Why was Alec Baldwin named as a ‘possible defendant’ in Rust shooting?

Alec Baldwin moments after discharging a gun on the set of Rust last October  (AP)
Alec Baldwin moments after discharging a gun on the set of Rust last October (AP)

As a veteran actor of nearly 100 films and television shows, Alec Baldwin was no stranger to the strict safety protocols around the handling of firearms on set.

While preparing to film an action scene for his low budget western film Rust in New Mexico last October, Baldwin was handed a .45 Colt replica revolver.

According to affidavits from law enforcement, the 64-year-old actor was discussing a gunfight sequence with crew members when he unholstered the weapon and raised it in the direction of a camera, where director Joel Souza and cinematographer Halyna Hutchins were standing.

The gun went off, and a single bullet struck Souza in the shoulder before fatally striking Hutchins in the chest.

The precise details of how the gun was fired remain bitterly contested. Baldwin has maintained he had been assured the gun was “cold”, meaning it had no live ammunition, and that as he cocked the gun it went off without him pulling the trigger.

However, a recently released FBI forensics analysis found the gun was in good working order and Baldwin had to have fired the weapon.

Since then, crew members, actors and Hutchins’ family have lawyered up.

All involved have protested their innocence while blaming poor industry practice and, in some cases one another, for Hutchins’ tragic death.

Last week, the Santa Fe district attorney named Baldwin as a “possible defendant” in an ongoing criminal probe into the case.

Baldwin has also hit out at “trash press” for vilifying him, and in an apparent reference to his criminal exposure, Baldwin last week said that his life “may never be the same”.

How did one of his generation’s leading acting talents find himself facing a possible homicide charge?

The Bonanza Creek Ranch film-set in Santa Fe, New Mexico (Associated Press)
The Bonanza Creek Ranch film-set in Santa Fe, New Mexico (Associated Press)

Walkouts and safety concerns on the set of Rust

Rust began shooting on 6 October at the Bonanza Creek Ranch in Bonanza City, New Mexico, an old mining town on the outskirts of Santa Fe that had been abandoned in the early 1900s before being repurposed as a film set.

The movie had a modest budget of around $6m and was a “passion project” for Baldwin, according to the Wall Street Journal. It was likely destined for release on a streaming service and may well have passed into obscurity if not for the onset fatality.

Complaints about poor working conditions and safety on set had plagued the production from the start of filming.

On the eve of filming, members of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) threatened to stage a walkout over low pay.

Among them was Hutchins, an experienced cinematographer and mother of one, who wrote in an Instagram post on 19 October: “Standing in #IAsolidarity with our @IATSE crew here in New Mexico on RUST.”

Baldwin, a producer on Rust, said in a foul-mouthed tirade posted to Facebook on 19 October that crew union members should “do what you got to do. You got to fight”.

“I’ll tell you something about the executives of these companies, film and TV... They don’t give a f*** about you. They don’t give a f*** about anything.”

In comments underneath Baldwin’s video rant to Facebook, crew member Lane Luper said producers were treating crew like “dog s***”.

Luper claims some had been forced to sleep in cars after they had been too tired to drive home.

Crew members also raised concerns about firearm safety protocols and weapons handling onset.

Responsibility for weapons fell on the production’s armourer, Hannah Gutierrez-Reed, who had been the subject of complaints for her work a separate film The Old Way.

The Los Angeles Times reported that there had been three misfires of prop guns on set in the days leading up to Hutchins’ death.

In the early hours of 21 October, seven crew members quit in protest at the conditions.

An article published on The Wrap quoted an anonymous set worker as saying that the crew took the replica pistol that killed Hutchins with them to go target shooting at beer cans to pass the time. The weapons were returned after a lunch break, according to the insider’s account.

Alec Baldwin and Halyna Hutchins on the set of Rust in the last known photograph before she was killed (Serge Svetnoy)
Alec Baldwin and Halyna Hutchins on the set of Rust in the last known photograph before she was killed (Serge Svetnoy)

The fatal shooting

Around 1.50pm, cast were rehearsing a gun fight scene inside a church at the Bonanza Ranch on day 12 of the 21-day shoot.

According to affidavits issued by Santa Fe detectives, Gutierrez-Reed, the armourer, reportedly retrieved the three weapons and ammunition to be used in the scene.

David Halls, an assistant director, grabbed one of three prop guns from a cart and yelled “cold gun” as he handed it to Baldwin, indicating that the gun did not contain any live rounds, the search warrant claimed.

Halls had been fired in 2019 from the set of the film Freedom’s Path after a firearm unexpectedly went off, injuring a crew member.

An attorney for Halls has disputed that he gave the gun to Baldwin, and said it was not his responsibility to check the weapon for live rounds.

As Hutchins and Souza stood behind the camera, Baldwin began talking about how he planned to draw the weapon from his holster.

“So, I guess I’m gonna take this out, pull it, and go, ‘Bang’,” he said, according to a Los Angeles Times account, at which point the gun allegedly fired.

