Alec Baldwin was “sitting in a pew in a church building setting, and he was practicing a cross draw.”
That line from search warrant documents filed by the Santa Fe County Sheriff’s Office captures the precise moment before a prop gun from the set of the Old West movie Rust went off in the actor’s hand on October 21, striking and killing cinematographer Halyna Hutchins and wounding writer-director Joel Souza.
“Joel said he was looking over the shoulder of Halyna, when he heard what sounded like a whip and then loud pop,” states the document filed by Detective Joel Cano, which the sheriff’s office released to Vanity Fair.
Witnesses described the next moments in confusing terms. The fact that a prop gun would have a “live round” in it capable of striking and killing someone was, in a word, unthinkable. As chronicled in the search warrant document, the horrific reality descends in halting, dreamlike ways.
The wounded director, Souza, “vaguely remembers Halyna complaining about her stomach and grabbing her midsection,” the document says. She “began to stumble backwards and she was assisted to the ground.” That’s when Souza realized he was bleeding from his shoulder. He then saw there was blood on Hutchins too.
Reid Russell, the camera operator who was standing beside the pair, told investigators he heard the bang but wasn’t sure at first what it was. Then he noticed the blood on the director. As the cinematographer collapsed, Russell said she was conscious and talking, “saying she couldn’t feel her legs.”
On-set medics swarmed Hutchins as she lay bleeding on the floor of the wooden church. A 911 call reporting “gunshot trauma” went out, and sheriff’s deputies and rescue workers hurried to the scene.
An ambulance carried Souza away to a nearby Santa Fe hospital, and the next day he would be well enough to offer his account to detective Cano. A helicopter swept Hutchins to the University of New Mexico Hospital in Albuquerque, where she would be pronounced dead.
Halyna Hutchins’s last day had begun at dawn.
The crew gathered on set at about 6:30 a.m., Souza says in the search warrant document.
Hutchins sometimes documented the sunrises on Instagram. “One of the best parts of shooting a western are mornings like this!” she wrote on October 8, posting an image of crew workers gathered on a ridge, silhouetted against a glowing eastern horizon.
This Thursday on the production was especially fraught. Some crew members had been rebelling against the producers, complaining of pay issues and long workdays. The Los Angeles Times reported that some wanted the film to put them up in nearby hotel rooms as a way to reduce long return commutes and allow workers to get more rest before starting again the next day.
That clash caused a handful of workers to leave the movie, leading to a last-minute scramble. “During the morning hours, the day started off late due to a camera crew that had quit,” the search warrant document states. “[Producers] had to find another camera crew to help film the movie.”
The director suggested to investigators that they might have had even more cameras rolling if they weren’t short staffed, but after recruiting a replacement crew, they only had enough workers for one setup. That slowed things down even more.
Cano asked the director whether this tension impacted the behavior of the crew who did show up to work. “He said everyone was getting along,” the document says. “There were no altercations that took place to his knowledge.” Russell, the camera operator, backed up that claim.
The camera for the scene in the old church was being set up before lunch, then the crew took a break around 12:30 p.m. Afterward, they returned to continue rehearsing the sequence.
Souza told the investigator that during this time, “because of his job, he was more concentrated on the monitors of the cameras and screens,” Cano wrote.
The director told the detective that, to his knowledge, only three people had handled the weapon: Armorer Hannah Gutierrez, assistant director Dave Halls, and Baldwin himself.
As the actor and filmmakers gathered for the rehearsal, the prop gun sat on a gray rolling table outside the church. This indirect hand-off between armorer and assistant director was deliberate, Cano wrote: “[It] was left outside of the structure due to COVID-19 restrictions.”
Baldwin was preparing to do a “cross draw.” That meant the firearm was holstered on the opposite side of his body from the hand that would do the firing, with the handle at his abdomen and the barrel pointing down and off to his side.
A cross draw is largely a horizontal movement: You reach across your midsection, grasp the handle, and swing it out to aim. When the gun is holstered on the same side as the firing hand, pulling it out is more of a vertical gesture. Cross draws are not the most efficient way to handle a weapon, but they look stylish and are frequently done in movies and on TV shows.
