New Mexico prosecutors have filed felony criminal charges against actor Alec Baldwin and the armorer of the low-budget western “Rust,” following the fatal shooting of the film’s cinematographer.
The charges represent a dramatic culmination of more than a year of speculation over who, if anyone, would be held accountable for the tragic death of cinematographer Halyna Hutchins, a rising star in the film industry. Hutchins was shot in the chest Oct. 21, 2021 as she rehearsed a scene with Baldwin and the film’s director, Joel Souza, who was also wounded.
Baldwin was charged with two counts of involuntary manslaughter for his alleged role in Hutchins’ death.
Prosecutors also brought involuntary manslaughter charges against weapons handler Hannah Gutierrez Reed, who loaded the gun. The assistant director David Halls, who investigators said gave the loaded revolver to Baldwin just before a rehearsal in an old wooden church at Bonanza Creek Ranch, a popular movie location near Santa Fe, accepted a misdemeanor charge in a plea deal.
New Mexico’s First Judicial District Attorney Mary Carmack-Altwies announced the charges Thursday, nearly 15 months after Baldwin fired the live round from his prop gun, unaware that the Colt .45 revolver contained live ammunition. Actual bullets are forbidden from film sets, however, investigators later found several other lead bullets mingled with inert dummy rounds.
A cascading series of lapses on the low-budget production led to the shooting, which ignited calls in Hollywood for producers to improve safety conditions for film crew members who have felt stretched to their limits amid a boom in production.
Baldwin was one of the producers of “Rust.” With Carmack-Altwies’ decision, the 64-year-old Hollywood star — who achieved acclaim for performances on NBC’s “Saturday Night Live,” and “30 Rock,” as well as such as movies as “Glengarry Glen Ross,” and “The Hunt for Red October” — could face a criminal trial or accept a plea bargain.
The decision comes three months after Baldwin and the film’s other producers struck a proposed settlement agreement with Hutchins’ family to end the wrongful death civil lawsuit they filed early last year. The family initially blamed Hutchins’ death on cost-cutting measures and reckless behavior by Baldwin and others.
Under the proposed deal, which must be approved by a judge, the movie’s production would resume this year. With the settlement agreement, the family’s tenor also changed. The cinematographer’s widow, Matthew Hutchins, said: “Halyna’s death was a terrible accident.”
After news of the family’s proposed settlement, Carmack-Altwies’ office released a statement saying: “No one is above the law.”
Baldwin has long maintained his innocence, saying in televised interviews that gun safety wasn’t his responsibility and that he did not pull the trigger.
Reports prepared by FBI analysts in Virginia, however, cast doubt on that claim. While the FBI did not conclude where live ammunition came from, agents said in an August report that the pistol, a replica of a vintage Pietta Colt .45, “functioned normally when tested in the laboratory.”
The FBI report also noted that, in order for the revolver to fire, the trigger would have been pulled.
“This is problematic for Baldwin because he has insisted that he did not pull the trigger,” said Beverly Hills entertainment attorney Mitra Ahouraian. “Those types of inconsistencies are not helpful to his case.”
Baldwin has placed blame on Gutierrez Reed and Halls, saying he was relying on expectations that they were professionals and should have done their jobs to ensure safety on the set. Entertainment industry protocols typically task the responsibility for gun safety with the armorer, property master and assistant director.
“All my career, without incident, I’ve relied on the safety experts [on set] to declare the gun safe and never had a problem,” Baldwin said in 2022 at the Boulder International Film Festival. “And [then,] this happened.”
That defense might fall short, experts said.
“Regardless of what the practice may be in the entertainment industry, and regardless of what the protocols are on Hollywood sets, that’s not the law,” Ahouraian said. “The gun was in his hands. And if there’s any possibility that you are handling something that could harm someone, then you have an obligation to handle it safely.”
Joshua Kastenberg, a law professor at the University of New Mexico, noted Carmack-Altwies approached the case by scrutinizing the actions of everyone who handled the weapon and the live ammunition.
“Everyone in that chain of custody had some responsibility,” Kastenberg said. “When considering bringing criminal charges, the ‘it’s not my job’ defense just doesn’t fly. If you are holding a gun in your hand, you implicitly have a responsibility to make safety your business.”
The October 2021 killing shook the film industry and renewed calls by rank-and-file film workers, including members of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, and other guilds to better emphasize safety amid a rush by producers to crank out movies and TV shows following COVID-19 pandemic-related production shut-downs. Filming of “Rust,” which had a $7 million production budget, was supposed to span 21 days — an ambitious timeline for a period piece, film experts have said.
Baldwin was playing a grizzled outlaw, Harland Rust, who was on the run with his grandson who accidentally shot a rancher dead in 1880s Kansas.
After lunch on that fateful day, Souza and Hutchins were lining up camera angles as Baldwin practiced a cross-draw maneuver inside the old wooden church at the Bonanza Creek Ranch, a popular location for movie productions. Cameras were not rolling at the time.
Sitting in a makeshift pew about four feet from Hutchins and Souza, Baldwin allegedly pulled the replica Colt .45 pistol from his holster, pointed it in the direction of the camera and the gun went off. Hutchins was standing next to the camera; and Souza behind her.
