Balloon Boy Hoax Grabs Colossal Media Attention

Welcome to 2024, everyone. I want to start the new year on a lighter note, so instead of murder and mayhem, I’m bringing you the story of the Balloon Boy. In 2009, Richard Heene, a reality TV wannabe from Fort Collins, Colorado, launched a hoax that led the media to dub his son “Balloon Boy.”

Balloon Boy Takes Flight

On October 15, 2009, a silver, saucer-shaped object floated across the Fort Collins, Colorado, skies. Although one could easily have mistaken it for a UFO, it was, in fact, a homemade helium balloon. As the balloon drifted, Richard Heene made a frantic call to the Larimer County Sheriff to report that his six-year-old son, Falcon, was missing and believed to be on board the aircraft.

Richard Heene's contraption, built of plastic tarps and covered with aluminum foil, as it appeared during the "Balloon Boy" hoax (9NEWS)
Richard Heene’s contraption, built of plastic tarps and covered with aluminum foil, as it appeared during the “Balloon Boy” hoax (9NEWS)

The response was immediate. National Guard helicopters began tracking the balloon along its meandering flight path. Denver International Airport prepared to react if it intersected the busy travel hub’s airspace. Some flights were rerouted, but DIA did not pause operations. Press reaction was, as you might expect, immediate and intense. Before long, the media dubbed Falcon Heene “Balloon Boy.”

The craft cruised at an altitude of up to 7,000 feet, traveling approximately 60 miles over two hours. It finally returned to earth at 1:35 p.m. near Keenesburg, about 12 miles northeast of DIA. When Falcon was not in the basket, search and rescue teams fanned out across northeastern Colorado, fearing he may have fallen out during the flight.

Around 4:14 p.m., news outlets reported that the Heene family found Falcon hiding inside a cardboard box in the rafters above the garage. Public relief that the boy was safe was palpable.

Balloon Boy: Genuine Emergency or Hoax?

Relief soon turned to dismay and then to anger as several media outlets raised the possibility that the flight had been a hoax. An early clue emerged during an interview with Wolf Blitzer on CNN’s Larry King Live. When Blitzer asked Falcon why he didn’t come out of the garage, and his parents repeated the question, the boy said, “You guys said that, um, we did this for the show.”

The "Balloon Boy," six-year-old Falcon Heene with his father, Richard (David Zalubowski/AP)
The “Balloon Boy,” six-year-old Falcon Heene with his father, Richard (David Zalubowski/AP)

There was also suspicion that the balloon could not have taken off with Falcon aboard. Brian Jones, a physics professor at Colorado State University, made an initial finding that the balloon could have lifted the 37-pound child. However, he based his conclusions on the balloon’s dimensions and weight Heene provided, which were larger and lighter than the actual balloon proved to be. The balloon, as built, could not have taken off with Falcon as a passenger.

Also of note, in addition to notifying the Larimer County Sheriff’s Office, Heene called the Denver NBC affiliate, KUSA-TV, and requested they send up a helicopter to track the balloon.

Richard and Mayumi Heene await sentencing in court. Their attorney, David Lee, stands at left. (AP)
Richard and Mayumi Heene await sentencing in court. Their attorney, David Lee, stands at left. (AP)

On November 13, 2009, Richard Heene pleaded guilty to a felony charge of attempting to influence a public servant. On December 23, a judge sentenced him to 90 days in jail and 100 hours of community service. He was also ordered to write an apology to the agencies involved in the search and pay $36,000 in restitution. Mayumi Heene received a 20-day jail term for false reporting to authorities.

Epilogue

In January 2010, Richard Heene began claiming in interviews that the incident was not a hoax and that he only pled guilty to avoid his wife’s deportation (she was a Japanese citizen). However, most people remain unconvinced.

Colorado Governor Jared Polis pardoned the Heenes in December 2020, saying they had already “paid the price in the eyes of the public” and that it was time for Colorado to move on from the case.

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Michael Sergio: Daring But Forbidden World Series Entrance

I’m back this week from an unplanned hiatus. Since it’s Christmas, it seemed appropriate to feature a crime without murder, mayhem, and gore. So, this week, I present the case of Michael Sergio. In 1986, Sergio parachuted onto the field at New York’s Shea Stadium during Game Six of the World Series. While that might not seem like such a crime, Major League Baseball takes incursions onto the playing field very seriously, as Sergio found out.

