On 21 October 2021, Halyna Hutchins turned up to the Bonanza Creek Ranch in New Mexico, the set of the western film she was working on with star Alec Baldwin, for what should have been a normal day at work.
Hutchins, who was Ukrainian, was considered a rising star in her field, having moved to Los Angeles to study film after growing up on an army base in the Russian Arctic, where her father served in the navy.
An experienced cinematographer and crew member with previous action film credits, she was used to being on location, helping to bring stories to screen.
The 42-year-old mother of one appeared to be enjoying her time in the city of Santa Fe, sharing photographs of sunrises and other moments from the Rust set on social media in the days before the tragedy that unfolded.
But while rehearsing for a scene involving a firearm, the prop gun, held by Baldwin, was discharged, the bullet wounding director Joel Souza and fatally striking Hutchins. The star believed the .45 Colt he had been handed was “cold”, or unloaded.
The cinematographer’s death made headlines around the world, with claims of safety concerns on set in the days leading up to the tragedy quickly coming to the fore. A lawyer for Hannah Gutierrez-Reed, the film’s armourer (the person in charge of weapons on set), alleged the gun may have been sabotaged.
Lawsuits from crew members and Hutchins’ husband, Matthew, followed, as Baldwin, 64, gave an on-camera interview saying he didn’t pull the trigger, that the weapon misfired as he cocked it, and that he did not know how live rounds came to be on set.
How the gun went off is a detail that remains contested, with an FBI report released in August 2022 concluding that the gun could not have been fired without the trigger being physically pulled.
At the beginning of October 2022 came confirmation of an undisclosed settlement between Baldwin and the production company for the film, and Hutchins’ family – and the announcement that filming of Rust would resume early in 2023, with Matthew Hutchins executive producing.
The criminal inquiry into what happened on set that day continues, despite the civil settlement. But a year on from Hutchins’ untimely death, charges are still to be brought.
Santa Fe’s district attorney (DA) has been granted additional funding to investigate the high-profile case, saying in a letter to the State of New Mexico Board of Finance, seen by Sky News, that she anticipates prosecuting “up to four individuals” if it is found that charges are warranted. The names of those individuals have not been released.
Strict safety protocols are typically in place on film and TV sets, especially when weapons are being handled. So how did this tragedy happen – and why, after a year, is the investigation still ongoing?
The DA’s investigation: ‘Many individuals had handled the gun’
In August, an FBI report concluded that Baldwin did pull the gun’s trigger.
The report, seen by Sky News, said that with the hammer (the part of a gun that strikes the firing pin) in the quarter – and half-cock positions, the gun “could not be made to fire without a pull of the trigger”.
The FBI’s review came after a separate report by safety regulators found that management on set “knew that firearm safety procedures were not being followed”, with the Rust film company fined a maximum $139,793 (£107,019) over the “avoidable loss of life“.
At the time, Rust Movie Productions said it disagreed with the findings and planned to appeal.
The Santa Fe district attorney, or chief prosecutor, had been waiting for the results of the FBI investigation before looking at charges.
In a letter requesting funds to aid her work, dated 30 August 2022, Mary Carmack-Altwies said: “During the filming of [RUST], Alec Baldwin shot and killed Halyna Hutchins and injured Joel Souza while rehearsing a scene.
“Many individuals had handled the gun that ultimately killed Hutchins and injured Souza.”
She continued: “If charges are warranted, the FJDA (First Judicial District Attorney) anticipates prosecuting up to four individuals.”
While the names of those individuals were not included in the letter, as Baldwin was involved in the incident he could be one of them.
Ms Carmack-Altwies went on to say that while she was ready to start considering charges, “I do not have the proper funding in my budget to prosecute such a high-profile case”. A request of $635,000 (about £565,000) was made, with the State Of New Mexico Board of Finance agreeing on 20 September 2022 to just over half this amount, $317,750 (about £282,900).
A spokesperson for the district attorney told Sky News there is no set timeline to make a decision on whether to file charges and that they are still awaiting a final report from the Santa Fe County Sheriff.
“Once she receives the report, the district attorney and her team of professional attorneys and investigators will carefully review all of the materials provided,” the spokesperson said. “The district attorney’s priority will be upholding the integrity of the process and ensuring that, like any other case she handles, this investigation is held to the highest standards.”
Details of what the charges could be, if the DA decides to move forward with prosecution, have not been released, but the prosecutor is understood to be looking at all New Mexico laws that might be applicable to the case – which could include involuntary manslaughter and negligent use of a deadly weapon.