According to Santa Fe County Sheriff’s Office documents released last year, Halls — who was the “Rust” safety officer on set — had told Baldwin the gun was “cold,” meaning that it did not contain live ammunition.
The gun contained at least one live bullet and dummy rounds, which contained no gunpowder. Such bullets are inert, but look nearly identical to a real bullet when a camera peers down the barrel of a revolver.
If the rounds had been thoroughly checked, Gutierrez Reed, Halls or others should have seen that at least one lacked the small hole or indentation that differentiates so-called “dummies” from actual lead bullets.
They would have also noticed that the live round didn’t make the signature rattling sound that reveals that only a BB — and no gunpowder — was contained inside.
Gutierrez Reed, who cooperated with investigators, previously had acknowledged that she had loaded the gun that day. She told sheriff’s detectives that she didn’t realize actual bullets were contained in a new box of ammunition that arrived on set that morning. The box contained seven live rounds mixed in with 43 dummies, according to a civil suit that Gutierrez Reed has filed.
Following the shooting, she told sheriff’s detectives that although she checked Baldwin’s gun that day before the unscheduled rehearsal in the wooden church, she “didn’t really check it too much after lunch” because the weapon had been locked in a safe during the crew’s lunch break.
Much of the camera crew had walked off the job hours before the fatal shooting after complaining to producers about alleged inattention to safety and a refusal to pay for nearby lodging for cameramen who lived 50 miles away in Albuquerque.
There also were tensions about two accidental weapons discharges less than a week before Hutchins’ death, including when property master Sarah Zachry accidentally fired a weapon to be used by one of the actors, although she was not injured in the incident.
Additionally, rifts had developed within the movie’s small props crew over issues of workload.
Gutierrez Reed acknowledged that she was struggling to perform two jobs — armorer and props assistant. In addition to serving as the armorer in charge of guns and gun safety, she was supposed to assist Zachry with the other props. In text message exchanges with production managers about before the fatal shooting, Gutierrez Reed protested her workload, saying she was being stretched too thin.
A production manager had scolded Gutierrez Reed for not paying sufficient attention to her props role.
“Since we’ve started, I’ve had a lot of days where my job should only be to focus on the guns and everyone’s safety,” Gutierrez Reed responded in an Oct. 14, 2021 email viewed by The Times. In that email, sent one week before the shooting, Gutierrez Reed noted that on gun-heavy film days, the assistant props role “has to take a back seat. Live fire arms on set is absolutely my priority.”
Gutierrez Reed is the daughter of a legendary Hollywood armorer, Thell Reed. While she grew up visiting film sets, “Rust” was only her second film as head armorer.
The accident happened on the 12th day of filming for the scheduled 21-day production.
“There were multiple breaks in the chain of responsibility and if any one of these individuals who are facing criminal charges had exercised more caution, this tragedy could have been avoided,” Ahouraian said.
The Times has previously revealed a struggle to find qualified crew members to work on “Rust.”
A tough case?
The prosecution could be complicated by the case’s notoriety — most everyone in Santa Fe is familiar with the case, increasing the challenges of finding an impartial jury. What’s more, the defendants could bring a spirited defense.
“This is a huge case for a smaller population county,” Kastenberg, a former prosecutor, said. “Whenever you go up against a powerful entity — like a Hollywood star who has a tremendous media reach — you want to get it right and you don’t want to look like a fool.”
The media spotlight adds to the pressure facing Carmack-Altwies and her office.
“The D.A. wants to show their constituency that they are not afraid to take any case, and that they will handle it ethically, and rightly,” Kastenberg said. “This one might become politicized. But, as the D.A., you can only bring charges that the evidence supports.”
In addition to the criminal cases, several civil negligence suits are pending.
Two film crew members inside the church when the shooting occurred — lighting technician Serge Svetnoy, who was nearly hit by the bullet, and script supervisor Mamie Mitchell — sued.
Gutierrez Reed last year sued the weapons provider, Seth Kenney of PDQ Arm & Prop, alleging that he supplied a mismarked box of ammunition containing live rounds to the set, contributing to the deadly accident. Kenney has said he did not provide live ammunition to the ‘Rust’ set.
Hutchins was killed just as her career was beginning to take off in a largely male-dominated field. She graduated from the American Film Institute Conservatory in 2015 and had been selected as one of American Cinematographer’s Rising Stars of 2019.
The movie’s producers have denied responsibility for the tragedy.
In a filing to the New Mexico Environment Department’s Occupational Health and Safety Bureau, Rust Movie Productions LLC said that it was not responsible for Hutchins’ death, maintaining that the producers did not serve as the on-set employers. The filing came in response to the workplace health and safety bureau’s decision, last April, to impose the maximum penalty, $136,793 fine, on Rust Movie Productions.
The New Mexico agency accused production managers of “plain indifference” to employee safety and said management knew firearm safety procedures were not being followed on set. Rust Movie Productions LLC appealed the finding, saying the fine was not warranted.
Rust Movie Productions has denied wrongdoing, and the case is going through an appeals process. New Mexico’s Occupational Health and Safety Review Commission has scheduled an eight-day hearing on the matter in April. Each side will have four days to present their case.
Meanwhile, producers hope to resume production of the movie “Rust” this spring near Los Angeles.
Story by Meg James, Los Angeles Times