Halyna Hutchins’ family have filed a wrongful death suit against the Rust production company and Alec Baldwin (Instagram)
Halyna Hutchins’ family have filed a wrongful death suit against the Rust production company and Alec Baldwin (Instagram)

A 911 call was placed at 1.46pm local time and emergency responders arrived within a few minutes.

Hutchins was flown by air ambulance to the University of New Mexico, where she was pronounced dead. She was survived by her husband Matt Hutchins and their nine-year-old son Andros.

Souza was taken by ambulance to a hospital in Santa Fe and released the next morning.

Harrowing images captured Baldwin speaking on a cellphone in the moments after the shooting. He was taken in for questioning by the Santa Fe Sheriff’s Department and released later that day.

Baldwin tweeted the next day that his heart was “broken for her husband, their son, and all who knew and loved Halyna”.

Claim and counterclaim

The sheriff’s office initiated an investigation to determine how a live round was placed in the gun, why crew members had failed to notice the round, and why the gun fired.

All three people who handled the weapon – Halls, Baldwin and Gutierrez-Reed – were cooperating with the investigation, authorities said.

In November, court filings showed that the scope of the investigation had broadened to determine whether a local prop shop owner Seth Kenney may have included live ammunition with the blank and dummy rounds he supplied for the film set.

Mr Kenney denied providing live ammo to the set in a statement to ABC News.

In an interview with ABC News in December, Baldwin denied firing the weapon, saying:  “I would never point a gun at anyone and pull the trigger at them. Never.”

That month, Santa Fe officials obtained a search warrant for Baldwin’s iPhone in connection with the inquiry.

However, an FBI forensics analysis of the weapon used to kill Hutchins concluded that the weapon was in working order at the time and would not have discharged unless it was fully cocked and the trigger was pulled.

That report was released in August by Santa Fe investigators along with a determination made by New Mexico’s Office of the Medical Investigator that the fatal shooting was an accident.

In a scathing report, New Mexico’s Occupational Health and Safety Bureau detailed a narrative of safety failures in violation of standard industry protocols, including testimony that production managers took limited or no action to address two misfires on set prior to the fatal shooting.

It fined the film’s production company nearly $137,000 for violating workplace safety protocols.

‘Possible defendant’

On 23 September, Santa Fe district attorney Mary Carmack-Altwies disclosed in an emergency request for more funding that an investigation into the shooting had identified four possible defendants.

Alec Baldwin was the only individual named by Ms Carmack-Altwies.

When contacted by the Santa FeNew Mexican, she said the list of possible charges her office was looking at ranged from homicide to violations of state gun statutes.

In an Instagram post a few days later, Baldwin, who has just welcomed his seventh child with wife Hilaria, wrote: “My heart has been broken a thousand times this past year. And things in my life may never be the same.

“Lots of changes coming. But my family has kept me alive. They are my reason for living. And Hilaria Baldwin too.”

In this image from video released by the Santa Fe County Sheriff’s Office, Alec Baldwin stands in costume on the set of Rust (Santa Fe County Sheriff’s Office)
In this image from video released by the Santa Fe County Sheriff’s Office, Alec Baldwin stands in costume on the set of Rust (Santa Fe County Sheriff’s Office)

According to the Santa Fe New Mexican, Ms Carmack-Altwies is expecting to receive the final investigation report from the Santa Fe County Sheriff’s Office soon.

Baldwin’s attorney Luke Nikas told The Independent in a statement that “false conclusions” had been drawn from Ms Carmack-Altwies’s request for more funding.

“The DA has made clear that she has not received the sheriff’s report or made any decisions about who, if anyone, might be charged in this case,” Mr Nikas said in a statement.

“The DA’s office must be given the space to review this matter without unfounded speculation and innuendo.”

A swirl of civil litigation is also yet to be decided.

Hutchins’ family have also launched a wrongful death suit against Baldwin, Gutierrez-Reed, and the film’s production company alleging “reckless behavior and cost-cutting”.

Several crew members including the script supervisor and main medic have filed suits for compensation for the trauma they suffered.

Gutierrez-Reed is suing prop supplier Seth Kenney, alleging he mixed dummy rounds with live bullets.

And Baldwin’s lawyers have filed an arbitration against Rust’s production company claiming his contract should have protected him from any claims.

Implications for the film industry

Hutchins’ death has led to calls for a complete overhaul of gun safety protocols on film sets.

The tragic shooting drew comparison with the death of Brandon Lee, the son of legendary action film star Bruce Lee, who was killed by a prop firearm on the set of The Crow in 1993.

Stars including Dwayne Johnson pledged to cease using real firearms on set.

However an article by The Hollywood Reporter in June suggested that little had changed.

Leading armourers spoken to by the entertainment site said that calls for reform had stalled, as the outrage had faded into the distance.

While visual effects professionals told The Hollywood Reporter that weapons could be replaced with CGI affects, for low budget films in particular, this was not a viable option.