Michael Sergio and Baseball in 1986

In 1986, New Yorker Michael Sergio was an actor working on the daytime soap opera “Loving,” appearing in commercials, and trying to start a singing career. At the time, he was also a professional skydiver with 2,300 jumps to his credit.

The New York Mets' Shea Stadium. Citi Field replaced Shea in 2009 (ballparktours.blogspot.com)
The New York Mets’ Shea Stadium. Citi Field replaced Shea in 2009 (ballparktours.blogspot.com)

Also in 1986, the New York Mets faced the Boston Red Sox in baseball’s annual World Series. The Sox had appeared in the fall classic several times but had last won in 1918 when Babe Ruth pitched the team to two wins over the Chicago Cubs. The following year, Red Sox owner Harry Frazee sold Ruth’s contract to the New York Yankees, initiating a championship drought that Bostonians ruefully called the “Curse of the Bambino.”

The Mets had last won the Series in 1969—the “Miracle Mets”—and were looking to notch another championship.

Michael Sergio “Drops In” on the World Series

The World Series opened in New York, with the Red Sox taking both games. It then moved to Boston, where the Mets won Games 3 and 4 while the Red Sox took Game 5. By Saturday, October 25, the Series returned to New York’s Shea Stadium (since demolished) for Game 6, and the Red Sox led three games to two.

Michael Sergio parachuting into Shea Stadium on October 25, 1986 (Richard Drew/AP)
Michael Sergio parachuting into Shea Stadium on October 25, 1986 (Richard Drew/AP)

Sergio recalled the genesis of his stunt in a 2016 interview with Newsday. “They had released a bunch of balloons up in Boston, and the Boston media went crazy,’’ he said. “It just clicked. I said to myself, ‘Yeah? Watch this.’”

Sergio made his jump in the top of the first inning. He remembers that a roar came up from the crowd below as he descended. He landed between the pitcher’s mound and the first base line, trailing a gold “Go Mets” banner. Security personnel immediately took him into custody and marched him to the Mets’ dugout. “[Pitcher] Ron Darling gave me a high five,” Sergio recalled.

A NYPD officer removes Michael Sergio after he landed on the field at Shea Stadium (Amy Sancetta/AP)
A NYPD officer removes Michael Sergio after he landed on the field at Shea Stadium (Amy Sancetta/AP)

Sergio ended up at the 111th Precinct station in Queens, where he signed autographs for police officers.

Legal Ramifications for Michael Sergio

Prosecutors in Queens, home of Shea Stadium, claimed that Sergio’s actions could have injured fans and players and interrupted air traffic from nearby LaGuardia Airport. They charged him with reckless endangerment and criminal trespassing. He spent a night in jail and was released on his own recognizance the next day.

Several Mets players arranged for a lawyer to take Sergio’s case pro bono. He pled guilty to criminal trespassing, and the prosecution dropped the reckless endangerment charge. He was fined $500 and ordered to do 500 hours of community service at the children’s section of the Central Park Zoo.

A judge later held Sergio in contempt of court for refusing to name the pilot or aircraft that flew him over Shea. He was sentenced to six months in federal prison but was released after Senator Al D’Amato intervened on his behalf.

Epilogue

The Mets won Game 6 and, two days later, came from behind to win Game 7 and the 1986 World Series.

When the Mets held a party in 2016 to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the World Series win, they did not invite Sergio.

Sergio maintained that neither he nor anyone on the ground was in danger. As an experienced skydiver, he never considered his act a stunt or himself a daredevil.

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Soapy Smith: Big Swindle Leads Man to Murder

Last week our case was in Kent, England, where we profiled Michael Stone and the horrific Russel murders. This week, we’re back in the states, traveling to the Old West. In the latter part of the nineteenth century, a con man made a name for himself in Denver and Alaska. History knows him as Soapy Smith.

Jefferson Randolph "Soapy" Smith
Jefferson Randolph “Soapy” Smith

Soapy Smith

Jefferson Randolph Smith was a native of Coweta County, Georgia, born in November 1860 on the eve of the American Civil War. His grandfather owned a plantation, and his father was a lawyer. But the war ruined the family financially, so they moved to Round Rock, Texas to start over. Smith’s mother died when he was 17 and he left home shortly thereafter. But while in Round Rock, he witnessed the death of infamous outlaw Sam Bass.

Outlaw Sam Bass
Outlaw Sam Bass

From Round Rock he traveled to Fort Worth where he soon established a close-knit gang of shills and con men. They specialized in “short cons” that needed little setup and assistance. Their method was to run the con for a brief time, then move on to avoid repercussions.

