New Mexico prosecutors said they are filing 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 would be held accountable for the 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 wounded.
Baldwin is expected to be charged with two counts of involuntary manslaughter in Hutchins’ death.
Prosecutors also plan to bring involuntary manslaughter charges against weapons handler Hannah Gutierrez Reed, who loaded the gun.
The district attorney said she plans to give the juries two options for the charges. If convicted under the lesser charge, Baldwin or Gutierrez would face up to 18 months in prison and a $5,000 fine. The district attorney also will ask the juries to consider a harsher penalty, which carries a mandatory five years in prison, because the alleged crime involved the use of a firearm.
The film’s 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 near Santa Fe, reached a plea deal to accept a misdemeanor charge of negligent use of a deadly weapon.
New Mexico’s First 1st Judicial Dist. Atty. Mary Carmack-Altwies announced the charges Thursday, nearly 15 months after Baldwin is alleged to have 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.
“After a thorough review of the evidence and the laws of the state of New Mexico, I have determined that there is sufficient evidence to file criminal charges against Alec Baldwin and other members of the ‘Rust’ film crew,” Carmack-Altwies said. “On my watch, no one is above the law, and everyone deserves justice.”
“We support the charges, will fully cooperate with this prosecution, and fervently hope the justice system works to protect the public and hold accountable those who break the law,” said attorney Brian J. Panish, who represents the Hutchins family.
Gutierrez Reed’s attorneys, Jason Bowles and Todd J. Bullion, called the investigation “flawed” and said they “intend to bring the full truth to light and believe Hannah will be exonerated of wrongdoing by a jury.”
A series of lapses on the low-budget production led to the shooting, which ignited calls in Hollywood for producers to improve safety conditions on sets.
Baldwin was one of the producers of “Rust.” The 64-year-old Hollywood star — who achieved acclaim for performances on NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” and “30 Rock,” as well as such movies as “Glengarry Glen Ross” and “The Hunt for Red October” — could now face a criminal trial or accept a plea bargain.
“This decision distorts Halyna Hutchins’ tragic death and represents a terrible miscarriage of justice,” said Baldwin’s attorney, Luke Nikas of Quinn Emanuel, adding that his client “relied on the professionals with whom he worked, who assured him the gun did not have live rounds. We will fight these charges, and we will win.”
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 the family filed early last year. The cinematographer’s widower, Matthew Hutchins, called his spouse’s death “a terrible accident.”
Under the proposed deal, the movie’s production could resume this year.
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, saying a reproduction of a vintage 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.
Baldwin has placed blame on Gutierrez Reed and Halls, saying they didn’t do their jobs. The armorer, property master and assistant director are typically responsible for gun safety.
“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.”
“Everyone in that chain of custody had some responsibility,” said Joshua Kastenberg, a law professor at the University of New Mexico. “The ‘it’s not my job’ defense just doesn’t fly.”
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.
Sitting in a makeshift pew about four feet from Hutchins and Souza, Baldwin allegedly pulled the Pietta Colt .45 pistol from his holster and pointed it in the direction of the camera. The gun went off. Hutchins was standing next to the camera and Souza was behind her.
Halls — who was the “Rust” safety officer on set — had told Baldwin the gun was “cold,” meaning that it did not contain live ammunition, according to sheriff’s records.
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 also would have 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 previously had acknowledged that she had loaded the gun but didn’t realize actual bullets were contained in a new box of ammunition that arrived on set that morning.
She later told sheriff’s detectives that although she checked Baldwin’s gun 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.
Tensions flared over 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 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.
Gutierrez Reed is the daughter of a legendary Hollywood armorer, Thell Reed. Although 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.”
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,” said Kastenberg, a former prosecutor. “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.
Andrea Reeb, a former New Mexico district attorney who joined the case as special prosecutor, told The Times that Baldwin’s high-profile status was not a factor.
“As far as being an A-list actor and having notoriety or popularity, he is just another defendant to us under the law,” Reeb said.
“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,” said Kastenberg. “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 to the set a mismarked box of ammunition containing live rounds, 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.
Last April, the bureau imposed the maximum penalty, a $136,793 fine, on Rust Movie Productions, accusing production managers of “plain indifference” to employee safety and ignoring safety procedures.
Rust Movie Productions is appealing the decision; a hearing on the matter is set for April.
Meanwhile, producers hope to resume production of the movie “Rust” this spring near Los Angeles.