they demonstrate in their living room.
"She has been a godsend," Richard says of his wife of fifteen years.
Richard says he grew up in Virginia, the middle of three children, with a mostly absent biological dad and an abusive mother and stepfather. "My childhood was a nightmare," he explains. "If there was an exit button, I would have pushed it. We moved a lot. I went to thirteen different schools." He no longer deals with any of his family members. "We're just not close."
As a teenager, he began working as a laborer. "I started doing contractor work when I was eighteen. I get bored easily. I moved on to concrete, roofing, lawn sprinklers. I had my own contracting business when I was 24." Work led him to California. "In those days you would follow the lumber trucks, because you knew it would lead to a job."
Richard got married and divorced once and then repeated the mistake. Tired of doing backbreaking labor and chasing down payment for it, he dabbled in standup comedy and acting around Los Angeles.
In 1995, he published a book of parody called Offensive Driving under the imprint "Dick Weenie." It included handy perforated tickets that drivers could whip out and give to police, and offered advice on "how to parallel park at 55 mph." He also sold a joke AIDS/herpes tester — basically a mood ring. (Richard says it was a lot funnier in the '80s.)
Mayumi grew up in Japan, the youngest of three, in a "very normal" household with two parents who taught English. Now 48, makeup-free, smiling and nodding warmly, she explains, "My brother influenced me." They listened to Deep Purple and "Stairway to Heaven." "My grandma had a guitar," she says, so she learned to play it. When Mayumi went to college in Japan, she joined an all-girls band called Women. One of their favorite covers was Olivia Newton-John's "Physical."
After teaching English to high-school students for a year, she decided she needed to become fluent. Fascinated by the United States, she moved to Los Angeles in 1987 at age 23 and enrolled in Santa Monica College. Because of the distance and the cost, she hasn't been back home to Japan since, nor have her parents visited, though she talks to them weekly. Richard has never met them.
By 1997, Mayumi was working an office job, but continued taking classes. She decided to enroll in the Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute, where Richard had also signed up. He was captivated when he saw her. "She was in two of my classes, and she told me she was in this other class, so I signed up for it, too." In the first weeks of school, he also had his eye on one of his teachers — Jack Nicholson's ex, the actress Susan Anspach — and even wrote a screenplay for her about a young man seducing an older woman. When Anspach didn't get the hint, he went all-in with Mayumi.
"I didn't think he was..." Mayumi smiles shyly. She still has a Japanese accent.
"Say it!" Richard urges.
"Good-looking back then," she giggles. "I see a handsome guy now more than before."
(Overhearing this, Ryo laughs.)
They were thrown together for a class project, which led to a date, which led to Mayumi's moving in. Soon, on a whim, they got married in Vegas. Richard was 36 and Mayumi 33. They tried to use rings from a gumball machine, but those didn't fit, so they bought basic gold bands.
About a year later, Richard says, "I was fed up with being a contractor. I wanted to be a video editor." For $66,000, he and Mayumi bought an Avid video-editing machine and started a home business. When people called and asked whether he could handle various formats, he says, "I had no idea what they were talking about." But he took the jobs, read the equipment manual, and figured it out as he went. A couple of years later, they sold the business. Richard remembers Mayumi working "40,000 hours a week," her phone to her ear even as she nursed three boys.
Bradford came along in 1999, Ryo in 2000, and Falcon in 2002 (he'll turn ten on New Year's Eve). Richard wanted to give the kids names that no one would make fun of. "With the name Richard, you can imagine the nickname — and then Heene rhymes with weenie." (Thus the imprint of his book.)
As Mayumi's due date for their youngest approached, the name Falcon came to Richard. "No one can make fun of that!" he thought. Hours later, Mayumi went into labor. "Most babies go, 'Wah, wah!' Richard says, "but Falcon went, 'EEeeeeeEEEEeeeee — eee — EEE!' like a peregrine falcon. And he was black! It took him hours to go to regular baby color." His voice "could pierce through walls" in a super-high pitch. "It felt like an ice pick was penetrating you." A neighbor told them: "Your son has a very special voice." The seed of the metal band was planted.
Around this time, Heene invented a toy called "Box Time" — essentially, pieces of cardboard that small children could assemble into a playhouse while pretending to be builders, roofers and electricians. Richard claims he was close to signing a deal with Elmer's Glue to promote the project, but it fell through.
Eventually the family moved to Colorado, "because we had to chase tornadoes," Richard says. They settled in Fort Collins.
