Ledes from the Land of Enchantment

DA expected to announce this month if charges will be filed in ‘Rust’ shooting | Local News

By most accounts, the fatal shooting of cinematographer Halyna Hutchins on a movie set south of Santa Fe was a tragic but preventable accident, the result of live ammunition mistakenly mixed with dummy rounds.

Still, First Judicial District Attorney Mary Carmack-Altwies has indicated up to four people involved in the October 2021 incident could face criminal charges, including actor Alec Baldwin, the star and producer of the ill-fated film Rust, who was holding the revolver that discharged a fatal bullet during a rehearsal.

Carmack-Altwies has secured hundreds of thousands of dollars from the state for her agency to prosecute the high-profile case and is requesting more funds from the legislature. A spokeswoman for her office said the district attorney will announce by the end of the month whether charges will be filed.

The district attorney has declined to name other cast or crew members who could face charges or what crimes they might be accused of committing — she would look at “all the homicide statutes and gun statutes under New Mexico criminal code,” she said.

The Santa Fe County Sheriff’s Office closely scrutinized several people other than Baldwin in its investigation of the shooting: assistant director David Halls, who handed the loaded revolver to Baldwin, according to court records; armorer Hannah Gutierrez-Reed, who was tasked with managing firearms and ammunition on the set; Seth Kenny, whose Albuquerque business provided weapons and ammunition for the production; and prop master Sarah Zachry, who might have handled the revolver before the shooting.

Baldwin said he didn’t pull the trigger before the revolver fired, killing Hutchins and wounding film director Joel Souza inside a church building at the Bonanza Creek Ranch. But an FBI forensic report determined the revolver could not have fired if the trigger wasn’t pulled.

The actor’s New York-based attorney, Luke Nikas, declined to comment for this story but told CNN in August: “When Alec Baldwin showed up that tragic day for filming, he had not a single reason in the world to think that there was a live bullet in that gun, in that church, or even on that property.”

The sheriff’s office investigation centered largely on how live ammunition ended up on the film set. Attorneys say a key question for prosecutors is whether anyone intended to cause harm.

Lisa Torraco, an Albuquerque-based attorney who represents Halls, is one of several lawyers who told The New Mexican they don’t believe criminal charges are appropriate in the case.

“It was just such a horrible accident that was the result of so many little things that I don’t know if any of those little things amount to a crime,” said Torraco, a former prosecutor and onetime state senator.

Dan Marlowe, a prominent criminal defense attorney in Santa Fe who is not connected with the Rust shooting but has handled a number of homicide cases, said the prosecution’s first task would be to rule out the possibility of intentional wrongdoing, “to see if there was any attitudes, animosity or intent” or if “someone was trying to cause some problems for Baldwin.”

“Beyond that,” Marlowe said, “you would want to look at the chain of evidence, who else touched [the gun].”

Marlowe added, “I could see the liability going on [Baldwin] because it was his project. Even though you hire people to watch out for that stuff, you have some obligation to make sure everything is OK.”

Who handles the gun

Court records say the last person to touch the prop gun was Halls, who handed it to Baldwin before the rehearsal, calling out “Cold gun!” to indicate it contained no live ammunition and was safe for the actor to handle.

Search warrant affidavits written by sheriff’s office investigators say Halls had grabbed the gun from a cart of weapons set up by Gutierrez-Reed, whose job was to safely manage the use of firearms on the set of the western film, which has been described as “ gun heavy.”

While some court documents indicate Gutierrez-Reed might have left the cart unattended during a lunch break, she argued in a civil suit Zachry had removed the guns from a prop truck on the morning of the shooting and was supposed to look after them but abandoned the cart for a period of time.

Zachry, who had worked closely with Gutierrez-Reed, told a sheriff’s investigator she thought Gutierrez-Reed had “messed up,” according to his report.

The women’s attorneys did not respond to requests for comment.

Kenney, the owner of Albuquerque-based PDQ Arm & Prop, wasn’t on the set that day but is included in the investigation.

Gutierrez-Reed has accused him in a civil complaint of supplying mislabeled dummy ammunition that included live rounds — possibly, in a twist, some bullets left from another project involving her father, Thell Reed, a well-known movie set armorer.

Kenney couldn’t be reached to comment on this story. He said in a previous statement “loading guns and verifying no live rounds were brought onto set” were Gutierrez-Reed’s responsibility, not his.

