In the year 2009, America’s reality TV craze was in full swing. The Kardashians had just launched their now world-famous show only two years prior, and every channel was packed with entertainment opportunities that documented everything from cakes to pregnant teenagers.
It makes sense, then, that this media environment gave way to one of the most infamous hoaxes to ever hit the airways. A family of five and their bizarre hot air balloon earned 24/7 news coverage, and to this day, no one really knows every detail of the story. Was this a tragic misunderstanding? Or was something more nefarious going on?
Like many trainwrecks, this one begins with a love story. Before they had three boys together in Fort Collins, Colorado, Richard and Mayumi Heene met in California. They hit it off right away, with one subject dominating the conversation between them.
Fame. Mayumi dreamed of playing guitar professionally, while Richard wanted to become a comedian and create a confessional-style TV show about his family’s daily life — something similar to The Osbournes, which had recently stopped airing. He was also an inventor.
This was why, just a few years later — after Mayumi and Richard had wed and had three kids — there was a 20-foot wide, 5-foot tall hot air balloon contraption sitting in their backyard. It was one of Richard’s most prized possessions and the subject of future trouble.
On October 15th, 2009, the young Heene brothers were playing in the backyard, right beside the massive balloon. There, 6-year-old Falcon, below, attempted to touch the balloon, but he was immediately chastised by his parents. The thing was dangerous.
Photo by John Moore/Getty Images
Later on, the boys’ mother Mayumi went outside to call her children and noticed Falcon was nowhere to be seen. She searched the house and yard, but to no avail. Then, realizing the balloon was missing, she panicked and called the police.
Photo by Marc Piscotty/Getty Images
“My other son said that Falcon was at the bottom of the flying saucer. I can’t find him anywhere!” the 911 recording goes. Authorities showed up on the scene, and right away the strange story was broadcast on TV screens across America. The whole country prayed for Falcon’s safe return.
At least, this is the story that the Heene family told the public. Quite quickly, however, things began to unravel. Officials followed the balloon as it drifted towards Denver International Airport at an alarming height of 7,000 feet. Finally, after an hour of floating, it deflated and came down to earth.
Law enforcement on the scene approached the machine with bated breath, praying that Falcon was inside, safe and unharmed. Their stomachs dropped when they opened the hatch: the boy was nowhere in sight.
So, authorities retraced their steps. They went back to the house for a fourth time, focusing on places they’d ignored previously, like the attic above the garage. It was a place they’d figured no 6-year-old could reach without an adult’s help.
Photo by John Moore/Getty Images
Lo and behold, there Falcon was, crouched and hiding. He’d been there for five hours, he said, after the balloon landed. He was afraid he would get in trouble, so he hid. Authorities were overwhelmed with relief. He was okay! But that was just the beginning of the depraved story.
Photo by John Moore/Getty Images
Local sheriff Jim Alderden said there was no foul play by the Heene parents. Both Richard and Mayumi were genuine in their worry. However, that perfect facade came crumbling down after one highly suspicious CNN interview aired.
News anchor Wolf Blitzer was interviewing the family when he asked Falcon if he’d been able to hear his parents calling his name throughout the five hours that he was hiding in the attic, and Falcon replied that he had indeed heard, but that he’d stayed hiding “for a show.” This immediately raised alarm bells.
Richard had an explanation: Falcon was referring to the TV cameras as “the show.” Sheriff Alderden wasn’t thrown by this. He still believed Falcon had been hiding to escape punishment, but he decided to interview the family once more.
Later that week, the sheriff changed his tune. The Heene family, he said, had been lying to the public and to the police. Falcon was never in the balloon, but was hiding safely at home the whole time. The entire story was a fabrication. The consequences would be dire.
Richard and Mayumi both pleaded guilty, Richard for trying to influence a public official, and Mayumi for making a false police report. Neither one spent more than a month in jail. However Richard would later reassert his innocence, saying the guilty plea had been made out of fear of Mayumi being deported.
Photo by Chris Schneider/Getty Images
The judge also forbade them from profiting off publicity from the incident for four years, until they’d long since been out of the spotlight. However this doesn’t mean their later pursuits wouldn’t prove to be bizarre. A year after the incident, in 2010, the family packed up and moved to Florida, where they continued their antics.
Flickr – ProgressOhio
The three brothers formed a band called the Heene Boyz, claiming to be the youngest metal band in the world, and released a single called “Balloon Boy No Hoax.” For Richard’s part, he invented the “Bear Scratcher,” a mounted device for getting hard-to-reach itches. But controversy would catch up with them.
In 2019, a decade after the infamous hoax, writer Robert Sanchez published a profile on the Heene family. He found that Mayumi, who years earlier had recanted her confession based on the claim that she didn’t know the meaning of the word hoax, had incriminated herself pretty badly.