Richard had been interested in meteorology since 1979, when he was working in construction and saw that a tornado had picked up and moved an entire roof without knocking a single shingle out of place. Soon he began reaching out to professors and amateur scientists to bat around ideas. "I had these hypotheses...that storms generated magnetic fields...that a hurricane is a giant magnet that cancels out a little bit of Earth's gravitational force." He set out to predict how tornadoes touch down — "so that I could save some lives."
Some professionals wanted nothing to do with any "crackpot theories." Others were intrigued. In 2008, Richard was the lead author of an article titled "Electromagnetic Fields Recorded in Mesocyclones" in a scientific journal called National Weather Digest. He even flew into Hurricane Wilma with NOAA scientists.
"We would take the kids storm-chasing," Richard remembers gleefully. "People were chastising us for that, but actually we were safer than people stuck in their houses." In their car, armed with a laptop and real-time satellite data, the Heenes would try to get on the southeast side of tornadoes to view them.
Richard and Mayumi made some videos about their adventures, which they later hawked as The Psyience Detectives, but they needed a big name to handle the voice-overs and generate buzz. Richard claims he once persuaded William Shatner to give him an eighteen-minute meeting. Shatner allegedly said, "What do you need me for? You're great." (Shatner's representatives confirmed the contact but downplayed the meeting.)
Also in 2008, the family appeared on the TV show Wife Swap, where the mothers from two very different families trade places for a week. The Heenes were voted back to appear on the show a second time, unheard of in the annals of Wife Swap.
At one point during filming, Mayumi picked up a guitar and played it. It was then that Bradford thought, "Cool! I want a guitar!"
In the hours after Richard Heene's contraption floated into the sky, Denver International Airport was shut down. The National Guard was dispatched with Black Hawks. Television cameras followed the device as it drifted at 7,000 feet, fifty miles across the sky. Viewers, terrified for Falcon, wondered whether they were about to see a six-year-old plummet to his death.
News crews gathered outside the Heene house as headlines blew up around the world. And then little Falcon emerged safe and sound from the attic, where he had been hiding all along.
The next day, the Heene family agreed to be interviewed by Wolf Blitzer on CNN. Mayumi and Richard looked exhausted, the three boys wedged between them. They insisted they thought Falcon had flown away.
Blitzer: Did he hear you screaming out, "Falcon, Falcon?"
Richard, to Falcon: He's asking, Falcon, did you hear us calling your name at any time?
Richard: You did?
Mayumi: You did?
Richard: Why didn't you come out?
Falcon: You guys said that, um, we did this for a show.
After the couple pleaded guilty, Larimer County Court Judge Stephen Schapanski sentenced Richard to ninety days of jail and four years' probation; Mayumi was sentenced to twenty days in jail, to be served on weekends. Schapanski fined the couple $6,000 and stipulated that they could not profit from the incident during that time. "Mr. Heene is in fact prohibited from receiving any form of financial benefit — whether it be media, a book, an article he writes — anything of that kind that stems from this incident," the judge declared.
He summarized, "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."
But on January 7, 2010, Richard went on CNN's Larry King Live and said the only reason he pleaded guilty was that he was afraid Mayumi would be deported. Falcon's comment, he added, came because "a Japanese cameraman holding a giant camera asked him to show him how he got into the attic for his TV show. That's why Falcon answered that."
When Larimer County sheriff Jim Alderden heard that Heene was maintaining his innocence, he told CNN: "Quite honestly, I'm shocked that he would make such statements. The evidence against Mr. Heene and Mayumi at this point is very overwhelming."
Today, Richard continues to insist he truly believed Falcon was up in the contraption. And "I was completely insulted that anyone ever called it 'Balloon Boy.' It's a real flying saucer!"
Still, the aftermath had been brutal. The family became the laughingstock of the nation. Commenters speculated that Richard was a sociopath, Mayumi an abused wife. Former associates emerged to sell negative stories about them to the media. Colorado's Child Protective Services investigated the Heenes' fitness to be parents, but ultimately left the family intact. RDF Media, which had been working with the family to develop a reality show, cut ties.
Richard, who was working at the time as a contractor, remembers, "One woman wrote to me and said, 'Don't bother showing up at the job site.' " Other people "claimed to be fans of mine," he remembers. "Do you have head shots and an autograph?" He says he thought those callers were weirdos.
