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‘Sloppy’ or ‘a scapegoat?’ Two portraits of ‘Rust’ armorer emerge at trial

Hannah Gutierrez leaves for a break in Judge Mary Marlowe Sommer's courtroom at First Judicial District Courthouse on Thursday, Feb. 22, 2024, in Santa Fe, New Mexico. (Jim Weber/Pool/Getty Images/TNS)
February 26, 2024

On the opening day of “Rust” armorer Hannah Gutierrez’s criminal trial, opposing attorneys painted two dramatically different portraits of the beleaguered 26-year-old weapons handler.

Gutierrez could spend up to three years in prison if convicted of involuntary manslaughter and evidence tampering following the October 2021 accidental shooting death of cinematographer Halyna Hutchins on the set of the Alec Baldwin western that was filming near Santa Fe, N.M.

Prosecutors on Thursday alleged Gutierrez failed in her job to make sure there wasn’t live ammunition on the movie set or in Baldwin’s gun. They also alleged she tampered with evidence by giving a small baggie of “suspected cocaine” to a fellow crew member the night of the shooting. Her defense attorneys countered that Gutierrez was being made into a “scapegoat” for a variety of safety failures on the production.

Jurors seated in a Santa Fe County courtroom watched graphic video footage of frantic efforts to save Hutchins minutes after Baldwin accidentally shot her in the chest with a revolver that was being used as a prop.

Santa Fe County Sheriff’s Deputy Nicholas LeFleur was the first witness to take the stand. He was the first law enforcement officer to arrive at Bonanza Creek Ranch on Oct. 21, 2021, after a 911 call reporting injuries from a shooting on the set of the low-budget movie. Hutchins, the 42-year-old Ukraine native and a rising star in the film industry, died later that afternoon.

Twelve jurors and four alternates appeared riveted Thursday by the scenes captured by LeFleur’s lapel camera video, which played on monitors positioned throughout the courtroom — despite several technical glitches that at times interrupted the video.

Gutierrez, seated at the defendant’s table, watched the video stoically. At times, she appeared shaken, Court TV footage showed.

Prosecutors kicked off the first trial in the “Rust” criminal prosecution by attempting to turn the focus onto the victim, Hutchins.

“She was a gifted and talented artist but, above all, she was a loving wife and mother,” Special Prosecutor Jason J. Lewis told the hushed courtroom.

Gutierrez has denied the allegations and has pleaded not guilty to the charges against her.

Baldwin, whose trial has not yet been scheduled, was indicted by a grand jury last month on an involuntary manslaughter charge.

Lewis said crew members called to testify during Gutierrez’s trial, which is expected to span at least two weeks, would describe Gutierrez as “unprofessional” and “sloppy.” Lewis alleged she left guns and ammunition unattended on set.

He also said the armorer apparently didn’t recognize that she’d allegedly brought live bullets with her from her Arizona home to the “Rust” movie set.

Gutierrez has acknowledged loading Baldwin’s Colt .45 revolver on that sunny October day with what she thought were inert “dummy” rounds. She later told investigators that she wished she would have done a better job inspecting the rounds. The gun, in fact, contained live ammo.

During a rehearsal in an old wooden church, Baldwin pointed the gun at Hutchins, who wanted to get a close-up camera angle of the weapon’s muzzle for a scene to build tension in the movie. The script called for Baldwin’s character, an outlaw named Harland Rust, to prepare for a shoot-out in the chapel.

That’s when his gun fired, and Hutchins crumpled to the wooden floor. The bullet passed through Hutchins and ultimately lodged into the director Joel Souza’s shoulder. Doctors at a Santa Fe hospital removed it later that day. Souza recovered from his injuries.

During his opening statement, Lewis displayed an Oct. 10, 2021, photo that he said showed what appeared to be a live round resting in a tray containing dozens of dummy rounds. The image was taken 11 days before the shooting, and Lewis suggested that this might be evidence that the actual bullets had been on the set since filming began early that October.

“Ultimately there were a total of six live bullets found on set.” Lewis said. “Six.”

“This defendant was unprofessional and she failed to do the essential safety functions of the job,” Lewis said. “As a direct result of her failures, Ms. Gutierrez caused Ms. Hutchins’ death.”

Taking his turn, Gutierrez’s lead attorney Jason Bowles disputed the bullet tray photo provided any evidence at all.

“You cannot tell a live round from a dummy from a picture,” Bowles said, noting that individual dummy bullets have different characteristics.

Bowles said the evidence would show that Gutierrez tried her best to do a good job, but she was pulled in different directions, struggling to perform two essential jobs — armorer and assistant prop master.

Gutierrez was responsible for more than a dozen weapons and ammunition. She also was tasked with finding historic items to depict the 1880s setting of the film. One day, she was even tasked with “rolling cowboy cigarettes,” Bowles said.

“She had insufficient time to do her armorer duties because she was also forced to do props,” Bowles said. “Management made a number of mistakes and did not create the proper atmosphere.”

The producers and prosecutors “want to scapegoat her,” Bowles said.

New Mexico’s Occupational Safety and Health Bureau have cited “Rust” producers for failing to make sure the set was a safe workplace, evidence that Bowles said was key to finding blame for the tragic accident.

“What they are trying to do, and what you are seeing in this courtroom today, is trying to blame it all on Hannah, the 24-year-old,” Bowles said, referring to Gutierrez’s age at the time of the incident. “Why? Because she’s an easy target. She was the least powerful person on that set.”

It will be up to the jury — seven men and five women — to decide whether the special prosecutors proved Gutierrez was responsible for Hutchins’ death beyond a reasonable doubt.


© 2024 Los Angeles Times

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