Notes written by the mom at the time admit that Richard had, in fact, asked her about the possibility of hiding Falcon in the basement and staging the whole scheme. The boy had instead hidden in the attic, leading the parents to believe he’d actually floated away.
However when questioned about the remarks, Mayumi back-stepped and said she’d invented that whole statement in an attempt to “save” herself and her children from being separated amidst the escalating legal troubles.
The disappointing reality? To this day, no one’s really sure what happened. Did the parents really not know where Falcon was? Were they concocting a huge lie to land a reality TV show? Investigators looked for common trends in other mainstream hoaxes for answers.
One of America’s greatest hoaxes started out with business as usual for one Wendy’s location in San Jose. The evening rush had a decent crowd chowing down inside, though nearly everyone lost their appetite once they heard a gasp.
Photo by Don Feria/Getty Images
It came from Anna Ayala, a 39-year-old woman on the verge of hyperventilation. She caught her breath and shouted, “Don’t eat it!” All of Wendy’s was transfixed as she brought her tray, shaking, to the front counter.
Anna Ayala / Facebook
Moments earlier, Anna sat down with a cup of the chain’s signature chili. She plucked a chunk of food from the top and waved it in the manager’s face. The staff insisted it was a bit of vegetable, but Ayala strongly disagreed.
Anna pointed at the inch-and-a-half-long object and screamed that it was a severed human finger. Indeed, the sauce-covered mystery meat appeared to have a fingernail jutting from the end. The entire restaurant flew into a panic.
That sickening announcement soon had everyone in the Wendy’s scanning each other’s hands for a missing digit. Fortunately for them, no fingers seemed out of place. So how did human remains end up in a cup of soup?
PanzerAmmo / Reddit
Well, in the world of food processing, accidents do happen. An errant slip of the knife or malfunctioning machinery could very well slice off a finger and carry it away before the digit can be recovered. But that wasn’t the only possibility.
Scott Automation + Robotics / YouTube
There were past instances where get-rich-quick artists inserted foreign objects into restaurant meals so they could get a payday in court. As Anna had just retained a lawyer, Wendy’s management feared she was a secret criminal mastermind.
The public sympathized with Ayala, who won further support when authorities began snooping around her home life. She accused them of handling her family “like terrorists.” But before police could dig further into her life, they received a troubling update from the lab.
A San Jose laboratory verified that it was a human finger in Anna’s chili; this was no fake. They were, however, unable to verify any fingerprint or DNA. And no meat-packing plants nearby reported any recent accidents.
Investigators just sensed something off about Anna. She had a history of filing phony lawsuits — including suing Goodyear for a tire “falling off” her car — though this time, no one could figure how she could’ve staged this finger incident.
Artem Plays Toys / YouTube
Looking for an angle, authorities took a closer look at how Wendy’s prepared their chili. Company policy mandated that the dish be cooked “at 170° for three hours.” So if the finger wasn’t planted by Ayala, then it would have to be well-done.
Laboratory analysis revealed that the finger had been cooked — but certainly not to the same extent as the rest of the chili. That meant someone partially grilled and added it later. Then there was the matter of what was found on the remains.
Additionally, Anna claimed that she nearly ate the severed finger, but there were absolutely no traces of saliva on it. All signs pointed to her being a scammer, except police had no ground to stand on until they figured out where the human remains came from.
Ayala and her husband seemed squeaky clean until authorities got in contact with the mother of a man named Brian Paul Rossiter, below. He owed the couple fifty dollars, but had no means to pay the debt. But one fateful accident gave him an out.
Rossiter’s job involved mixing and laying asphalt, but weeks earlier, a mechanical lift tore off the tip of his finger. Rather than take him to the hospital to reattach it, Ayala’s husband offered to settle the debt if Rossiter gave up the inch-and-a-half of flesh.
With all fingers — attached or otherwise — pointed to Ayala, it was time for her to own up to her scheme. She and her husband both pled guilty and received nine and twelve years behind bars, respectively. But the damage was done.
Photo by LVPD via Getty Images
Even with the chili finger incident revealed as a hoax, Wendy’s and other fast food chains suffered from a steep drop in sales. They’d have to get creative to convince customers they weren’t biting the hand that feeds them, so to speak.
Gabbi Shaw / Insider
While Ayala never saw a penny from her scam, Wendy’s fans reaped the rewards. The chain offered free Frosty shakes nationwide for one weekend to repair its image. That would’ve been the end of the saga if Anna hadn’t resurfaced years later.
Despite an early release, Anna doomed herself to another prison sentence in 2013. After her son accidentally shot himself in the leg, Anna concocted a story about a vicious attack so he wouldn’t be convicted of carrying a firearm while on parole.
