How Conman Jerry Balisok Pulled the Ultimate Disappearing Act

Graveaddiction via Find A Grave 
Graveaddiction via Find A Grave 

In early 1979, Marjorie Balisok had her hands full. For several months, she’d been handling the legal aftermath of her adult son Jerry’s sudden disappearance from Alabama. He was facing 13 counts of forgery for writing bad checks in connection with his motorcycle business, and in addition to juggling Jerry’s leftover red tape, Marjorie was also dealing with the police and the FBI as they searched for her 23-year-old son.

But in January of ’79, Marjorie saw a photo in LIFE magazine that shocked her. In the image, which depicted hundreds of the deceased victims of the Jonestown Massacre in Guyana from the previous November, she spotted Jerry and his wife, Debbie, along with Debbie’s 5-year-old son.

Marjorie contacted the U.S. State Department’s Jonestown Task Force and told them she wanted to claim the body of her son. But the State Department informed her that none of the bodies examined were “anywhere close” to being that of Jerry Balisok, nor were any those of his wife and stepson. Dental X-rays had been taken of all the deceased, and there were zero matches with Jerry’s dental records. This was before DNA testing was available, and the government was extremely reluctant to release a body to anyone unless its identity had been 100 percent confirmed. They couldn’t just take a grieving mother’s word, especially when it was based off of a grainy photo in a magazine.

Marjorie tried sending the task force an X-ray of Jerry’s pelvis, showing a steel pin that was inserted after a motorcycle accident, and demanded that they examine all of the unclaimed bodies to find out if anyone had a pin in their hip. Task force officials informed her that with the very rapid damage the corpses had already suffered from lying for days in the hot Guyanese sun, and the months that had elapsed since the incident, the bodies were way too decomposed to allow that kind of manhandling. Again, she was denied.

But Marjorie became obsessed with the photograph in LIFE. She told the press, “[t]here is no doubt in my mind about that figure being the body of my son. He is lying with his dark brownish-auburn curly head pointing toward the bottom of the picture and the page.” However, a member of the Jonestown Task Force, Reid Clark, said that they enlarged the photograph in question 40 times, and told the press: “I defy anyone to say that’s him ... You’d think she’d be thanking us instead of damning us.”

Google News/Spartanburg Herald

 
Marjorie also revealed another source of frustration to the Associated Press: “I have tried in every way to have my son’s body returned to me for burial,” she told a reporter. “I have insurance policies of all kinds that I cannot cash in until I have a death certificate or certificate of presumed death.”

Naturally, the FBI was also investigating the Jonestown lead, but they ultimately determined that there was no evidence Jerry Balisok had even left the United States. It was known that Jerry and his wife had been on the lam in the Caribbean about a year before the massacre—which his mother learned when she was sent a bill for about $10,000 her son had charged on her American Express card from the Bahamas—and prior to that there had been a flurry of charges in Miami. Investigators seemed to think that was a better place to look for Balisok than anywhere overseas.

In May 1979, 248 unclaimed bodies from Jonestown were sent to Oakland, California, for burial. According to an acquaintance of hers, Marjorie Balisok was waiting for the plane when the coffins were unloaded, ready to intercept and locate her son’s, but she was evidently unsuccessful. The bodies went into the ground, with Marjorie convinced that Jerry and his wife Debbie were definitely among the 20 adults who were buried in the mass grave.

With no options left other than to get the very last word, Marjorie had a tombstone made for her son and installed above an empty grave in the family plot at Maple Hill Cemetery in Huntsville, Alabama. The inscription reads, in part, “DAMN THE STATE DEPT.” along the bottom.

Marjorie herself died in 1983, maintaining to the end of her days that her son was a victim of the Peoples Temple cult. Her own tombstone, which she shares with her husband Coleman, can be found next to that of her youngest son. The FBI placed surveillance on Marjorie’s funeral, camping out on the chance that Jerry would turn up, but no dice.

A few years later, with still no sign of Jerry Balisok, the authorities were at last satisfied that he was dead, and dropped all charges against him.

