Exploring the Darkest Corridors of the Internet

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By Jed Lipinski

When an unsuspecting researcher followed a mysterious command on a 4chan board, he found himself drawn into a scavenger hunt that led him down the darkest corridors of the internet and stretched across the globe. But in a place where no one shows his face and no one plays by the rules, how do you tell where the game ends and reality begins?

It was 10 p.m. on a Friday night in January, and Jeff Kinkle was procrastinating.

The 32-year-old cultural studies PhD was alone in his Brooklyn studio, working on a paper about institutional secrecy and the national security apparatus. His workspace offered an unobstructed view of the glittering Manhattan skyline, but the young academic, who makes his living as a writer and translator, wasn’t feeling inspired. His desk shook every time the trains rattled across the Williamsburg Bridge. The bars downstairs hummed with nightlife.

Distracted, Kinkle was scanning /b/, the infamous image-sharing board on the website 4chan. There, a curious message snagged his attention.

Kinkle had read that the National Security Agency, a U.S. government organization that engages in defensive and offensive cyber operations, was actively using 4chan to scout for hackers. Amid the thread of obscene comments that pass for conversation on /b/, some commenters were suggesting that the strange message might be an NSA recruiting exercise. His curiosity piqued, Kinkle followed the conversation as it moved to a math and science message board.

The cyberspace that most of us know and use daily is a place for connecting with friends, paying bills, and sharing funny cat pictures. But Kinkle, like others who delve into the Internet and the cultures that take shape there, knows that the Web is an iceberg: the part that shows being the smallest, least menacing piece. What lies beneath is vaster, darker, and harder to understand—a shadowy world where data and hackers and criminals hide. Some call it the “deep Web,” and Kinkle was about to tumble down a virtual rabbit hole straight into it.

Kinkle stared at the message, trying to suss out its meaning. When one commenter suggested opening the image in the simple-text editor WordPad, he couldn’t help himself. At the bottom of the text, he found the following message: TIBERIVS CLAVDIVS CAESAR says “lxxt>33m2mqkyv2gsq3q=w]O2ntk.”

And that was a code he thought he could crack.

"The id of the Web"

At first glance, 4chan looks like nothing more than a frenetic, image-based bulletin board. There is no search function and no tagging of posts. But the site’s simplicity is deceiving. Trafficked mostly by 18- to 24-year-old men, 4chan attracts more than 22 million page views per month and more than 1 million unique visitors every day—almost as much as The New York Times website. But the numbers don’t accurately reflect 4chan’s importance; what happens on the site often reverberates across the Internet.

4chan was founded in 2003 by a 15-year-old named Christopher Poole, a New Yorker known online by the handle “moot.” Poole modeled the site on a fast-paced Japanese Web forum centered on anime and porn called 2chan. “The URL for 3chan was taken at the time,” Poole told The New York Times in 2010, “so I just jumped to the next number.”

Today, 4chan’s 58 boards cover a whimsical array of topics, from the practical (do-it-yourself) to the creative (photography, music) to the shocking and pornographic (“sexy beautiful women”). Accordingly, subject threads range from the mundane to the disturbing—everything from bike-shorts recommendations to found footage of people getting hit by cars or gruesome photos of body parts found in the wreckage of the September 11 attacks. The site functions like the Wild West of cyberspace. 4chan also has no formal archive, meaning that most of its million-plus posts per day are ephemeral—they either expire or get deleted within a matter of hours. This fast-flowing river of posts is enhanced by the users’ anonymity. Because the site does not require registration, 4chan especially appeals to those who reject the increasing proof-of-identity demands and personal information requests on social networking sites such as Facebook and Google+.

The /b/ board—sometimes called the “id of the Web”—takes particular advantage of this anonymity. On /b/, offensive remarks are encouraged, both to repel outsiders and to maintain the board’s underground appeal. Longtime users, for instance, are referred to as “oldfags”; newcomers as “newfags”; and British people in general as “Britfags.” The board's Fight Club-­style rules emphasize the insular yet anonymous culture they seek to preserve: "1. You do not talk about /b/. 2. You DO NOT talk about /b/. 3. We are Anonymous. 34. If it exists, there is porn about it. No exceptions."

