The fame and fortune about which Balloon Boy dad Richard Heene was apparently dreaming looks to have flown away. But while Larimer County officials took a couple of days before voicing their doubts about the veracity of the airborne-Falcon account, Patti Dennis, news director at Channel 9, the first media outlet daddy Heene phoned on Thursday, says the needle on her suspicion meter was jumping from the get-go.
What did she tell Heene after he related his tale to her? "I don't believe you."
Here's the way Dennis recalls the chain of events:
"Shortly after 11 a.m., Jim Pedersen, our assignment manager, got a call from Mr. Heene," Dennis says. "He was crying and sort of hysterical and said something to the effect that his son had drifted away in a saucer-like helium balloon. There was some exchange between the two of them -- mostly Jim's incredible disbelief. I don't know how long that conversation went as Jim was trying to sort through whether this was someone who was kind of nuts or what was going on. But I know he asked why he hadn't called the police, and he said his wife was on the phone with the police at the same time.
"Jim took some notes down and got a phone number to return the call and then came in and interrupted me in a meeting," she continues. "After that, several of us went into the information center to sort out what he was talking about. Jim thought he sounded legitimately upset, but we wanted to confirm that he'd called the police. So one of our other managers called the Fort Collins Police Department -- and at first, nobody knew what we were talking about. Then we put out a call to Eloise Campanella, the spokeswoman for the Larimer County Sheriff's Office; we weren't able to reach her at first, so we paged her to call us. Then I moved our people to the helicopter, thinking, Who knows about this, but let's get everyone in place just in case. And then I called him.
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Heene "answered the phone," Dennis goes on, "and I identified myself and said, 'Could you please tell me what you called us about?' He said, 'My son is missing,' and told me the same story he told Jim. I said, 'I don't believe you' and asked for his son's name and the name of his school. And after he told me, I asked why his son wasn't in school, and he said because there were parent-teacher conferences this week. Then I said, 'Why haven't you called the police?,' and he said, 'I have. There's a detective right here. I said, 'May I talk to him?,' and he put me on with Jake Bowser, an officer from Larimer County."
Bowser told Dennis the Heene boy actually was missing and thought to be on the balloon, but that wasn't enough for her. "I got his supervisor's name, so I could backtrack to make sure he wasn't a part of things," she notes. "And at the same time I was grilling the dad, one of our supervisors heard from Eloise, who said it looked like the real deal."
By then, it was about 11:45 a.m., and Dennis ordered the helicopter into the air. Around 45 minutes more passed before the crew on board caught sight of the balloon, and they maintained visual contact for the hour-plus before the craft touched down, with no Falcon in its perch.
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Did Dennis's hoax alarm go off at that moment? "I don't have a hoax alarm," she says. "I think that's an opinion, and we're reporters. But when it landed so softly, there was clapping in our control room. People were glad. But then we got a picture from a neighbor that made it look like something had fallen off the balloon, and we were afraid the boy might have panicked, jumped or fallen. Then the story changed into a search story, a search for a victim, and that's how it stayed until the news conference, when we were told he'd been found safe. And that's when the questions came up about how he could have been missed in a search of the house, how did he get hidden, did he have help or did he do it himself, and was this just a crazy series of events, or was it orchestrated. The same questions everyone is wrestling with today."
According to Dennis, she was so caught up covering the Balloon Boy drama that she didn't consider how much national and international appeal it would have -- until, that is, "I started getting phone calls from Australia and Sweden and the BBC" prompted by the dominance of 9News footage. No wonder website hits for the station's website went through the roof.
Dennis feels her staff did a good job during the balloon chase itself, as well as in investigating the Heenes once Falcon emerged. "This is what we do every day," she stresses. "We just don't usually have events that explode across the country and the world like this. We do stories that don't get as much attention, and you could argue that they have an even greater impact in the long run -- although maybe not as much curiosity."
Curious indeed. "I've been doing this for 31 years," Dennis says, "and this is at the top of the unusual scale. It's the new number one."