The view from Tiger Mountain. Image credit: Joel via Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

 
That's where the story stayed until 1989, when a 34-year-old man named Ricky Wetta was arrested and tried in Seattle for attempted murder. After shooting his former business partner in the head following an afternoon of target practice on Tiger Mountain near Issaquah, Washington, Wetta was booked into the King County Jail, but his fingerprints soon revealed that he wasn’t who he said he was. There was, it seemed, a real Ricky Wetta living in Florida (who had fingerprints on record from a misdemeanor 15 years earlier), but the man in custody in Seattle wasn’t him, and he refused to cop to his true identity. Leaning on Fifth Amendment guarantees that protect a suspect against self-incrimination, the man went through the entire trial as John Doe.

A month after the trial, though, a persistent King County Police detective named Randy Mullinax finally sussed out the suspect’s birth name: Jerry Bibb Balisok. Instead of defecting to Guyana and meeting death in Jonestown, Jerry and Debbie had, in fact, hung out in Florida for a while (just as the cops had suspected), then moved to the mundane Seattle suburb of Renton at some point. After obtaining Ricky A. Wetta’s birth certificate, Jerry helped himself to the man’s identity, and the family lived as Wettas for over a decade, having three more kids. Jerry worked various jobs over the years, including a gig as a professional wrestler named Mr. X and a stint at Boeing—until he was fired when HR figured out he didn’t actually go to the University of Cambridge in the UK as he’d purported. Later, it seems, he decided he preferred investment schemes to jobs.

While wandering from scam to scam, Jerry drifted into the acquaintance of Emmett Thompson, 12 years his junior, with whom he “did business” for a time. Although they were friendly for a while, Thompson had begun the process of extracting himself from Balisok/Wetta’s life by the time his business partner invited him to go target practicing on Tiger Mountain, about an hour outside of Seattle. In an ensuing trial, Thompson testified that he was shot four times on the mountain, allegedly over a 1988 arson plot targeting the Columbian Hotel in Wenatchee, Washington. (Balisok had purchased the hotel for $135,000, then taken out a $4.6 million insurance policy on it a month before it burned down.)

Throughout the trial, Balisok steadfastly declined to answer almost all queries about his identity; he was addressed variously as John Doe and Ricky Wetta. Based on the transcript from the 1989 cross-examination, questioning Ricky/John/Jerry went something like this:

DEPUTY PROSECUTOR MICHAEL HOGAN: You've talked about your health history, Mr. Wetta. You've testified that your weight, as you went through school – where did you go to school, Mr. Wetta?

DEFENSE ATTORNEY ANNE ENGELHARD: Objection. This isn't relevant.

THE COURT: You may answer.

HOGAN: Where did you go to grade school, Mr. Wetta?

JOHN DOE: I refuse to answer your question.

HOGAN: Where did you go to high school where you told us those weights?

DOE: I believe I got a G.E.D. in the State of Washington in 1979.

HOGAN: But when you were a teenager, did you attend high school?

DOE: I refuse to answer that question also.

HOGAN: And you used to be a professional wrestler, didn't you, Mr. Wetta?

DOE: And I also refuse to answer that question.

Balisok claimed to have shot Thompson in self-defense, but the jury didn’t buy it, and in February of 1990 he was found guilty. Two months later, Balisok was sentenced to 20 years in prison for attempted murder in the first degree. He was ultimately acquitted of the arson charges. A few years later, in 1992, Balisok’s wife, Debbie, divorced him, changing her surname and those of their three children from Wetta to Taylor, her maiden name. (One of their sons, John, is now a fitness coach who was featured on the weight-loss series Too Fat for 15.)

Balisok’s long stay at Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla was characterized by multiple lawsuits against prison staff, alleging violations of his First, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendment rights for not being allowed to wear his yarmulke in solitary confinement, or arguing that his due process rights were violated when he was expelled from a prison math class as a sanction for withholding information about a classmate who’d cheated on a test. (He lost both of these cases.) One of these lawsuits, against Balisok’s hearing officer, went all the way to the Supreme Court, and although Balisok lost yet again—he’d alleged that his hearing officer had concealed witness statements that could have helped him during a disciplinary proceeding—the case was important because it affirmed the ability of prisoners to challenge such disciplinary proceedings in the first place.