The site’s anything-goes mentality often leads users to overstep the bounds of propriety—and sometimes legality. In September 2008, a college student named David Kernell, the son of a Democratic state representative from Tennessee, obtained access to Sarah Palin’s personal Yahoo! account. He posted the password on the /b/ board, along with a number of screenshots of the then-governor’s email messages, which quickly went viral. (The FBI managed to track down Kernell’s IP address and IP cache records from a proxy site, and he was convicted on charges soon after.)

But 4chan also fosters a strange and uninhibited kind of creativity. While the posts are fleeting, users tend to re-post the images they find the most affecting—whether they’re funny, political, or unsettling. And that can spiral into zeitgeisty memes and all sorts of Internet phenomena. LOLcats, the ubiquitous meme featuring pictures of cats with kitten-speak captions, such as “U Seez What I’z Put Up With,” originated on 4chan. So did Rickrolling, a bait-and-switch meme in which a user clicks a hyperlink only to be redirected to a YouTube video of pop star Rick Astley singing his 1987 hit “Never Gonna Give You Up.” (The video has received more than 65 million hits to date.) More significantly, 4chan helped spawn Anonymous, the amorphous global network of hacktivists, trolls, and Web savants that has waged attacks on major corporate and government websites since sometime around 2004, pursuing an unusual breed of cyber vigilantism.

Still, as Kinkle well knew, so much of the material in the 4chan stream is either inane or meant as a prank that he questioned how to handle the message. As he monitored the 40 or so commenters discussing the image, he realized that many of them were taking it seriously. He decided to play along. “The idea that this was a recruitment exercise was definitely seductive,” he recalled. “I mean, I don’t have any esoteric knowledge the NSA would actually want. But the thought of engaging with people who are on the cutting edge of this stuff—that was exciting.”

Following the Breadcrumbs

Kinkle recognized the garbled text—TIBERIVS CLAVDIVS CAESAR says “lxxt>33m2mqkyv2gsq3q=w]O2ntk”—as a Caesar cipher, a simple encryption technique in which each letter is replaced by another letter a fixed number of places away in the alphabet. Since Tiberius Claudius was the fourth Roman Emperor, Kinkle tried shifting the text back four letters. It worked: The text revealed a URL. But when Kinkle pointed his browser to the site, the page showed an image of a plastic duck and the words: “WOOPS just decoys this way. Looks like you can’t guess how to get the message out.”

The phrasing struck Kinkle and the other commenters as odd. Before long, someone realized that the words guess and out might have something to do with the decryption software OutGuess. Running the image through OutGuess, it turned out, extracted a link to a subreddit—one of the many boards within the social news website reddit. When Kinkle clicked the link, suddenly the page bore a new mystery: a row of Mayan numerals, several lines of garbled letters, and two images labeled welcome and problems?

It was then that someone posted a link to an anonymous room on the chat website Mibbit.com, where users adopted screen names and the conversation continued without the threat of 4chan’s disappearing archive. “That’s when I started to feel a bit creepy,” Kinkle recalls. Here he was, at 11 on a Friday night, obsessing over a riddle inside a chat room with dozens of strangers. Before this night, Kinkle had interacted with a total of three people on 4chan, a site he characterized as a “flow of smut and jokes and weird stuff that vanishes.” He saw the site as a playground for trolls, the kind of people who post deliberately distracting or provocative messages in the hope of starting an argument. “But most trolls don’t put nearly this amount of energy into what they’re doing,” Kinkle says.

He decided to walk back to his apartment. When he arrived, his roommates were heading out to a bar and invited him along, but Kinkle mumbled an excuse and retreated to his bedroom instead. There, he got to work unraveling a series of cyber clues involving book codes, King Arthur, and the quest for the Holy Grail. Scribbling madly on index cards, he finally uncovered a message: “call us on us tele phone number two one four three….”