Ultimately, Richard says, "I don't study the negatives. Gotta focus on the positives. And the positives are: We became a much stronger family."
The judge okayed Richard's leaving the state to find work, and in 2010, the Heenes moved to Spring Hill, where the foreclosure crisis had hit hard but rental houses were cheap. In the warm climate, there'd be more potential for Richard to do contracting jobs year-round, the couple thought, and the family could escape some of their infamy.
He has since embraced his calling as an inventor and built a "Heene Duty Truck Transformer," a motor-powered, remote-controlled contraption that converts into a toolbox, scaffolding, a lumber carrier, a portable loading dock, a dolly and a picnic table. He licensed it to a Tampa-area company called AME International, which manufactures truck tools, but that deal — like many other things in his life — fell through.
In a video he made to promote the product, Heene jumps all over his truck like a madman, and at one point, Mayumi leaps into his arms to give him a kiss before running off.
On a wall in their house is a sign: "We INTEND to build HEENE DUTY and INTEND to sell HEENE DUTY to have a full bank account." Taped underneath it is a dollar bill.
Heene says he requested clarification from the courts about what constituted profiting off the balloon incident. Was he allowed use of his name on fliers for his businesses? "What they said was that I can't get paid for interviews, and I can't put balloons on fliers." He rolls his eyes.
Mounted to the wall by the foyer is another of Heene's inventions: the Bear Scratch. The surface of this three-foot-long pole mimics the rough bark of a tree, and people can rub their backs against it, bear style. "You never see a bear walk out in the woods, break off a branch and scratch his back," Richard whines in another highly entertaining promo video. "No! He uses the entire tree!" The scratcher is only $19.99 at www.bearscratch.com. Because he realized the device comes in handy for exercising, Richard created a companion "Bearobics" video.
He pulls out a hand-cranked machine built to shake nearly empty jars of ketchup and peanut butter, thus allowing extraction of the last, hard-to-reach contents. The average ketchup bottle gets thrown away with eleven servings left in it, he says. "Think of the money that could be saved!" At www.yourshakedown.com, he demonstrates it in a video while wearing his bathrobe. "Restaurants are going to love" this machine, Richard says. He's selling it for $179.99.
Heene says he has also invented a new type of shirt ("but I can't really talk about that right now"), a fast way to lay tile flooring, a method of carrying things that makes it feel as though the weight has been halved, and a magnetic motor. "Someone should invest in me," he says. "I have hundreds of ideas."
Oh, and there's one other notable video in the Richard Heene oeuvre. It includes a song called "Aluminum Man" that he made with his friend, the singer Smokey Miles (who also performs as Count Smokula, a 496-year-old, fez-wearing vampire). In the video, Richard is wrapped in a superhero costume made entirely of tin foil, jumping on his truck transformer and hiding behind trees. Miles sings, "Aluminum man/Aluminum man/Lives in an aluminum can/Cooks his eggs in an aluminum frying pan/He's got the best world-saving plan."
There's no accompanying product to sell with this one. Richard explains, "People knew we lived in the neighborhood, and they were very curious to see anything I'm doing — 'What's he building now?' People would drive by with cameras." To freak out nosy passersby, he would sometimes put on an Iron Man mask he'd made for the kids. "I thought, 'Maybe this will add a little humor to the whole element and people will leave me alone and stop calling me the other thing.' "
Once he's off probation, will the Heenes do a reality show if offered? "If I'm making a million dollars selling the Shakedown," Richard speculates, "and I'm offered $50,000 for a reality show, why would I bother?"
Not long after the flying saucer incident, the kids were pulled out of public school. Richard says he got mad when Ryo's teacher had students write down three reasons they deserved presents from Santa Claus. "What if you're Jewish?" he asks.
The Heenes don't celebrate Christmas, Richard explains, partly because it's too commercialized and also because he can't bear to kill a perfectly good tree. The boys shrug and say they don't mind.
Mayumi teaches the kids in the mornings. They have to meet Florida standards and pass the FCAT to proceed to the next grade, but lessons are unconventional. For reading lessons, for instance, they study comic books. Bradford also likes the Goosebumps series. Ryo just finished reading Dune.
Richard says he loves that now, "our boys don't have as many no's throughout the day. I want them to have a lot of yeses."
Afternoons are largely reserved for music. After seeing his mom jam on Wife Swap, Bradford got a guitar from his grandma. The family found a bass for Falcon and a $100 drum kit for Ryo.