Multiple civil claims have been filed over the shooting, with plaintiffs in some lawsuits named as defendants in others. Fingers have been pointed in all directions.

Baldwin, who announced in October he had reached a settlement agreement with Hutchins’ family in a wrongful-death case against him and other defendants, filed his own suit in November against several people, including Gutierrez-Reed and Halls, accusing them of negligence for giving him a loaded gun.

Involuntary manslaughter?

Without proof of intentional sabotage or a plot to commit harm on the set, several attorneys said, the most serious charge someone would be likely to face is involuntary manslaughter.

A fourth-degree felony, the count carries a penalty of 18 months in prison.

It can be applied in cases in which someone commits an otherwise legal act “without due caution and circumspection,” resulting in someone’s death, according to state law.

“If I’m out with a bunch of friends shooting guns at targets and having a good ol’ time and do a careless shot … and kill someone, it’s not intentional homicide but it is real negligence,” Marlowe said.

Negligent use of a deadly weapon, a petty misdemeanor punishable by a jail term of less than six months, also might be appropriate, given the facts of the case, Torraco said in an interview Thursday.

“I don’t think anyone really had the reckless disregard you would expect under the felony,” she said.

“There’s no bad guy running around, trying to hurt people,” Torraco added. “That is appropriate for criminal prosecution. Everyone on set was good, honest, law-abiding citizens who were just trying to make a movie. They didn’t get up that morning and decide they want to hurt somebody, so I don’t think the level of negligence rises to the level of criminal prosecution.”

“I think they should just get rid of this thing and let it be done as a civil matter and leave it at that,” he said.

The costs of prosecution

Carmack-Altwies requested $635,000 from the state Board of Finance in August to fund potential prosecutions in the case. The board awarded her $317,000.

She has asked for a legislative appropriation to make up the difference, District Attorney’s Office spokeswoman Heather Brewer confirmed.

Part of the money would be used to pay a special prosecutor to work on the case, Carmack-Altwies said in her request for the funds. She tapped retired prosecutor Andrea Reeb, a Clovis Republican who recently was elected to the state House of Representatives.

The money also will pay for a paralegal, media spokesperson and numerous experts to work on the case, according to the request.

“If the First Judicial District Attorney … were to take funding for the ‘RUST’ prosecution out of the general fund, there would not be enough funding to pay our employees, expert witnesses needed for other cases and general everyday expenses of the office,” Carmack-Altwies wrote.

Brewer, who was hired to address media questions on the case, said in an email Friday her contracted rate is $125 per hour.

Carmack-Altwies was out of the office last week and unavailable for an interview, another spokeswoman, JoHanna Cox wrote in an email.

gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has recommended approval of the district attorney’s request for the additional $317,000, Nora Meyers Sackett, a spokeswoman for the governor, confirmed in an email Friday.

“The budget recommendation for this line item was made on a fiscal basis, not due to any particular stance on a case. … The scope of some cases sometimes require additional funds,” Sackett wrote.

State Rep. Jason Harper, R-Rio Rancho, said Friday he thought it was “ridiculous … to spend so much resources going after what was really just a tragic accident.”

“I really see this as a frivolous use of tax dollars and a waste of time,” Harper said. “We’ve got people intentionally shooting up people’s houses and worse. Why are we spending so much time investigating what will probably be a fourth-degree felony, something unintentional?”

The state should have policies to ensure such an incident never happens again, he said. But he questioned whether the incident requires more than $600,000 “for the DA to do her job.”

“I’m scratching my head wondering what kind of message this sends,” he said. “If you make a mistake, we are going to roll over you with the full force of the law?”

He also wondered what effect prosecution would have on the state’s film industry.

Brewer wrote in an email Friday, “A high-profile case like the Rust shooting would strain the DA’s office beyond capacity, taking critical efforts away from 1000s of other important cases. If charges are filed in the Rust shooting and a trial or trials follow, high-powered Hollywood and New York lawyers are likely to inundate the DA’s office with motions and filings as a tactic to prevent justice from being served. No one should be able to buy justice with expensive attorneys.

“Only with adequate funding can the DA ensure that the rule of law is upheld fairly and evenly applied in Santa Fe County … and that gun safety on movie sets and in the community at large is taken seriously,” she wrote.

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