“I’m getting a phone number!” he blurted into the chat room. The more advanced commenters doubted it; the less advanced insulted him. Kinkle believed he was onto something, but no one believed him. Then he received a private message—“You’re way ahead of the others”—and an invitation to a smaller, private chat room within the same network. Once inside, he dialed the number using Google Voice. A recording welcomed him: “Very good. You have done well. There are three prime numbers associated with the original final .jpg image. 3301 is one of them. You will have to find the other two. Multiply all three of these numbers together and add a .com on the end to find the next step. Good luck. Good-bye.”

The pixel dimensions of the first image, Kinkle realized, were 509 and 503, both primes. He multiplied the numbers and got a URL. An image of a cicada appeared onscreen, above a countdown set to expire in three days. Opening the cicada in OutGuess unveiled yet another message: “You have done well to come this far. Patience is a virtue. Check back at 17:00 on Monday, 9 January 2012. UTC.”

Kinkle slumped in his chair. It was 2 a.m. He had reached the next level of the game—but what had begun as an online lark was about to breach the walls of the Web and enter real life.

Getting to Know Anonymous

The subversive digital network known as Anonymous found its footing in virtual mischief, but the way the group has wielded influence and power in real life (IRL, in Internet-speak) has made agencies like the NSA pay close attention.

Anons, as members call themselves, emerged from the juvenilia and nihilism of 4chan’s /b/ board around 2004. Over time, the group has become known less for Rickrolling and pranking radio DJs than for real-life attacks against institutions that try to suppress information online. In the winter of 2008, when the Church of Scientology tried to make the gossip site Gawker remove a leaked video of Tom Cruise delivering a diatribe, Anonymous got its first taste of mainstream attention. Vowing to “destroy” Scientology, thousands of Anonymous supporters protested outside Scientology centers and churches around the world, wearing Guy Fawkes masks and holding signs like “don’t worry, we’re from the internet.” The group continued its war online, releasing viral videos decrying Scientology practices and crashing Scientology websites.

The following year, in keeping with the collective’s love of cats, Anonymous supporters hunted down the creator of a YouTube video in which a domestic cat named Dusty is shown being slammed against a wall. Based on the creator’s other YouTube videos, posted under glennspam1, members of 4chan’s /b/ board were able to locate and identify him as Kenny Glenn, a 14-year-old from Lawton, Okla. Shortly after the teen was outed, local police stepped in. Meanwhile, hundreds of cat photos flooded 4chan, with captions like “ill see you in jail kenny glenn.”

In the years since, Anonymous has grown more political. In December 2010, core Anons recruited thousands of volunteers to orchestrate what’s called a distributed denial of service—flooding a website with traffic until it crashes or slows considerably. The group targeted the sites of MasterCard, Visa, and PayPal, all of which had effectively prohibited financial contributions to WikiLeaks. Anonymous (and in some cases, its splinter groups) also made trouble for Interpol, the CIA, German neo-Nazi groups, child-pornography servers, the Tunisian government, News Corporation, and others. It even bugged a conference call between the FBI and Scotland Yard about a global cyber crime investigation. The 16-minute call was later posted on YouTube under the headline hacked for the lulz—“lulz” being Web slang for laughs. The nihilism of 4chan, after all, is part of its DNA.

Considering its contradictory impulses, observers of Anonymous have struggled to define the group as either political or criminal in nature. Parmy Olson, Forbes’s London bureau chief and author of the book We Are Anonymous, says the group’s supporters are “unpredictable.” “They could be trying to take down the website of a repressive African government one minute and harassing someone on Facebook for fun the next,” she says. And while some self-identify as hacktivists, using the resources and reputation of Anonymous for social-political causes, others remain true to the anarchic culture of /b/. “What matters more,” Olson says, “is that Anonymous has provided a process for anyone to pool together to cause some sort of stir online. The more creative the better.” That sort of 4chan-inspired mentality is responsible for attacks on Mexican drug lords and British government websites, but it’s also the same incubator—or at least, the same type of thinking—that inspired the cicada mystery in which Kinkle found himself steeped.