The three boys learned to play their instruments by watching instructional videos on YouTube. Richard now coaches them as they rehearse. In a regular session, Richard might segue into a silly performance voice. "All right, ladies! I'm Nick Cannon from America's Got Talent."
The boys do breathing exercises and then rehearse their songs while a video camera rolls. Afterward, they sit on the couch, each with a yellow legal notepad, to do a critique. If a neighbor kid is over, he's given a pad, too. In chickenscratch, the boys may note that a song is off-key or that Falcon doesn't look energetic enough, just like a football team reviewing a game tape.
Richard says he encouraged the kids to write stories and then poetry. When they were ready to write their first lyrics, he told them to describe something they believed in. Hence, "World of Warcraft."
Other tunes include "Again," which, according to their website, is about Bradford getting kissed by two girls, and "Candy Cane," about "a hot chick dressed in a sexy Mrs. Santa Claus outfit." "Latte Vampiress" references "an annoying girl who used to get us in trouble. We think it's because she drank too much coffee."
The website announces, "You've seen them on Wife Swap," but makes no reference to any balloons. The boys began playing publicly when they asked the owners of Euphoria Emporium, a local coffee shop/hookah bar, if they could use the location to shoot a video for "Latte Vampiress," and it was suggested they play during live-music night.
An interview with the Heene Boyz goes like this:
Deirdra Funcheon: Tell me about your songwriting process.
Bradford: When we make a song, we all go in our room. Falcon sings some lyrics, I mostly create the guitar parts, and Ryo creates the drums.
DF: Do you like bands closer to your age? Like, what do you think of Justin Bieber?
Bradford: Who's Justin Bieber?
DF: Seriously, you don't know who Justin Bieber is?
All three boys [dead serious]: No.
DF: Have you ever heard of the Jonas Brothers?
Boys [blankly]: No, uh-uh.
DF: Do you get stage fright?
Bradford: No! On stage, it's not scary at all!
Falcon: You hear the crowd cheering you, you feel the cool breeze blow, you feel the crowd's energy, you walk up there and play the first note, and —
Bradford [interrupting, imitates guitar riff]: DDRRRRGGGGEEEEEEEHEHEHHH! Chicks in the front jump up and down with their boobies jiggling.
Falcon [interrupting]: We shout, "Are you ready to rock?"
Ryo [imitates drums]: Ch-ch-dum-dum.
DF: Do you get paid?
Bradford: We got paid once, at this place the Abbey. Some guy passed around a beer mug as a tip jar. We made $30. [They also were paid $50 at one other gig.]
DF: Do you remember when the whole world thought Falcon flew away in a balloon?
Falcon: I don't remember it.
Ryo: That was a long time ago.
Bradford: That was when we were little kids.
Ryo: We went on Wife Swap!
DF: So what's next?
Ryo: We want to play music for the rest of our lives.
Falcon: We want to go to Sunfest.
Bradford: I want to play in a movie, play guitar and do real estate too.
DF: Real estate?
Bradford: Yeah, fix up houses and sell them. My dad teaches us how to do drywall, electrical work, tiling, plumb, roofing, concrete...
If they make it big, the boys want to have a house where they duct-tape mattresses to the walls and ceiling, effectively turning it into a bounce house. One room would be covered entirely in mirrors and have secret tunnels — for laser tag. There would be a motorcycle ramp over the house.
The boys, Richard explains, "can do whatever they want to do in life. If they want to be a plumber, an insurance salesman, I'll support that. But they started accumulating instruments. It's something they completely are into. They say they want to be like Metallica. If they're tired, they can stop anytime."
Mayumi says people at their gigs never bring up the flying saucer incident, and neither do they. And the kids wouldn't jam with such enthusiasm if they weren't digging it. "Kids won't do that if you don't have your own wish and own talent."
What about criticism that they're exploiting the kids?
Richard is disturbed at the suggestion. "No, because our kids own that. I wanted Bradford to own the ability to play guitar. I wanted Ryo to own the ability to play the drums. I wanted Falcon to own the ability to sing and play bass."
The Heene Boyz are scheduled to play this weekend, December 14 and 15, at the Holiday Matsuri Convention (a celebration of anime, gaming and Japanese culture) at an Embassy Suites in Kissimmee, Florida.
"This has absolutely nothing to do with Richard Heene," their dad says, before adding, "but who better than me to take a position as their manager? I don't want them to get ripped off."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Westword's biggest stories.