Sky News has also contacted the Santa Fe County Sheriff’s office for an update. It is understood the sheriff office’s report is expected to be ready in the next week or so.
In a statement in August, a spokesperson said detectives were waiting to receive and review phone records before forwarding their case file to the DA for review.
Before the shooting
Filming of Rust began on 6 October 2021, according to the New Mexico Film Office, and was set to take place throughout that month and into November 2021.
“Rust is the story of a 13-year-old boy, left to fend for himself and his younger brother following the death of their parents in 1880s Kansas, [who] goes on the run with his long-estranged grandfather after he’s sentenced to hanging for the accidental killing of a local rancher,” the film office said in a statement announcing production had started.
From New Mexico, about 75 crew members, 22 principal actors, and 230 “background talent” were taking part in the film, it said.
In the days before her death, Hutchins shared photos and videos from the set on Instagram. Her last, just two days before the tragedy, showed a clip of her horse riding.
“One of the perks of shooting a western is you get to ride horses on your day off,” she wrote.
The day of Hutchins’ death
According to police reports, the shooting took place shortly before 1.50pm. The bullet hit Hutchins in the chest.
Rust’s assistant director Dave Halls had earlier handed Baldwin the prop gun and indicated it was safe to use, according to court documents.
A search warrant filed in a Santa Fe court suggested neither Baldwin nor Halls knew the weapon was loaded with live rounds.
The recording of the 911 call made was released in the days after the tragedy. Script supervisor Mamie Mitchell could be heard telling the operator “we need help immediately”.
Asked if the gun was loaded with a real bullet, she replied: “I don’t, I cannot tell you that… we have two injuries from a movie gunshot.”
When asked if there was “any serious bleeding”, Ms Mitchell replied: “I don’t know. I ran out of the building.”
An unidentified male voice later came on the line and told the operator the two people who were shot were “alert” but he was not sure which parts of their bodies were injured.
In April 2022, police in New Mexico made public all the files associated with the criminal investigation into Hutchins’ death, including camera footage from detectives, incident reports, crime scene photos and witness interviews collected during the investigation.
One clip showed Baldwin rehearsing with the gun that went off.
With Ms Hutchins behind the camera lining up what would be her last ever scene, the footage showed Baldwin sitting inside a church, dressed in period Western costume, pulling out the revolver.
Why do film sets use real guns?
As tributes were paid to Hutchins, her death also raised questions about the use of guns on sets.
When special effects can conjure up a talking tiger and other animals in the Jungle Book, and create dragons for Game Of Thrones, why use real firearms?
“With firearms, you only get one mistake and somebody’s dead. There’s just no reason to take that risk,” California state senator Dave Cortese said in an interview in the wake of the fatal shooting.
Craig Zobel, the director of the Emmy-winning Mare Of Easttown series, starring Kate Winslet, tweeted: “There’s no reason to have guns loaded with blanks or anything on set anymore. Should just be fully outlawed.”
Dwayne Johnson also said his production company would no long use real guns or bullets on set.
“We are going to be using rubber guns and we’ll take care of it in post [production] and we won’t worry about the dollars or won’t worry about math or what the cost is,” he said at the time.
Speaking to Sky News at the UK premiere of his new superhero film Black Adam, he gave an update, saying: “We’ve done some reshoots, of course, on our sets and we have put that in practice and you actually realise it becomes very seamless.
“It’s just a matter of standing by the decision and then making sure that everyone is aligned with it because everyone really just wants a safer set.
“And by the way that’s not an indictment on our armoury guys, our gun guys. I believe in the right to arm… guns, and I’m a gun owner. But I also think the most important thing is complete safety on our set. So it’s been going very well and we’ll continue down this road.”
The safety concerns raised
In November 2021, Ms Mitchell and Serge Svetnoy, the film’s chief electrician, both filed lawsuits.
At a news conference, Ms Mitchell’s lawyer Gloria Allred claimed Baldwin, an “industry veteran”, should not have trusted a gun handed to him by anyone other than the prop master or armourer.
She described his and producers’ behaviour as “reckless”.
Ms Allred said safety failures included allowing live ammunition on set, leaving guns and ammunition unattended and permitting them to be handled by people other than the armourer and prop master.
Mr Svetnoy was inside the church set when Hutchins was shot, standing just feet from the actor. He described being hit with bullet fragments before cradling the dying cinematographer, whom he had known for several years, for more than 20 minutes before an ambulance arrived.