Locating the Cicada

At 4:59 p.m. on Monday, Kinkle and his Venezuelan office mate were staring at the countdown on his laptop. When the clock hit zero, the website reloaded. Fourteen GPS coordinates popped up, their locations fanned across the globe: Warsaw, Seoul, Paris, Sydney, Hawaii, Miami, New Orleans, Seattle. Until then, none of the still-anonymous participants had provided any personal information. But suddenly, as they traced the coordinates to specific addresses, these same participants began volunteering their whereabouts. “Like, ‘I’m in Oakland,’ ‘I’m in Sweden,’ ‘I’m in South Korea,’?” Kinkle said.

The problem? None of the commenters were near any of the coordinates. “Everyone was deflated,” Kinkle said. He was convinced this was a decoy, but others in the chat room turned paranoid. What if someone had planted a bomb at the coordinates? What if a kidnapper was lying in wait?

Over the next week, people paid visits to the addresses in Paris, Warsaw, Miami, and Sydney. They posted pictures inside the chat room of what they’d found: sheets of white paper taped to streetlights, each featuring a QR code and a red-stenciled image of a cicada. The codes linked to unique URLs, which, when opened with OutGuess, revealed two new messages.

Kinkle couldn’t figure out what they referred to, but someone else did: a 300-line poem by the science fiction writer William Gibson called “Agrippa (A Book of the Dead).” By using the poem to decode the content of the messages, commenters extracted a Tor address. Tor, short for the Onion Router, is an obscure routing network that hides a user’s IP address by redirecting Internet traffic through proxies. In effect, Tor enables users to anonymously explore the Internet—including its darkest regions—without the risk of being traced. It’s in these secret spaces, buried deep in the deep Web, where the remaining clues lay in wait.

Diving Into the Deep Web

Sometimes called the “invisible web” or “dark net,” the deep Web represents the portion of the Internet that cannot be indexed by standard search engines such as Google, Yahoo!, or Bing. Search engines work through a process known as “spidering” or “crawling.” Crawlers roam across the Web collecting pages and keywords, following the hyperlinks on each page to amass more and more data. The results are filed into indexes of keywords; when you type a search query in Google, the search engine returns results from the appropriate index. The surface Web, or the part of the Internet that most people use on a daily basis, consists of Web pages that are linked to this giant mass. But since the majority of content on the Web isn’t linked to anything, it remains hidden from the crawlers. Researchers say it’s impossible to measure the size of the un-indexed Internet, though it’s estimated to be between 4,000 and 5,000 times larger than the surface Web.

“People don’t have an accurate way of measuring the deep Web, because it’s hard to define what it is,” says Juliana Freire, a computer science professor at New York University who studies the topic. To that end, much of the unindexed material is banal: peer-to-peer file-sharing services, scientific and governmental databases. But deep Web mythology—born out of 4chan, reddit, and other online forums—abounds with rumors of human-trafficking rings, weapon depots, and terrorist networks that dwell in its belly like unclassified sea creatures, squatting on abandoned websites, then leaving without a trace.

Yet there’s enough truth out there to feed worries. Take the Russian Business Network—an elusive cyber-crime conduit originally based in St. Petersburg that began as a service provider for websites devoted to identity theft, child pornography, and spamming. Thought to have been created in 2006 or earlier by a 24-year-old known only as Flyman, the network was linked to a stunning 50 percent of all credit-card phishing schemes. But the shadowy provider has since vanished from view.

In recent months, Silk Road, a black market website that uses Tor to enable users to anonymously sell illegal drugs including heroin, cocaine, and Ecstasy, has come to the attention of the Drug Enforcement Administration. The website, which employs a digital currency called Bitcoins to further disguise the identities of buyers and sellers, has enabled about $22 million in sales, according to a Carnegie Mellon report. A handful of recent discussions have tried to suggest that some users—including the site’s administrator, who goes by the handle “Dread Pirate Roberts”—are becoming increasingly less visible in the wake of media scrutiny. However, as Gawker has noted, someone is clearly still investing; in July 2012, the Silk Road site underwent a major redesign.

