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Santa Fe sheriff: Ammunition collected on ‘Rust’ set is suspected to be live rounds

“There was, at minimum, complacency on the set,” said Sheriff Adan Mendoza

rust shooting

This aerial photo shows the Bonanza Creek Ranch in Santa Fe, N.M., Saturday, Oct. 23, 2021. Actor Alec Baldwin fired a prop gun on the set of a Western being filmed at the ranch on Thursday, Oct. 21, killing the cinematographer, officials said.

AP Photo/Jae C. Hong

By Daniel J. Chacón and Victoria Traxler
The Santa Fe New Mexican

SANTA FE COUNTY, N.M. — Santa Fe County Sheriff’s Office investigators have collected hundreds of rounds of ammunition — some suspected to be live — from the set of the Western film Rust at Bonanza Creek Ranch, where authorities say award-winning actor Alec Baldwin discharged a firearm that caused a fatal shooting last week.

During a joint news conference Wednesday with the district attorney, an event attended by a throng of reporters, Sheriff Adan Mendoza offered new details on his agency’s investigation into the Oct. 21 shooting, which killed cinematographer Halyna Hutchins and wounded director Joel Souza.

Mendoza, who returned early from a vacation Saturday for a briefing on the case, said the investigation has raised concerns about how firearms were handled on the set.

“There was, at minimum, complacency on the set,” he said in an interview after the news conference. "... I think when real firearms are being used, safety is paramount.”

While Mendoza said no criminal charges have been filed in Hutchins’ death, District Attorney Mary Carmack-Altwies said “all options are on the table” and “no one has been ruled out at this point” — including Baldwin.

Investigators have recovered the firearm Baldwin discharged — an F.Lli Pietta .45-caliber long-range Colt revolver — and “the spent shell casing from the bullet that was fired from the gun,” Mendoza said at the news conference, adding, the “actual lead projectile that was fired has been recovered from Souza’s shoulder.”

The bullet hit Souza after it shot through Hutchins’ abdomen, the sheriff said.

Several other rounds of ammunition were loaded into the revolver’s cylinder, but Mendoza said he could not confirm whether those rounds were live.

However, the sheriff said several rounds suspected to be live were found on the set. “This investigation is active, so I won’t comment on how they got there. ... That will be determined when the testing is done by the crime lab as to whether or not they are officially live rounds or not.”

Evidence in the shooting will be submitted to the FBI crime lab in Quantico, Va., for analysis, he said.

The sheriff’s office has not confirmed multiple media reports of crew members using the revolver earlier in the day to shoot cans with live rounds. Mendoza said there are “facts and rumors floating around,” and it’s his investigators’ job to determine what is factual.

Minutes before the morning news conference began, the state Administrative Office of the Courts publicly released a new search warrant for a “prop truck” on the movie set where film workers said the revolver Baldwin discharged had been stored. Both Souza and armorer Hannah Gutierrez, who was handling firearms for the Rust production, told investigators there should not have been any live rounds on or near the set, according to the search warrant affidavit.

It was the third warrant the sheriff’s office has obtained for searches of the Rust set at the popular movie ranch south of Santa Fe.

The warrant indicates investigators are seeking evidence of anyone who might have had access to the revolver, a safe where firearms might have been secured, as well as any guns, ammunition, cameras or other digital devices in the truck.

‘A thorough and objective investigation’

“Over the last few days, our investigative team has been working diligently to conduct interviews, execute search warrants and collect and process evidence from the scene,” Mendoza told the crowd of reporters at Wednesday’s news conference, many from across the nation and around the world.

The case involving Baldwin — one of Hollywood’s biggest stars and the producer of Rust — has riveted readers and viewers, driving what a sheriff’s office spokesman called an insatiable appetite for new information by a variety of news media sources.

“During this process, we determined that there were a limited amount of movie set staff present in the area where the actual incident took place, although there were approximately 100 people on set,” Mendoza said. “Through the execution of search warrants, we have collected about 600 items of evidence. These include but are not limited to three firearms, approximately 500 rounds of ammunition and several pieces of clothing.”

Later, Mendoza said 16 people were in a church building at Bonanza Creek Ranch at the time of the shooting, and investigators have interviewed all of them. But there are many other cast and crew members who still need to be interviewed, he noted.

“We are working thoroughly to gather all the facts of the investigation, continue interviews and further analyze and process the evidence,” Mendoza said. “I want to ensure the victims, their families and the public that we are conducting a thorough and objective investigation.”

He said “it’s too early right now in the investigation” to comment on possible criminal charges.

Carmack-Altwies said her agency will work with the sheriff’s office to ensure the investigation is conducted “to the highest standards.”

“I speak to the prosecutorial perspective here, and I must emphasize that a complete and thorough investigation is critical,” the district attorney said. “We take the corroborated facts and evidence and connect it to New Mexico law, and we are not at that juncture yet.”

Aside from possible criminal charges, Baldwin and the Rust production company could face civil complaints over the shooting and other alleged safety issues on the set.

According to a certificate of insurance Business Insider obtained from the Santa Fe Film Office, the production has a total of $6 million in liability insurance protection.

