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Reconstructing the Baldwin case: How a bullet marked the career of one of Hollywood’s most famous actors

The New Mexico District Attorney’s Office has charged Alec Baldwin with involuntary manslaughter for a gunshot that caused the death of Halyna Hutchins, a cinematographer on the set of ‘Rust’

Alec Baldwin, in this image provided by the Santa Fe Sheriff's Office, on the set of the movie.Photo: - (AFP)
Luis Pablo Beauregard

On October 21, 2021, actor Alec Baldwin – who was on the set of the American Western film Rust, at a ranch in New Mexico – drew and fired a Colt 45 revolver. The weapon, which was supposed to have been loaded with blanks, repeated with a huge bang. Those present described it as “a whiplash.” A bullet left the barrel, accidentally killing the film’s cinematographer, Halyna Hutchins.

On January 19, the New Mexico District Attorney’s Office in Santa Fe announced that Baldwin will be charged with accidental reckless homicide – or involuntary manslaughter – following the death of the 42-year-old Hutchins.

Mary Carmack-Altwies, New Mexico’s first judicial district attorney, said that charges will be filed against Baldwin, 64, by the end of January. Also charged is Hannah Gutierrez-Reed, who, at the age of 24, was the film’s armorer. David Halls, an assistant director, will plead guilty to the negligent use of a firearm that injured Joel Souza, the film’s director, in the shoulder.

The protocols of the US film industry require that assistant directors check the breech of any weapon on set and notify the crew if it is unloaded, using the expression “cold gun.” The Colt, however, was loaded.

It has taken the district attorney 15 months to present the accusations. During this time, investigators from the Santa Fe County Sheriff’s Office gathered information about what happened inside an old church on the Bonanza Creek ranch. They delivered their final report in October 2022.

In more than 500 pages, investigators describe a careless environment on the set of a film for which Baldwin was also a producer. The document included a report prepared by an FBI lab, which claimed that five bullets had been found on different parts of the set. One of these projectiles was in the costume belt of Harland Rust – the character played by Baldwin – for whom the film is named. The failure to oblige by these security protocols has resulted in the production being fined $140,000.

A photograph of cinematographer Halyna Hutchins at the vigil that was organized in her memory in October, 2021.
A photograph of cinematographer Halyna Hutchins at the vigil that was organized in her memory in October, 2021.Andres Leighton (AP)

“The evidence clearly shows a pattern of punishable lack of security in the filming of Rust,” the report notes. It is signed by Andrea Reeb – the special prosecutor in the case – who is also a state congresswoman from the Republican Party. Experts in criminal law consulted by US media outlets consider the actions of the District Attorney’s Office to be daring.

The attorneys consulted believe that it will be difficult to prove the involuntary manslaughter charges to a jury. The crime carries a penalty of between 18 months and five years in prison, in addition to a fine.

Various experts recall an incident in 1993, when Brandon Lee – son of martial arts legend Bruce Lee – was accidentally shot and killed at the age of 31 while filming The Crow. North Carolina District Attorney Jerry Spivey, who had jurisdiction in the state where the movie was being filmed, decided not to file charges against the production, due to a lack of solid evidence.

Luke Nikas, Baldwin’s attorney, has made it clear that they will fight the charges in court, considering the decision to be a “terrible miscarriage of justice.”

“My client had no reason to believe that there was a live bullet in the gun or on set. He trusted the professionals he worked with, who assured him that there was no ammunition in the gun,” the lawyer said in a statement.

In December 2021 – in his first interview after the incident – Baldwin told journalist George Stephanopoulos that he did not pull the trigger during the rehearsal. Months later the FBI concluded, after seeking an expert opinion, that he had pulled the trigger.

The film crew on the set of 'Rust.'
The film crew on the set of 'Rust.'Jae C. Hong (AP)

Throughout the special investigation’s cumulative report, the same question – which has been repeated since the incident occurred – appears: How did a live bullet get onto the film set?

The authorities’ document does not offer up a reason, giving hope to the defense teams of Baldwin and Gutierrez-Reed. “It is undetermined where the bullets that were [on set] came from,” said Juan Rios, a spokesman for the Santa Fe Sheriff’s Office, in November 2022.

Although there are no certainties, the authorities do have some suspicions. Almost all point to Gutierrez-Reed, the daughter of Thell Reed, a famous Hollywood gunsmith who taught her his craft. Police found bullets on a cart used by the art department, in a shoulder bag and in a box full of ammunition. Gutierrez-Reed – who juggled her work as an armorer with other production duties – arrived on set with ammunition left over from her previous job working on The Old Way, another Western starring Nicolas Cage.

Gutierrez-Reed has blamed Seth Kenney – the owner of an Albuquerque gun and ammunition store – who was a supplier for the film. However, the prosecution has excluded Kenney from the judicial process.

In one of the court documents, the armorer’s father recounts that, before filming began, he and Kenney taught the cast to fire weapons at a shooting range. These practice sessions utilized live bullets, not blank ammunition. Mr. Gutierrez Reed, under oath, has sworn that Kenney took the unused bullets that day.

Jason Bowles, Gutierrez-Reed’s attorney, is claiming that the charges are the product of a “botched investigation” that has “misrepresented” the events surrounding Hutchins’ death. “We believe that Hannah will be exonerated by the jury once we are able to expose the truth,” the lawyer emphasized.

The incident has caused Baldwin – a three-time Emmy winner and one-time Oscar nominee – to stop receiving job offers. His acting has been limited to independent productions financed by the other producers of Rust, along with a couple of animated films. During this time, he has also participated in a handful of podcasts.

In October, Baldwin sealed a confidential agreement with Matthew Hutchins, the widower of the cinematographer. According to this agreement, the team must resume filming in 2023 and the profits made at the box office will go to the husband of the deceased, who is now executive producer of the film. However, the judicial process initiated by the DA’s office will now delay the resumption of filming.

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