In the realm between academic accounts and crime-facilitating organizations lie those who use Tor for work. Journalists, for example, employ Tor to communicate with dissidents, whistle-blowers, and environmental activists concerned about government surveillance. One tech blogger, writing about the cicada mystery after the fact, suggested that a tech company or intelligence agency might have been using Tor for similar means.

Unsolved Mystery

After downloading TOR software, Kinkle visited the appointed address, which instructed him to create an anonymous Hotmail account. Minutes later, he received what the sender claimed was a personalized message. It contained a riddle Kinkle had to solve on his own.

“It required all this complicated decryption software,” he says. “I just couldn’t figure it out.” He emailed his programmer friends and anyone he thought might provide a lead, but they too came up empty. And so 10 days after his quest began, it was over.

“I never heard anything again,” Kinkle admits. He adds that he was extremely curious to know who was behind the game and why it was created. “If I thought it was just a complex puzzle with a clever answer, I don’t think I’d have been as captivated as I was.”

Weeks after he abandoned the quest, the mystery was still nagging at him. While idly Googling “cicada” and “3301” one day, he discovered a Wiki page about the puzzle that revealed a new development. Another mysterious message had appeared on 4chan in February. It read: “We have now found the individuals we sought. Thus our month-long journey ends.”

But the day after that message was posted on 4chan, yet another strange note cropped up on a temporary text-storage site called Pastebin. It seemed to be a letter of congratulations to the winners of the puzzle, acquired and re-posted by a member of Anonymous. “DO NOT SHARE THIS INFORMATION!” the re-posted letter began. It continued: “You are undoubtedly wondering what it is that we do we are much like a * think tank * in that our primary focus is on researching and developing techniques to aid the ideas we advocate liberty privacy security.” The letter offered the winners membership in the group, as long as they answered a few questions, including “Do you believe that information should be free?”

It’s a frustrating, enigmatic ending to a saga that, throughout, showed signs of careful craftsmanship and ingenious orchestration. It was a hunt that swept a room full of curious minds from an idle board on 4chan down the Internet’s most anonymous corridors, then spit them out into the real world. But today, Kinkle feels like he’s back where he started. He knows no more about “cicada 3301” than he did on that January night.

“It’s actually pretty crazy that there’s so little about that final message online,” he says. “A decent amount has been written about the hunt itself, so it’s odd that there’s barely anything about its conclusion.”

In 10 days, Kinkle traveled across more of the Web than most people will in a lifetime. The journey stoked his curiosity. Today, he spends his days poring over the underbelly of the Internet. He keeps a Tor browser on his phone, and he stays vigilant, occasionally dipping into 4chan’s boards, holding out hope that somewhere, flowing in this massive river of smut and depravity and cat jokes, he just might catch a glimpse of the answer.

This story originally appeared in mental_floss magazine. Now go download our new iPad app! Or get a free issue of mental_floss magazine via mail.

7 Myths About Mummies

Metropolitan Museum of Art, Wikimedia Commons // CC0 1.0
Metropolitan Museum of Art, Wikimedia Commons // CC0 1.0

Thanks to modern technology like CT scanning, we know more about the intimate lives of mummies than ever before. Yet weird myths and centuries-old rumors continue to dog these poor desiccated remains. As we edge closer to Halloween, let's take a look at a few myths about mummies.

1. Mummies can cure diseases.

Until the late 18th century (and occasionally beyond), it wasn’t uncommon for medicines to be sourced from human body parts, as unhygienic as that may have been. Mummies—often labeled mumia, from a Persian word referring to the waxes and resins used in embalming—were sold as powders that could be made into plasters or dissolved in liquids to cure various ailments. Natural philosophers Robert Boyle and Francis Bacon advocated mummy powder as a treatment for bruises and for preventing bleeding. Now, of course, we have NSAIDs and Band-Aids for that.