Soapy Smith Gets His Nickname

Smith is best known for what the Denver papers called the “prize soap racket.” Smith would set up a display case on a busy corner and pile it with bars of soap. While he warmed up the crowd that gathered, he would wrap money around the bar, then wrap the bar in plain paper. The money would range from $1 all the way up to $100.

Next, Smith would feign mixing the bars with money in with the other bars of soap. He then sold the soap for a dollar a bar (some sources say five dollars). At some point, a shill in the crowd would tear open his bar of soap and loudly proclaim he’d won. This, of course, led to the sale of more soap bars.

About halfway through the stack of soap bars, Smith would announce that the $100 bill remained in the stack. He then auctioned off the remaining bars to the highest bidders. But the only money “won” went to his shills.

Smith didn’t always get away with the racket. One time, a policeman named John Holland arrested him on a bunko charge. When he went to write Smith’s name in the police logbook, he forgot his first name and wrote “Soapy” instead. The sobriquet stuck and Jeff Smith became Soapy Smith.

Soapy Smith Hits Colorado

Smith arrived in Denver in 1879. By 1882, he had a grip on vice in that Colorado city. His influence at city hall grew until, by 1887, he was reputed to be involved in most of the city’s criminal activities. Soapy opened the Tivoli Club, a combination saloon and gambling house, in 1888. Smith’s younger brother, Bascomb, joined the gang and operated a cigar store. It was a front for the dishonest poker games that went on in the back room.

Soapy Smith's Tivoli Club (at left) at 17th and Market in Denver, Colorado ca. 1890
Soapy Smith’s Tivoli Club (at left) at 17th and Market in Denver, Colorado ca. 1890

Soapy operated in and around the Denver area for several years. In 1892, he moved his operation to the mining boomtown of Creede, Colorado. In Creede, he established the Orleans Club, another saloon and gambling house. At some point, he acquired a mummified body named “McGinty” that he exhibited as a “prehistoric” human. This was untrue. Twenty-first century tests showed the body had been embalmed using arsenic-based embalming fluid. But that didn’t stop Smith from charging people ten cents to look at the “prehistoric” relic. While they waited in line, the ultimate con man fleeced his customers with shell games and crooked card games.

Main Street, Creede, Colorado ca. 1892
Main Street, Creede, Colorado ca. 1892

Creede’s boom went bust quickly. Smith left town and returned to Denver, taking McGinty with him. His timing was excellent. A huge fire destroyed most of Creede’s business district, including the Orleans Club, on June 5, 1892.

The Klondike Gold Rush

Gold was discovered in the Klondike region of Yukon, Canada on August 16, 1896. When word reached Seattle and San Francisco the following year, it started the Klondike Gold Rush. This seemed like an excellent opportunity to the seasoned con man, so Soapy Smith went to Alaska.

Soapy Smith in his bar in Skagway, Alaska Territory
Soapy Smith in his bar in Skagway, Alaska Territory

Much like he had in Denver and Creede, Smith soon established an empire in Skagway, Alaska. His base of operations there was a saloon he called Jeff Smith’s Parlor he opened in March 1898. One of the tactics his gang used was to befriend newcomers and steer them to dishonest businesses or crooked gambling halls.

The Soap Gang hangs out in front of Jeff Smith's Parlor in Skagway on July 4, 1898. Four days later, Soapy Smith was dead (University of Washington Library)
The Soap Gang hangs out in front of Jeff Smith’s Parlor in Skagway on July 4, 1898. Four days later, Soapy Smith was dead (University of Washington Library)

But Skagway wasn’t as compliant as Denver or Creede had been. A vigilance committee called the “Committee of 101” threatened to expel Smith and his gang. In response, Smith created his own “law and order society” to counteract the vigilantes.

Soapy Smith Meets His End

On July 7, 1898, a miner named John Douglas Stewart returned to Skagway with a sack of gold worth $2,700. Gang members roped Stewart into a game of three-card monte. When Stewart refused to pay his losses, the gang members grabbed his sack of gold and ran.

The Committee of 101 got involved. They insisted Smith return the gold, but he refused, saying Stewart had lost it “fairly.”

Frank H. Reid shot Soapy Smith dead, but died himself 12 days after the gunbattle
Frank H. Reid shot Soapy Smith dead, but died himself 12 days after the gun battle

On the evening of July 8, the Committee of 101 organized a meeting on the Juneau Wharf. Smith, with a Winchester rifle slung over his shoulder, started arguing with a man named Frank H. Reid. Reid was one of the guards blocking Smith’s way to the wharf. Unexpectedly, a gunfight broke out. Soapy Smith fell dead, shot through the heart. Frank Reid suffered severe wounds as well.

