DENVER – The Colorado father who pleaded guilty to a felony in the runaway balloon saga insisted in an interview set to air Friday that the event wasn't a hoax.
In his first television interview since shortly after the Oct. 15 event, Richard Heene said that he believed that his 6-year-old son, Falcon, was in the homemade balloon when it took off from the family's Fort Collins backyard.
"We had searched the house, high and low," Heene said, choking back tears during a taped interview for "Larry King Live" that will air on CNN. "I knew he was in the craft. ... In my mind there was no other place."
Heene said he pleaded guilty to a felony count of falsely influencing authorities to protect his wife, Mayumi, a Japanese citizen who he said may have faced deportation if convicted of a more serious crime. Mayumi Heene pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of false reporting.
"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. The threat of deportation was imminent," said Heene, an aspiring reality television show actor and backyard scientist.
Larimer County District Attorney Larry Abrahamson was not available for comment Wednesday when CNN aired part of the interview. Prosecutors previously have denied threatening Mayumi Heene with deportation.
"It doesn't matter whether he says it's not a hoax," said Linda Jensen, a district attorney spokeswoman. "He pleaded guilty and he has a felony conviction because of it."
Richard Heene was sentenced to 90 days in jail on Dec. 23 and will begin serving his sentence Monday. Mayumi Heene was sentenced to 20 days in jail, which she'll serve once Richard Heene completes his jail sentence.
Both were also sentenced to four years' probation, during which they are not allowed to profit from the incident.
Reached by telephone Wednesday, Heene said the latest CNN interview does not violate terms of his probation.
"My motivation is to simply clear up my name, then do my time and get back to my family," Heene said. "That's all I'm after."
Sheriff's investigators suspected the family's claims that Falcon was inside the balloon were a hoax after Falcon Heene declared during an earlier King interview that "we did this for the show." The boy hid for five hours in the garage as the saga unfolded.
Larimer County Sheriff Jim Alderden acknowledged that Falcon's comments on CNN had clearly "raised everybody's level of skepticism."
"I asked him why did you say that, what are you talking about?" Heene told King in the latest interview. "And he said, a Japanese cameraman from some — 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."
Prosecutors say Richard Heene was working with a collaborator throughout the year to pitch a reality series about madcap experiments and inventions. By late September, it became clear that no deals were happening.
With their finances collapsing, prosecutors say the Heenes set in motion the balloon hoax in early October as a way to jump-start the reality TV effort and get some attention.
Alderden did not immediately return a message for comment Wednesday.
"Quite honestly, I'm shocked that he would make such statements," Alderden told King. "The evidence against Mr. Heene and Mayumi at this point is really overwhelming. There's no doubt in my mind that this thing was a hoax."