2. Mummies fueled locomotives.

A number of American newspapers in the 19th century reported that Egypt’s nascent railway system used mummies as fuel for locomotives, allegedly due to the lack of other combustible resources. Mark Twain, who took a train from Cairo to Alexandria, wrote in his 1869 book The Innocents Abroad, “the fuel they use for the locomotive is composed of mummies 3000 years old, purchased by the ton or by the graveyard for that purpose, and that sometimes one hears the profane engineer call out pettishly, ‘D—n these plebeians, they don't burn worth a cent—pass out a king.’” Twain then qualified his claim: “Stated to me for a fact. I only tell it as I got it. I am willing to believe it. I can believe anything.”

In reality, the whole idea of burning mummies for railway fuel was unnecessary thanks to Egypt’s relations with Great Britain. “Just as the rails and locomotives for the railway were manufactured in Britain, and imported, the obvious source for the fuel was British coal, rather than Egyptian mummies,” scholar Chris Elliott writes in a 2017 paper published in Aegyptiaca: Journal of the History of Reception of Ancient Egypt.

3. Mummies make high-quality stationery.

European travelers to Egypt before the 19th century came back with tales of linen mummy wrappings being used to make fine-quality paper. Elliott suggests that these claims were satirical, meant to illustrate certain merchants’ greed or avarice. The myth of “mummy paper” refused to die, however. An 1876 book on the history of paper-making claimed that a Syracuse, New York, newspaper was printed on stock made from imported mummy rags. But the newspaper had actually said:

“Rags from Egypt. Our Daily is now printed on paper made from rags imported directly from the land of the Pharaohs, on the banks of the Nile. They were imported by Mr. G. W. Ryan, the veteran paper manufacturer at Marcellus Falls, in this country, and he thinks them quite as good as the general run of English and French rags.”

Later reports also stated that mills in the Northeast U.S. were producing mummy paper, but all of the sources were anecdotal, and no hard evidence of the practice exists.

4. Mummies curse people who disturb them.

A few 19-century novelists, including Louisa May Alcott, wrote tales about mummies taking revenge on those who desecrated their eternal repose. But mummy curses really took off after archaeologist Howard Carter opened King Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922. Almost immediately, Carter’s colleagues began experiencing weird omens and mysterious demises. A cobra, which is depicted on Tut’s gold mask, supposedly ate a canary belonging to Carter's expedition. Lord Carnarvon, who funded the expedition, died from an infected mosquito bite he got at the site. Carter’s friend Bruce Ingham, a publisher, received a cursed mummy’s hand as a paperweight and then his house burned down.

At the same time, Carter died at the age of 64 in 1939, and Lord Carnarvon’s daughter Evelyn, who entered the tomb the day it was opened, died in 1980. Any mummy's curse in play was, at least, unevenly applied.

5. A mummy sank the Titanic.

Shortly after the Titanic sank, a rumor went around suggesting that a mummy had caused the catastrophe. A group of British men allegedly took the coffin belonging to an Egyptian priestess and then died mysteriously or suffered horrible injuries. Somehow the coffin had made it to London and continued to wreak havoc until a brash American archaeologist bought it and arranged for it to be shipped to New York on the Titanic. The mummy's curse fell over the ocean liner, but the coffin itself was saved after the wreck and ended up the British Museum under mysterious circumstances.

The myth is easily proven false by the Titanic’s cargo list, which was completely mummy-free. According to Snopes, the cursed mummy story was invented by W.T. Stead, a well-known journalist, as a prank well before the ship sank. People connected the mummy myth to the Titanic only when Stead himself died in the sinking.

6. Mummies make great fertilizer.

Ancient Egyptians sacrificed, mummified, and entombed millions of animals—particularly cats—as offerings to various deities. In 1888, an Egyptian farmer discovered an ancient necropolis holding thousands of mummified cats, and about 180,000 of them were shipped to England. Some were auctioned off—one cat skull even wound up in the British Museum. The remainder were sold to a Liverpool guano merchant who ground up and sold them as fertilizer. While it’s true that some mummies were used as fertilizer, it doesn’t seem to have been a regular occurrence.