Jefferson "Soapy" Smith's grave in Gold Rush Cemetery, Skagway, Alaska. The age on the marker is incorrect; Smith was 37 when he died (Wikipedia/Notyourbroom)
Jefferson “Soapy” Smith’s grave in Gold Rush Cemetery, Skagway, Alaska. The age on the marker is incorrect; Smith was 37 when he died (Wikipedia/Notyourbroom)

Epilogue

Most of Smith’s gang fled Skagway after his death. Frank Reid died twelve days after the shootout from a bullet in his leg and groin. He was buried in Skagway Cemetery. Jefferson “Soapy” Smith lies nearby in Gold Rush Cemetery.

There are several books about Soapy Smith. These include Alias Soapy Smith: The Life and Death of a Scoundrel, Soapy Smith: The Life and Legacy of the Wild West’s Most Infamous Con Artist, and King Con: The Story of Soapy Smith.

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The Captain of Köpenick Hits the Jackpot

From horrifying workplace violence, this week we look at a crime that is more amusing than serious. This is the case of Wilhelm Voigt, the shoemaker turned robber who gained fame as the Captain of Köpenick.

Meet Wilhelm Voigt

Friedrich Wilhelm Voigt was born in Tilsit, Prussia (now part of Russia) in 8149. We don’t know much about his early life. We do know that in 1863, at age 14, he served 14 days in prison for theft. Because of that, he was expelled from school. After his expulsion, he learned shoemaking from his father.

Wilhelm Voigt, the Captain of Köpenick, 1906 mugshot
Wilhelm Voigt, the Captain of Köpenick, 1906 mugshot (Public Domain)

Between 1864 and 1891, Voigt earned sentences totaling 25 years for thefts, forgery, and burglary. Released from prison in February 1906, he went to live with his sister in a Berlin suburb. He worked for a well-regarded shoemaker for a short time. But the police ordered him out of Berlin solely because of his criminal record. Officially he went to Hamburg, but he actually stayed as an unregistered resident in Berlin.

The Captain of Köpenick

Unable to resist a heist, Voigt planned his next escapade. He bought parts of used captain’s uniforms from several shops. Assembling the pieces into a complete uniform and put it on. On October 16, 1906, he commandeered four grenadiers and a sergeant and order them to follow him. Such was the respect for the Prussian military that the soldiers obeyed without question. Dismissing the sergeant, he commandeered six more soldiers at a shooting range. He and his impromptu squad then took a train to Köpenick, east of Berlin.

Statue of Wilhelm Voigt as the Captain of Köpenick at Köpenick city hall by Spartak Babajan
Statue of Wilhelm Voigt as the Captain of Köpenick at Köpenick city hall by Spartak Babajan (Public Domain)

At Köpenick, Voigt led the soldiers to the town hall. There he accused the mayor and treasurer of crooked bookkeeping and placed them under arrest. The mayor wondered why the captain was so old and wore his cap badge upside down, but he complied anyway. Voigt then confiscated 4,002 marks and 37 pfennigs (roughly $60,000 today) from the treasury, giving a receipt in return. Next, he commandeered two carriages and sent two grenadiers with the arrested men to Berlin for questioning. He told the remaining soldiers to stand guard for half an hour, then left for the train station. He changed into civilian clothes and disappeared.

Uniform worn by Wilhelm Voigt as the Captain of Köpenick
Uniform worn by Wilhelm Voigt as the Captain of Köpenick (Public Domain)

Voigt might have got away with it but a former cellmate who knew of the plan ratted him out. Police arrested him ten days after the heist on October 26. On December 1, he was sentenced to four years in prison for forgery, impersonating an officer, and wrongful imprisonment.

Epilogue

The Captain of Köpenick touched a chord with the German public. Rumor had it that even Kaiser Wilhelm II, who pardoned Voigt in 1908, found the incident amusing. And of course, English writers had a field day lampooning the German reverence for uniforms and military authority.

German postage stamp, 2006
German postage stamp, 2006

Wilhelm Voigt moved to Luxembourg in 1910 where he worked as a cobbler and a waiter. A rich Berlin dowager set him up with a pension and he lived well for a while. However, he went broke in the recession that followed World War I. He died in Luxembourg in 1922.

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