L'Affaire Balloon Boy

(AP Photo/Will Powers)
Larimer County Sheriff Jim Alderden (left) was just trying to make the best of a bad situation this past Thursday afternoon when he was called to the chaotic home of Richard and Mayumi Heene in Fort Collins, Colorado.

Now, a few days and countless hours of television face time later, he's just as earnestly trying to save his face and cover his butt.

If the Front Range's ill-fated "balloon ride" were a screenplay, it would have been a remake of "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World." Little Falcon Heene was in the Jiffy Pop balloon as it soared over the eastern plains. Falcon was not in the Jiffy Pop balloon when it gently bumped down onto a newly-ploughed field.

Falcon had fallen to his death. Falcon was lost. Falcon was found! Falcon went on the morning shows and barfed. Falcon's parents were eccentric. No, they were weird. No, they were nuts!

All that was missing from the "show," as Falcon the Little Fink put it, was Milton Berle and Sid Caesar.

When Sheriff Alderden spoke to the media Friday — speaking like a kind uncle rather than a hard-bitten law man — he made it very clear that he and his detectives believed that the Heenes believed that their son was either in the balloon or otherwise missing Thursday afternoon during L'Affaire Balloon Boy.

Over and over again — in remarks that will be played by the defense, if there ever is a trial in this case — the sheriff said that the Heenes' verbal and non-verbal behavior was consistent with earnest despair. No hoax, he said, and he looked and sounded like he meant it.

One day (and a million Internet howls) later, the sheriff changed his tune. After speaking with the couple, and after executing a search warrant of their home, Alderden said Saturday night in a press conference that he would likely seek to charge the Heenes, or at least one of them, with the misdemeanor charge of "false reporting." That is a Class 3 misdemeanor in Colorado which carries a maximum fine of $750 and a six-month prison sentence (which no judge would ever endorse). The charge, the sheriff said wistfully Saturday, "hardly seems serious enough in the circumstances."

By Sunday morning, however, the sheriff's men had ginned up criminal charges that evidently are "serious enough."

So now the Heenes face the possibility of a low-level felony trial for conspiracy, contributing to the delinquency of a minor, unlawful influence of a public servant and false reporting.

"Clearly, we were manipulated by the family and the media was manipulated by the family," an edgier Sheriff Alderden said Sunday, at yet another press conference, just moments before he admitted to having himself manipulated the media over the weekend during his earlier press conferences. You follow?

No matter if you don't. One day soon we'll know what the Heenes said, or didn't say, to the sheriff on Saturday to make him change his mind. One day we'll know what the authorities found when they searched the home over the weekend. One day, those of you who still care will know the rest of the story about how this family apparently succeeded in thrusting itself into the limelight, literally and figuratively, to sell a reality-show deal. One day we'll know if the couple is still, today, conning the sheriff. [After all, what better way for the camera-hungry parents to ensure their continued exposure than to incriminate themselves in the hope of getting L'Affaire Balloon Boy to trial?]

In the meantime, whether or not the whole thing were a hoax, Alderden might want to send his officers back to detective school to do a better job of evaluating the accurate meaning of "verbal and non-verbal" clues and cues. Indeed, if the Heenes were acting out a hoax during Falcon's 300 minutes of glory, it seems about the only people fooled were the police in the house at the time. And the sheriff himself might want to get a refresher on his media-training, too. I'm pretty sure that cops aren't supposed to declare their prime suspects to be innocent before they are charged.

In any event, this headache of a story soon will be hammering at the head of the Larimer County District Attorney, another kind-looking grandfather who probably still has no clue about the extent of the circus that is about to envelop him. His name is Larry Abrahamson and, like everyone else in this sorry affair, his five minutes of fame will soon seem like they have lasted a lifetime to the rest of us.

Just ask Sheriff Alderden, the guy who changed before our very eyes, in the span of just a few days, from Sheriff Andy Taylor to Sheriff Buford T. Justice.

Andrew Cohen is CBS News' Chief Legal Analyst and Legal Editor. CourtWatch is his blog with analysis and commentary on breaking legal news and events. For columns on legal issues before the beginning of this blog, click here. You can also follow him on Twitter.