7. Eating mummies confers mystical powers.

Charles II of England, who ruled from 1660 to 1685, is said to have dabbed powdered mummy on his royal visage to absorb the powers of the Pharaohs. The king was also known to have mixed powdered human skulls—which may or may not have been from actual mummies—into a tincture called the “king’s drops,” which he drank to increase his health and stamina. Many Europeans believed mummies possessed ancient wisdom, and that consuming or absorbing them would convey their wisdom to the consumer. Scholars say the concept parallels the Catholic ritual of drinking communion wine.

Up in the Air: When 'Balloon Boy' Took Flight

John Moore, Getty Images
John Moore, Getty Images

It was like a Weekly World News cover come to life. On October 15, 2009, most of the major network and cable broadcasters interrupted their daytime programming to cover what appeared to be a silver flying saucer streaking through the air. Out of context, it was as though the world was getting its first sight of a genuine UFO.

Reading the scroll at the bottom, or listening to the somewhat frantic newscasters, provided an explanation: It was not alien craft but a homemade balloon that had inadvertently taken off from the backyard of a family home in Fort Collins, Colorado. That, of course, was not inherently newsworthy. What made this story must-see television was the fact that authorities believed a 6-year-old boy was somehow trapped inside.

As the helium-filled balloon careened through the air and toward Denver International Airport, millions of people watched and wondered if its passenger could survive the perilous trip. When the craft finally touched down after floating for some 60 miles, responders surrounded it, expecting the worst. The boy was nowhere to be seen. Had he already fallen out?

The brief saga that became known as the Balloon Boy incident was one of the biggest indictments of the burgeoning worlds of reality television and breathless 24/7 news coverage. It seemed to check off every box that observers associated with societal decline. There was the morbidity of a child speeding through the air without control; the unwavering gaze of news networks who cut away from reports on world affairs and even ignored their commercial breaks to obtain footage of an aircraft that measure around 20 feet wide and 5 feet high and resembled a bag of Jiffy Pop.

 

The boy in question was Falcon Heene, one of Richard and Mayumi Heene's three children. The couple had met in California and bonded over their mutual desire to get into the entertainment business. Richard dreamed of becoming a comedian; Mayumi played guitar. The couple married in 1997 and eventually relocated to Colorado; they got their first taste of Hollywood in 2008, when they made their first of two appearances on the reality series Wife Swap.

But Richard Heene wanted more. The avid tinkerer envisioned a show that followed his family around, while at the same time working on his new inventions—one of which was sitting in his backyard. It was essentially a Mylar balloon staked to the ground, which he would later describe as a very early prototype for a low-altitude commuter vehicle.

 sheriff's deputies seach a field for Falcon Heene before learning he had been found October 15, 2009 southeast of Ft. Collins, Colorado
Sheriff's deputies search a Colorado field for Falcon Heene before learning he had been found safe at home.
John Moore, Getty Images

It was this balloon, Bradford Heene told police in 2009, that his brother Falcon had climbed into just before it had taken flight. Earlier, Richard said, Falcon had been playing near the contraption and was scolded for potentially creating a dangerous situation. Now, Falcon was gone, the balloon was in the air, and Falcon's parents feared the worst. Mayumi called the authorities.

“My other son said that Falcon was at the bottom of the flying saucer,” Mayumi told the 911 dispatcher. “I can’t find him anywhere!”

As news cameras watched and the National Guard and U.S. Forest Service followed, the balloon reached an altitude of 7000 feet. Police made a painstaking search of the Heene household, looking for any sign of Falcon. After three passes, they determined it was possible he was inside the balloon.

Approximately one hour later, the balloon seemed to deflate. Authorities cleared the air space near Denver International Airport and greeted the craft as it landed, tethering it to the ground so no air current could hoist it back up and out of reach.

No one was inside the small cabin under the balloon, which left three possibilities: Falcon was hiding somewhere, he had run away ... or he had fallen out.

 

Not long after the craft had landed, a police officer at the Heene house decided to investigate an attic space above the garage. It had gone ignored because it didn’t seem possible Falcon could have reached the entrance on his own.