Baldwin had grown a bushy white beard and long shaggy hair for his role, and he was garbed in old-time clothing as rehearsals began in the church after lunch. The actor took his place, and “one of the prop-guns was then grabbed by the Assistant Director (Dave Halls)” from the rolling table that armorer Gutierrez had set up outside, Cano wrote.
“As the Assistant Director (Dave Halls) handed the gun to Actor Alec Baldwin, (Dave Halls) yelled, ‘Cold gun,’ indicating the prop-gun did not have any live rounds,” the detective added. The investigator says he later learned that Halls “did not know live rounds were in the prop-gun.”
The director, Souza, also recounted hearing the “cold gun” announcement. “According to Joel it was his belief the gun being used in the rehearsal was safe,” Cano wrote.
The director told the investigator that his understanding was that “the firearms are checked by Hannah who is the Armorer, and then the firearm is checked by the Assistant Director Dave Halls, who then gives it to the Actor using the firearm.”
It’s not clear from the search warrant documents what effort, if any, Halls may have undertook to check the weapon. No statements from either the assistant director or the armorer are included in the filings.
After taking the gun, Baldwin sat down on a wooden pew, and prepared to walk through the sequence. The director said, “the rehearsal entailed Actor Alec Baldwin cross drawing his weapon and pointing the revolver towards the camera lens.”
The church on the set of the Bonanza Creek Ranch looks like it has been there forever, but everything on this vast stretch of land is relatively recent construction, supplied with electricity and water to recruit movie and TV productions. Hollywood has been building sets here since 1955’s The Man From Laramie, starring James Stewart, and the property has been a location for everything from Silverado and Lonesome Dove to Cowboys & Aliens and All the Pretty Horses.
The church is a small structure with four windows on either side, and two large windows on the back over the altar, with a smaller one high up in the center. A cross stands atop its squat steeple. The wood that makes up its exterior is bleached from the sun and rain. The building looks worn out and decayed—more like a feast for termites than a place of worship.
Russell, the camera operator, told investigators that Baldwin already had the gun when he walked into the church to get behind the camera. A new complication had arisen during the lunch break: The sun had shifted. “Reid said while preparing, there was a shadow coming from the outside light and they had to move the camera at a different angle from Alec,” the search warrant document states.
Baldwin was consulting with the filmmakers about where he would be positioned and how he would move. “Alec was trying to explain how he was going to draw out the firearm and where his arm would be when the firearm was pulled from the holster,” the camera operator told investigators.
That’s when it went off.
“Reid was not sure why the firearm was discharged and just remembered the loud bang,” the document says. The camera operator said no video or audio was being recorded.
The detective also wanted to know about Baldwin’s behavior on set, which led to an anecdote about how the actor had tried to protect a young onlooker during a different sequence. “Reid said Alec had been very careful, and brought up an instance when a scene was being filmed earlier,” the document says. “Reid said Alec had made sure it was safe and that a child wasn’t near him when they were discharging a firearm in that scene.”
Cano asked the director about the possibility of real bullets being brought to set. “Joel said as far as he knows, no one gets checked for live ammunition on their person prior and after the scenes are being filmed,” the investigator wrote. “The only thing checked are the firearms to avoid live ammunition being in them. Joel stated there should never be live rounds whatsoever, near or around the scene.”
After Hutchins and Souza were taken away by rescue personnel, the investigators began collecting materials from the scene. “The incident happened in close proximity which can lead to a transfer of evidence,” the document says.
Baldwin changed into his personal clothes and turned over his Old West costume to the sheriff’s office. “These clothes appear to have blood stains,” the search warrant document states.
But what became of the gun?
“The Armorer (Hannah Gutierrez) was given the prop gun after it was fired by Actor Alec Baldwin,” the document states. “She then took the spent casing out of the prop-gun.”
Why she did this and what became of that specific casing is unclear.
Cano said the gun and “prop-ammunition” had been secured by other deputies before his arrival. Among the items the search warrant seeks to acquire are “documentation that establishes ownership of said firearm(s)” and “Ammunition(s), used or unused whether it be live ammunition or prop ammunition, projectiles, casings whether spent or unspent.”
The search warrant documents were signed by a judge on Friday, October 22, the day after the shooting, and it authorized a search of the set. By then, the crew, the witnesses, and the victims had all been taken away.
What remained inside the church was an abandoned set: cameras, a Western-style jacket, and blood stains on the floor.
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