By P. SOLOMON BANDA and IVAN MORENO
FORT COLLINS, Colo. -- Richard Heene and his family have never been afraid of the spotlight as they made a name for themselves chasing down storms, starring in a reality TV show and experimenting with a series of unusual inventions including hovercraft, a weather-gathering flying saucer and a rocket launcher.
They found themselves at the center of yet another strange saga Thursday when 6-year-old Falcon Heene vanished around the time that a homemade helium balloon floated away from their home, setting off a national panic as authorities scoured the plains of northern Colorado for the youngster. As it turns out, he was hiding in the rafters of the family's garage the whole time.
The disappearance and sudden discovery of the boy have raised questions about whether it was all an elaborate attention-getting stunt orchestrated by the Heenes or simply a bizarre case of a child who ran away and hid after getting spooked by a scolding from his father.
Larimer County Sheriff Jim Alderden said authorities do not believe at this point if it was a hoax but he would meet with investigators Friday to decide whether to look into the matter further. Asked during an impromptu news conference outside his house whether the incident was a stunt, Richard Heene said: "That's horrible. After the crap we just went through. No. No, no, no."
It was five hours from the time the oldest boy reported that Falcon, the youngest, had climbed into a saucer-shaped balloon that had drifted off, setting off a search that included military helicopters and a plan to either lower a person to the craft of place weights on the balloon to bring it down. Officials rerouted planes around the balloon's flight path and briefly shut down Denver International Airport.
Heene said the family was tinkering with the balloon Thursday and that he scolded Falcon for getting inside a compartment on the craft. It was designed to hover about 50 to 100 feet from the ground but it broke loose from its tether.
Falcon's brother said he had seen him inside the compartment before it took off and that's why they thought he was in there when it launched. But the boy had gone to the garage rafters at some point and was never in the balloon during its two-hour, 50-mile journey through two counties.
"I was in the attic and he scared me because he yelled at me," Falcon said. "That's why I went in the attic."
The Heenes aren't the types to shy from attention, with boys featured in a rap music video on YouTube and the whole family appearing on the ABC show "Wife Swap."
The show promoted the Heene family as storm chasers who also "devote their time to scientific experiments that include looking for extraterrestrials and building a research-gathering flying saucer to send into the eye of the storm."
During a live interview with CNN, Falcon said he had heard his family calling his name.
"You did?" the boy's mother, Mayumi Heene, said.
"Why didn't you come out?" Richard Heene said.
Falcon answered, "You had said that we did this for a show."
Later, Richard Heene bristled when the family was asked to clarify and said he didn't know what his son meant. He didn't ask his son what he meant by "a show."
"I'm kind of appalled after all the feelings that I went through, up and down, that you guys are trying to suggest something else," Richard Heene said.
After the CNN interview, Richard Heene told KUSA-TV in Denver that he thought his son was referring to earlier in the day when he showed reporters his hiding spot. He didn't return a message from The Associated Press.
Neighbor Bob Licko, 65, Licko said that while the balloon floated over Colorado Thursday, Mayumi Heene seemed distraught.
Richard Heene said he called the Federal Aviation Administration first before calling 911.
The saucer-like craft tipped precariously at times before gliding to the ground in a field.
With the child nowhere in sight, investigators searched the balloon's path. Several people reported seeing something fall from the craft while it was in the air, and yellow crime-scene tape was placed around the home.
Then, came news that Falcon had been hiding in a box in rafters in the garage.
A short time after sheriff's officials and reporters left the house Thursday evening, the three boys had wrapped themselves in the yellow police tape that had surrounded the house.
"They were just very adventurous kids," said Josh Dengler, 32, another neighbor. "I don't think it was a hoax. I don't think they were hiding him, I think he was just a genuinely scared 6-year-old hiding."
Associated Press writers Judith Kohler, Dan Elliott, Sandy Shore and Colleen Slevin in Denver contributed to this report. Banda reported from Colorado's eastern plains.