The financial news site reported Rust was covered for up to $1 million in on-set injuries and damages, up to $1 million in workers’ compensation and an additional $5 million in commercial “umbrella” coverage.

Questions about gun checks

Sheriff’s deputies were dispatched to Bonanza Creek Ranch at 1:48 p.m. Oct. 21 after receiving a call saying two people had been shot on a movie set, Mendoza recounted. The first deputy arrived at 2 p.m., and an ambulance arrived a minute later.

“During the initial investigation, it was determined that actor-producer Alec Baldwin was the person that fired the weapon,” the sheriff said. “We identified two other people that handled and or inspected the loaded firearm prior to Baldwin firing the weapon.”

Mendoza identified them as Gutierrez and assistant director Dave Halls, two workers on the set who have faced the heaviest criticism on social media for failing to ensure the revolver was empty.

Affidavits say Souza told investigators Gutierrez was expected to check the gun and Halls was expected to provide a second check before handing it to Baldwin. Halls had grabbed the revolver from a cart of weapons prepared by Gutierrez and gave it Baldwin, telling the star it was a “cold gun,” according to the documents.

Mendoza said Gutierrez, Halls and Baldwin “have been cooperative in the investigation.”

But it remains unclear how Gutierrez and Halls could have missed a live round in the revolver if they inspected it.

“The people that inspected or handled the firearm when it was loaded before it got to Mr. Baldwin were interviewed, and there’s some follow-up questions that we need to do,” Mendoza said. “So there’s further investigation, further interviews, and we’re going to try and determine exactly how that happened and if they should have known that there was a live round in that firearm.”

According to the search warrant affidavit released Wednesday, Gutierrez told investigators she had checked the ammunition earlier Oct. 21 to ensure there were no “hot” rounds. As the crew broke for lunch, she said, the firearms were secured in a safe on the “prop truck.” However, she said, the ammunition was left unsecured on a cart on the set.

Souza told investigators he wasn’t certain if the gun Baldwin was using had been checked for ammunition again after lunch, the affidavit says.

Halls said he checks gun barrels for obstructions, and “most of the time there’s no live fire.”

“Hannah opens the drum and spins it, and I say, ‘cold gun’ on set,” he added, according to the affidavit. Before the rehearsal, he remembered seeing only three rounds in the revolver and should have checked them all, but he didn’t, he said, and he could not remember if Gutierrez had spun the drum for him.

Gutierrez had prepared a cart with three firearms for the rehearsal for a scene in which Baldwin was to sit in a wooden pew, facing the camera, before “cross drawing his weapon and pointing the revolver toward the camera lens,” court documents state.

As they rehearsed, Souza told investigators, Baldwin drew his gun and he heard “what sounded like a whip” and a loud pop. He looked back to see 42-year-old Hutchins holding her abdomen. She was transported to the University of New Mexico Hospital in Albuquerque, where she succumbed to her injuries.

Souza was treated at Christus St. Vincent Regional Medical Center and has been released.

Sheriff’s office spokesman Juan Ríos said one firearm found on the set was a modified revolver and a third was a plastic gun.

Former police officer and Georgia-based armorer Matthew Clanton said in an interview Wednesday it’s often common to have a modified gun on set. The modification usually prevents live ammunition from being loaded into the chamber: “It would only be able to accept blanks.”

After the gun was fired, Halls told investigators, Gutierrez opened the cylinder to show him what was inside, the search warrant affidavit says. He saw three rounds with holes in them and one without a hole and “no cap.”

Rounds with holes are often “dummy” rounds, or ammunition with no primer or gunpowder, Clanton said. It’s likely the last casing — the one without a hole — was left from the live ammunition that was fired, he added.

The process for checking guns is often tedious, time consuming and redundant, Clanton said, but when he’s on the job, he forces himself to diligently inspect every gun to ensure the correct ammunition is loaded and to prevent errors.

“Sometimes people get complacent, and they’re so used to it being clear,” he said. “The majority of people like me that do this for a living, we take that very, very seriously. It’s not just insurance and liability — it’s that we don’t want anybody to get hurt or killed.”

Troubles on the set

The fatal shooting of Hutchins, an up-and-coming cinematographer who leaves behind a husband and young child, came after a series of problems on the Rust set.

Sources close to the production have told news outlets it was the fourth time a gun had misfired in a few of weeks of filming. Some complained about other gun-safety issues and said workers on the set had loaded the revolver with live rounds to shoot at beer cans.

Crew members also complained about poor working conditions.

Souza told investigators several camera crew members had walked off the set the morning of the shooting amid a dispute over payments and housing issues, search warrant affidavits say.

After the walkout, the remaining crew had only one camera to use that day and was holding the rehearsal to determine how best to shoot the scene under the limiting conditions, Souza added.

News media have reported Halls, the assistant director, had faced complaints of unsafe practices on other movie sets. Mendoza said his investigators would look into those allegations.

“We definitely want to speak to anybody that has any information in reference to safety issues [on other movie] sets,” he said.

Carmack-Altwies said such information will play into her office’s legal analysis when it receives the sheriff’s investigation.

“It obviously could play into whether charges get filed or not,” she said.

(c)2021 The Santa Fe New Mexican (Santa Fe, N.M.)