When the story fell apart, the mother won herself two more years in the pen. By this point, Anna Ayala may have spun her last lie. But there are professional scammers out there capable of fooling everyone — without even a severed finger to gain attention.
Leonardo DiCaprio usually hangs out with supermodels, but he had a very different companion at The Wolf of Wall Street premiere. The stranger reportedly befriended Leo by gifting him with a Picasso painting and helping fund the movie. But who exactly was this guy?
The Hollywood Reporter
He was a Malaysian financier named Jho Low. Frequenting star-studded parties and carrying out huge real estate transactions, he was a distinguished businessman and self-made billionaire. At least, that’s what Jho wanted everybody to think.
Unsurprisingly, Jho came from money. His father, Larry Low, worked as an executive at an investment company. Though Larry made millions, his business practices were known for having a shady side, and he dreamed of his son joining him in his shadowy pursuits…
Jho attended the prestigious Harrow School in London. From the onset, he sought the approval of his wealthy and powerful classmates. Jho went so far as to throw a party on a friend’s yacht and fill it with family photos so everyone would think the Lows owned the vessel.
At Harrow, Jho continued to befriend people who he hoped to use later, including Riza Aziz, stepson of eventual Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak. Riza, below, aspired to be a filmmaker. He and Jho planned one day to produce blockbuster movies together.
After Harrow, Jho studied at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business. There, he connected with prominent families and convinced them to take him on as a financial manager — even though he had no experience in the field! After graduating, he became a virtual overnight success in the finance world.
Most people would be content with that kind of money, but not Jho. What he really craved was fame and notoriety. Although he was not talented, Jho realized that he could enter Hollywood’s inner circle by paying stars to spend time with him.
Perhaps foreshadowing his eventual friendship with Leo DiCaprio, Jho poised himself as a 21st-century Jay Gatsby. For his 31st birthday in 2012, Jho set out to put himself on the map by hosting one of the most expensive private parties in history.
He offered Britney Spears hundreds of thousands of dollars to jump out of a cake and perform a couple of songs. The odd request shocked the pop star, but how could she refuse that kind of paycheck? Britney was far from the only star that Jho lured into his social life.
In the philanthropic world, Jho donated huge sums of money to cancer research after having a brush with the disease himself. His generosity brought invitations to high-profile charity events, where he rubbed shoulders with more stars, including Alicia Keys.
Shortly after Miranda Kerr divorced Orlando Bloom, Jho leaped to the opportunity to impress the newly single supermodel. He showered her in gifts, including a $4.5 million diamond, cut into the shape of a heart.
Kerr wasn’t the only celeb who caught his eye. Tabloid reporters spotted Jho partying with socialite Paris Hilton on multiple occasions. He wooed her unsuccessfully but certainly enjoyed seeing photos of the two of them together. It easily justified the cost of paying Paris to hang out with him.
To fulfill his teenage dreams, Jho even bought his own yacht. This was no ordinary boat, either. Dubbed the Equanimity, the superyacht was longer than a football field and boasted its own swimming pool and helicopter pad. The vessel cost a staggering $250 million.
Surrounded by so many visible signs of success, Jho felt unstoppable. He became known as a “whale,” a casino term for an especially notable high-roller. But even as his profile rose, Jho held onto a secret that he desperately hoped nobody would discover.
In 2018, his luck ran out. Wall Street Journal staffers Tom Wright and Bradley Hope published a book about Jho, entitled Billion Dollar Whale. They pulled back the curtain and showed that Jho was nothing more than a fraud and a criminal.
Jho played a central role in abusing 1MDB, a wealth fund run by the Malaysian government. He became president of the account and secretly directed public money into projects that fed his own interests. Wright and Hope estimated that Jho siphoned $4.5 billion away from 1MDB.
Bloomberg / Goh Seng Chong
Of course, Jho had friends all the way at the top of the Malaysian government, including Prime Minister Najib Razak. The PM, however, was arrested on corruption charges shortly after leaving office. If the head of a country could not escape such severe consequences, what could Jho do?
The Malaysian Insight / Hasnoor Hussain
He fled. In 2018, Malaysian police, along with authorities from many other countries, were on the lookout for Jho. They believed he was hiding somewhere in East Asia, but he had been apprehended.
If one thing is for certain, it’s that these money laundering allegations have shattered Jho Low’s good standing. Even if he somehow evades legal ramifications, he’ll never return to the quasi-celebrity status that he once enjoyed. That ship has sailed for this pirate.
As of October 2018, Jho was still on the lam. Some experts theorized he may have undergone plastic surgery to evade search parties. Is this disappearing act Jho’s greatest con yet, or is it just the last stand of a desperate man? Only time will tell.
The Straits Times