Yet there he was, hiding.

Elated, authorities explained to the media that they thought Falcon had untethered the balloon by accident and then hid because he knew his father would be upset with him.

Jim Alderden, the sheriff of Colorado's Larimer County, assured reporters that the Heenes had not done anything suspect. They demonstrated all the concern for their missing child that one would expect. Alderden stuck to that even after the Heenes were interviewed on CNN and Falcon appeared to slip up. When asked by Wolf Blitzer if he had heard his parents calling for him, the boy admitted that he had but was ignoring them “for a show.”

Though the Heenes seemed to scramble to cover up for their son's gaffe, Blitzer didn’t appear to register the comment at first. He came back around to it, though, insisting on clarification. Richard would later state that Falcon was referring to the news cameras who wanted to see where he had been hiding. That was the "show" he meant.

Alderden reiterated that he didn’t think the boy could remain still and quiet for five hours in an attic if he had been instructed to. But he admitted the CNN interview raised questions. After initially clearing the family of any wrongdoing, Alderden said he would sit down and speak to them again.

Within the week, Alderden was holding a press conference with an entirely different mood. He solemnly explained that the Heenes had perpetuated a hoax and speculated that they could be charged with up to three felonies, including conspiracy and contributing to the delinquency of a minor. Outlets had already tracked down an associate of Richard’s who detailed his reality series idea, with one episode devoted to the balloon.

 

Richard and Mayumi voluntarily turned themselves into authorities. They each pled guilty: Richard for attempting to influence a public servant and Mayumi for making a false report. In addition to paying $36,016 in restitution, Richard wound up with a 90-day jail sentence, 60 days of which was served on supervised work release. Mayumi got 20 days. Though they pled guilty, Richard maintained that he and his family had not perpetuated any kind of a hoax. In a 2010 video posted to YouTube, Richard said he only pled guilty because authorities were threatening to deport his wife.

Mayumi, meanwhile, reportedly told police it had all been an act (though critics of the prosecution argued that Mayumi's imperfect English made that confession open to interpretation). Mayumi later stated she had no firm understanding of the word "hoax."

Richard Heene and his wife, Mayumi Heene (R) are flanked by members of the media after they both plead guilty to charges related to the alleged hoax of the couple claiming that their son, Falcon Heene was last month onboard a helium balloon, at the Larime
Richard and Mayumi Heene surrounded by the media after they both plead guilty to charges related to the "Balloon Boy Hoax" on November 13, 2009.
Matt McClain, Getty Images

In addition to the fine and jail sentences, the judge also mandated that the family not seek to profit from the incident for a period of four years, which meant any potential for Richard to grab a reality show opportunity would be put on hold until long after the public had lost interest in the "Balloon Boy."

The Heenes moved to Florida in 2010, and soon after their three boys formed a heavy metal band—reputed to be the world’s youngest—dubbed the Heene Boyz. They’ve self-released several albums, and in 2014 even released a song called "Balloon Boy No Hoax."

Richard also peddles some of his inventions, including a wall-mounted back scratcher that allows users to alleviate itching by rubbing up against it. It’s called the Bear Scratch.

In October 2019, Robert Sanchez, a writer for 5280 magazine in Denver, profiled the Heenes and produced a smoking gun of sorts. Sanchez, who was allowed access to the Heene case file by Mayumi's defense attorney, discovered copies of Mayumi's notes about the events leading up to the flight. In one entry, she disclosed Richard had asked her about the possibility of letting the craft go off while Falcon remained in the basement, stirring up attention for the news networks. Later, when the saucer flew away, Richard was confused when Falcon wasn't downstairs. (He chose instead to hide in the attic.) That made the Heenes believe he might really be inside.

When confronted with the document, Mayumi told Sanchez she had made that story up in an attempt to "save" herself and her children, presumably from being separated in the ensuing legal struggle. In the Balloon Boy story, the saucer may have come crashing back to Earth, but the truth remains up in the air.

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