 
Balisok’s life got no less bizarre after he was released from prison in 2003. He changed his name from Jerry Bibb Balisok to Harrison Rains Hanover the following year, then married two different women in short succession, both of whom filed for protection orders against him, citing domestic abuse. In 2008, before they were divorced, the second of these women registered a nonprofit with the state of Washington called the First Hanoverian Church, listing herself as the director and Balisok/Hanover as chairman. He also occasionally used the variant Harrison Hansover, with an s.

A year after the church was registered, he fled to Costa Rica after getting busted on a failed scheme to embezzle approximately $4.6 million. The idea was to intercept funds to be paid by telecommunications companies Cox and Comcast to a mutual vendor they both used, but the money was instead diverted into a bank account opened by Balisok and an accomplice. The bank quickly froze the funds, however, and Balisok ended up with only about half a million in his pocket before he skipped town.

He then popped up next door in Nicaragua in October of 2012, where he was arrested and charged with a handful of crimes related to the sexual exploitation of minors. Balisok/Hanover was sentenced to 24 years in a Nicaraguan prison; his lawyer, found guilty as his accomplice, received six years herself.

In April 2013, a flurry of articles in Spanish-language newspapers throughout Latin America reported that Balisok had suffered a heart attack while in prison in Granada, Nicaragua, and died after being transferred to the hospital. The newspapers tied the event to his former accomplishments as Jerry Balisok and attributed the cause to extreme heat in his cell, which triggered other inmates’ families to file complaints about the high temperatures the prisoners were suffering, along with other health hazards within the prison.

Normally, a report of a person’s death in multiple newspapers would probably be enough to affirm their death, but an exception might be made in the case of Jerry Balisok. As of this writing, no death certificate for Balisok has been made publicly available, nor is the location of his burial known. Without those pieces of data, and knowing Balisok’s predilection for deceit, it might be wise to stay skeptical about whether he’s actually gone from this earth.

One thing’s for sure: whether or not Jerry Bibb Balisok a.k.a. Ricky Wetta a.k.a. Harrison Rains Hanover a.k.a. Harrison Rains Hansover is, in fact, dead, his body isn’t under that headstone in Alabama with his name on it. At least, not yet.

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.

Ohio Bill Aims to Make Animal Cruelty a Felony

RalchevDesign/iStock via Getty Images
RalchevDesign/iStock via Getty Images

In Ohio, animal cruelty may soon be punishable by a minimum of nine months in prison.

As ABC 6 reports, a new bill introduced in the Ohio Senate would increase penalties for individuals found guilty of inflicting “unnecessary or unjustifiable” harm to a companion animal (the bill defines a “companion animal” as any animal kept inside a home and any dog or cat, regardless of where it’s kept).

The bill comes three years after Ohio lawmakers passed a law making animal cruelty a fifth-degree felony for first-time offenders. Prior to 2016, a first offense of animal cruelty was classified as a first-degree misdemeanor, a charge punishable by up to 180 days in jail and a $1000 fine.

This new bill would make animal cruelty a third-degree felony, meaning jail time and a fine of up to $10,000. It’s a critical change, according to Cleveland.com; reporter Andrew J. Tobias, who says fifth-degree felony convictions in Ohio rarely result in any jail time.

“There are just some atrocious acts of violence against pets, companion animals, that are literally receiving slaps on the wrist,” Senator Jay Hottinger, one of the bill’s sponsors, told Cleveland.com.

In January, two Florida congressmen introduced the PACT (Preventing Animal Cruelty and Torture) bill to classify animal cruelty as a felony under federal law. All 50 states have a “felony animal cruelty law on the books,” according to the Animal Legal Defense Fund, but each state is responsible for defining animal cruelty. The proposed PACT law would identify and ban specific behaviors in all states.

[h/t ABC 6]

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