For the first time, 25-year-old researcher Robert Thomas reveals to Gawker how earlier this year he and Richard Heene drew up a master plan to generate a massive media controversy using a weather balloon. To get famous, of course.
Thomas spent several months earlier this year working on developing a reality science TV show to pitch to networks — the "show," Thomas says, that Falcon was referring to when he told CNN "We did it for the show." Among the ideas that Heene, Thomas and two others came up with for their reality TV proposal — and one that he says most intrigued Heene — involved a weather balloon modified to look like a UFO which they would launch in an attempt to drum up media interest in both the Heene family and the series he was desperate to get on the air. Still, Thomas never imagined that Heene would involve his six-year-old son in what he is certain was a "global media hoax" to further Richard Heene's own celebrity. Thomas' story of his time with Heene, based on an interview with Ryan Tate, follows below. It's a fascinating account and after he publicly offered to sell his story, we paid him for it.
I came to Fort Collins for school — Colorado State University. I was a Web entrepreneur, starting a few small companies that evolved into a larger scale project called Extropedia.org, an open source online encyclopedia for advancing humanity through technology and science.
Doing research for the project on Google and YouTube, I stumbled upon Richard Heene and his video series Psyience Detectives. I was surprised to find this potential collaborator in the small city of Fort Collins. Since a very young age, I've been fascinated with electromagnetics, applied physics and how technologies developed out of those concepts could that change the world. Richard was studying basically the same thing. He asserted, for example, that tornadoes and hurricanes are not a result of changes in pressure but of magnetic polarity changes within the Earth.
I sent him an email in March, talking about Extropedia, a web site I founed and hope to re-launch soon. (Click here to read some of Thomas' email exchanges with the Heene family). Things progressed. Soon I was dropping in unannounced, having dinner. I'd bring various patents from the 50s and 60s that showcased technologies far more advanced than what we use today, and we discussed why they weren't being used. That was when Richard first started telling me about his conspiracy theories — which would eventually reveal themselves to be both extreme and paranoid.
Hunger for Stardom
There was something else at work, though. Oddly enough, Richard's sampling of stardom from being on Wife Swap — twice — gave him a sense of seniority in our scientific conversations. They became less and less about what I had to contribute and more and more about what Richard wanted.
And he wanted nothing more than to get another reality TV series. Richard had an ongoing dialog with someone at ABC who helped produce Wife Swap. Richard was pitching something along the lines of "MythBusters-meets-mad scientist." There would be these esoteric abstract experiments attempting to prove or disprove various theories. My job was to help him prepare a formal proposal. For each of 52 weekly episodes, to explain specifically what the subject would be, and why. (See the full proposal here.)
As the days progressed I became basically a stenographer. Richard was very hyperactive, and I would type out his ideas as quickly as I could. It was five hours of us brainstorming, or really Richard pouring his ideas out, then an additional ten hours of me taking his thoughts, cleaning them up, and making them linear and easier to understand. I would hyperlink the various scientific theories he mentioned for the people at ABC. I was to be paid $15 per hour, per a verbal agreement. More crucially, if and when and the reality series and was picked up by ABC, I would be one of his lead research assistants on the show.
I was very receptive to the idea of filtering esoteric science for the general population. A show would allow us to take the TV network's money and use it to fund real experimentation, to buy equipment unavailable to me as a student and an entrepreneur. We could experiment with electromagetics, crystal formation and new types of materials.
Richard, on the other hand, was often driven by ego and fame. He was all about controversy, hoping to whip up something significant enough to eliminate our reality TV competitors. He wanted episodes that would shock people and maximize his exposure. And he'd been trying for months. On several occasions, he sat down and told me he'd do whatever it took to make it happen — to win. He eventually resorted to extreme measures.
The UFO Idea (And the End of the World As We Know It in 2012)
One night, when Richard and I were sitting and talking, he brought up Wife Swap, and specifically a confrontation he had with a woman on the show who claimed to be a psychic. They very much disliked one other. Richard said, "Well, think about it. We were the 100th episode of Wife Swap. And why are we the most recognized Wife Swap family and episode? It's because of the controversy. I don't care what people say about me as a person, but the fact of the matter is that they know who I am."
And then we delved into the area of UFOs. I was reading a book on witness reports of Roswell at the time, just out of curiousity — I've never concluded whether it really took place or was an elaborate hoax. And Richard said, "how much do you want to bet we could facilitate some sort of a media stunt that would be equally profound as Roswell, and we could do so with nothing more than a weather balloon and some controversy?" (See item 16 here.)