A resignation letter from former crew member Lane Luper also emerged in the weeks after the shooting, and he said he “never felt as close to death” on a set as he did on the set of Rust.
Mr Luper was the lead camera operator for the production but resigned the day before the tragedy.
In his resignation letter to a production manager, seen by Sky News, Mr Luper highlighted concerns about the safety and welfare of crew as the reason for him walking away.
In the email, he noted two accidental discharges of firearms and one accidental discharge of special effects explosives in the days before Hutchins was killed.
‘Someone is responsible… I know it’s not me’
In an interview with Good Morning America in December 2021, Baldwin said he did not feel guilt over the shooting and that there was “only one question to be resolved – where did the live round come from?”
The star told host George Stephanopoulos that he and Hutchins “had something profound in common, and that is we both assumed the gun was empty”.
When asked if he felt guilt over her death, he said: “No. No. I feel that… someone is responsible for what happened and I can’t say who that is, but I know it’s not me. Honest to God, if I felt that I was responsible, I might’ve killed myself if I thought that I was responsible. And I don’t say that lightly.”
Speaking about the moments before the gun went off, he said: “I cock the gun. I go, ‘Can you see that? Can you see that? Can you see that?’ And then I let go of the hammer of the gun, and the gun goes off.”
The actor said he did not realise what had happened at first, as “the idea that someone put a live bullet in the gun was not even in reality”.
“She goes down,” he said. “I thought to myself, did she faint? The notion that there was a live round in that gun did not dawn on me till probably 45 minutes to an hour later.”
In another interview in August 2022, Baldwin responded to the FBI’s report concluding that the gun’s trigger had been pulled, saying the bullet could have fired through a process called “fanning”.
“This did not come from me, this came from the DA’s office themselves,” he told US journalist Chris Cuomo on his podcast.
“If you pull the hammer back, and you don’t lock the hammer; if you pull the hammer back pretty far – in old Western movies you’d see someone fan the hammer of the gun.
“The hammer didn’t lock. You pulled it back to an extent where it would fire the bullet without you pulling the trigger, without you locking the hammer.”
He also said that “everybody who was there, they know exactly what happened. They know exactly who’s to blame”.
Baldwin also commented on the slow progress of the investigation, saying: “The fact that this has taken so long has been quite troublesome to me.”
What did the separate parties say about the civil settlement?
The undisclosed settlement between Hutchins’ family, Baldwin and Rust Movie Productions was announced on 5 October 2022.
“I have no interest in engaging in recriminations or attribution of blame (to the producers or Mr Baldwin),” Matthew Hutchins said in a statement. “All of us believe Halyna’s death was a terrible accident. I am grateful that the producers and the entertainment community have come together to pay tribute to Halyna’s final work.”
Rust Movie Productions, through attorney Melina Spadone, said: “We are pleased the parties came together to resolve this matter, which, subject to court approval, marks an important step forward in celebrating Halyna’s life and honouring her work.”
Alec Baldwin’s attorney, Luke Nikas, said: “Throughout this difficult process, everyone has maintained the specific desire to do what is best for Halyna’s son. We are grateful to everyone who contributed to the resolution of this tragic and painful situation.”
Rust director Joel Souza said: “Those of us who were lucky enough to have spent time with Halyna knew her to be exceedingly talented, kind, creative, and a source of incredible positive energy. I only wish the world had gotten to know her under different circumstances, as it surely would have through her amazing work.
“In my own attempts to heal, any decision to return to finish directing the film could only make sense for me if it was done with the involvement of Matt and the Hutchins family. Though certainly bittersweet, I am pleased that together, we will now complete what Halyna and I started. My every effort on this film will be devoted to honouring Halyna’s legacy and making her proud. It is a privilege to see this through on her behalf.”
What happens now?
Following the announcement of the civil settlement, the DA’s office issued a statement to say the agreement would have “no impact” on the ongoing criminal investigation.
“While civil suits are settled privately and often involve financial awards, criminal cases deal only in facts,” the statement said.
“If the facts and evidence warrant criminal charges under New Mexico law then charges will be brought. No one is above the law.”
Read more: The tributes to Halyna Hutchins
So the criminal inquiry continues.
If charges are brought by the DA, it is understood most defendants would get separate jury trials, with preliminary hearings, which could take several weeks each to complete.
Sky News has contacted representatives for Alec Baldwin and Rust Productions for comment.