Can we attract UFO's with a homemade flying saucer? We will modify a weather balloon, so that it resembles a UFO and will electrically charge the skin of the craft (Biefield-Brown Effect). We will capture the footage on film, and will utilize the media as a means with which to make our presence known to the masses. This will not only provide us with incredible footage, but will also generate a tremendous amount of controversy among the public, as well as publicity within the mainstream media. This will be the most significant UFO-related news event to take place since the Roswell Crash of 1947, and the result will be a dramatic increase in local and national awareness about The Heene Family, our Reality Series, as well as the UFO Phenomenon in general.
I clearly remember Richard telling me that, if we accomplish this, it would be the most controversial and widespread UFO news story since Roswell in 1947. (See audio at top of post.)
But he was motivated by theories I thought were far-fetched. Like Reptilians — the idea there are alien beings that walk among us and are shape shifters, able to resemble human beings and running the upper echelon of our government. Somehow a secret government has covered all this up since the U.S. was established, and the only way to get the truth out there was to use the mainstream media to raise Richard to a status of celebrity, so he could communicate with the masses.
As the weeks progressed, his theories got more and more extreme and paranoid. A lot of it surrounded 2012, and the possibility of there being an apocalyptic moment. Richard likes to talk a lot about the possibility of the Sun erupting in a large-scale solar flare that wipes out the Earth. It got to the point where he was really pressing me, saying we're running out of time, we're running out of time, the end of the world is coming. And we have to take necessary precautions to make sure that we're not among the majority that's going to be killed.
It got to the point where I was just nodding my head and going along with what he said, because it was easier than trying to debate with him. (See audio at bottom of post.)
Falcon's Fishy Flight Incident
When my friends called me about the whole balloon episode I was working. I had just moved to a new place and didn't have my television set up. I probably would never even have heard about this, except that a good friend of mine remembered me telling him about Richard several months ago. He told me, "Rob, you need to turn on the tv immediately! That Richard guy you worked with just pulled a massive publicity stunt!"
Richard's story doesn't add up. He is saying he thought Falcon was in the balloon, and that Falcon ran and hid as a result of Richard yelling at him. I've spent a lot of time with them, and Falcon is, first of all, not afraid of his father. I've never once seen Richard's children afraid of him — and I've definitely never seen Falcon go hide. He was one of the most social of the three children.
Secondly, Falcon supposedly hid in that attic in the garage. I've spent a lot of time in his garage, which has a drill press and various welding tools. It's unorganized and chaotic. There's really not so much an attic as some support beams connected with plywood. Being an adult of average height, I couldn't get up into the attic if I'd wanted to, so I don't know how a six-year-old child could have gotten up there. There's not an easy way to access that overhang. Maybe if I'd lifted that child up into the attic, he might have been able to rest up there, but not comfortably.
My doubts and concerns about that story were verified when Falcon's parents asked him on CNN, "why didn't you come out?" And Falcon said, "you guys said we did this for the show." Lights went off in my head. Bells were ringing; whistles were whistling. I said, "Wow, Richard is using his children as pawns to facilitate a global media hoax that's going to give him enough publicity to temporarily attract A-list celebrity status and hopefully attract a network."
The Price of Desperation
Desperate times call for desperate measures, and I think in this case the desperation was too much for Richard to bear. Richard's construction business wasn't doing too well. It's hard to find people interested in spending money on the aesthetics of their home when they're worried about their mortgage.
A lot of the work I did with the Heene family related to passing out fliers, putting them on people's front doors. The fliers advertised a roofing business and a general handyman business. As the months progressed, Richard's paranoia increased exponentially and my paycheck decreased exponentially. The work I put in for the ABC proposal was never compensated. Richard implied he didn't have the money to pay me. But he would always reassure me, "It's all going to pay off in the end."
But, in "the end," Richard didn't think about the implications of his behavior. He certainly didn't consider the people that were praying for his child, and the hundreds, maybe thousands of people that were inconvenienced in pursuit of this balloon. The thousands of dollars of taxpayer money spent on things that weren't necessary.
Bluntly, I think Richard's ego blinds him to his brilliance. The only thing inhibiting him from progressing is a steadfast determination to become famous and live a Hollywood lifestyle. Someone needs to slap him in the face and say, "Wake up! This is not what's important." He has an amazing family that has already been subject to a tremendous amount of criticism. I especially feel bad for Falcon. He's going to be known as Balloon Boy the rest of his life. That's not something you want to tell a girl on the first date.
For me, it's been quite the experience. I don't regret any of it. I learned a lot from Richard. Not necessarily what I should do but rather what I should not do, in my career path and in my goals. It allowed me to question, "What do I find of value in the world?" And I was led to the conclusion that the only thing that matters to me is my friends and family and loved ones. Everything else is details. If the world were going to end tomorrow, like a lot of Richard's theories on 2012, who would you go to? Would you go to a bunch of investors for some company or a reality show? Or would you go to your family and friends?
Here are two audio clips from Ryan's interview with Thomas: