‘Rust’ Investigation: Where Did the Live Round Come From?

‘Rust’ Investigation: Where Did the Live Round Come From?

April 28, 2022

The Santa Fe County Sheriff’s Office released a massive trove on Monday from its ongoing investigation into the fatal shooting on the set of “Rust.” The release adds significantly to the public record of the events leading to the death of cinematographer Halyna Hutchins on Oct. 21.

But it does not answer one key question: Where did the live round come from?

Movies often use real guns, but never real bullets. But on “Rust,” a live round made its way into a Colt .45, which Alec Baldwin fired during set-up for a shot inside a church at the Bonanza Creek Ranch. Investigators would later find seven other suspected live rounds on the set, mixed among dummy rounds.

Det. Alexandria Hancock was tasked with figuring out how they got there. On Nov. 9, she interviewed Hannah Gutierrez Reed, the film’s 24-year-old armorer, who came in with her attorney. The interview was recorded on Hancock’s bodycam.

“Why would there be live ammo on the set?” Hancock asked.

“I have no idea,” Gutierrez Reed said.

The rounds on the set were a mix of calibers and manufacturers — BHA, S&B, Winchester and Starline Brass.

Hancock paged through a series of crime scene photos, showing Gutierrez Reed where each of the suspected live rounds was found. (They were “suspected” to be live because a crime lab had yet to confirm that.) One was in an ammunition box with a bunch of dummy rounds. Two were sitting on top of a cart. One was in Baldwin’s bandolier. All of them — plus the round that killed Hutchins — were Starline Brass.

But that didn’t make any sense. Starline Brass is the dummy round of choice for movie sets.

“This company doesn’t produce live ammo,” Hancock said.

Gutierrez Reed was stunned.

“So… what the fuck?” she said, throwing both hands in the air. “That’s insane.”

The Starline Brass live rounds had the same brand marking — two stars with an arc in between — as the dummy rounds she had been loading into actors’ weapons. It was her job to tell the difference. The lives of the crew depended on it.

“So like what are you saying?” Gutierrez Reed said. “Somehow that one that should have never been able to fire, was able to fire?”

Her attorney jumped in, speculating that someone must have have turned a dummy into a live round.

“Oh my God,” Gutierrez Reed said, dropping her pen.

As it started to sink in, she visibly tensed up. Her eyes darted, and she seemed overwhelmed by emotion.

“Take a deep breath,” Hancock said.

Even though they were the same brand, the live rounds looked slightly different from the dummies. The dummies had a gold-colored primer, while the primer on the live rounds was silver. A dummy round would also rattle when shaken — a BB is placed inside — and a live round would not.

When she loaded Baldwin’s gun, Gutierrez Reed said she pulled four bullets without primers from her pocket. She pulled two others from a box. She said she checked all of them to make sure they were dummies.

But one of the rounds was live. It had a silver primer.

“That didn’t stick out to you when you loaded that gun?” Hancock asked. “The rest of them were not the same color?”

“No,” Gutierrez Reed said.

Gutierrez Reed acknowledged that she had only been working as an armorer for a few months, and had no formal training. There is no official certification process for film armorers.

She told the detective that she had learned the trade from her father, veteran armorer Thell Reed. But there was still a lot she did not know.

At the beginning of the interview, Hancock showed her the industrywide safety bulletins which are typically distributed to crew whenever firearms are used on set.

“I definitely didn’t see anything like this at all,” she said, adding that in fact she had never seen one before. “It might have gotten lost in the email.”

Hancock was puzzled why Gutierrez Reed would jumble together so many different types of bullets. Gutierrez Reed said she typically focused on separating the dummies that had primer caps from the ones that didn’t. But she was not paying attention to the different manufacturers. She seemed unfamiliar with Starline Brass, and did not know — until the detective told her — that the company does not make live rounds.

Asked what she thought happened, Gutierrez Reed said, “At this point it’s kind of seeming like somehow these were mixed in.”

In January, Gutierrez Reed sued Seth Kenney, who supplied most of the guns and ammunition used on “Rust,” alleging that he had negligently mixed dummy and live rounds, leading to the tragedy.

Kenney has denied that the live rounds came from him, saying that he carefully rattle-tests every round before shipping it out. But in a call to Hancock on Oct. 29, he said he believed he knew where the live rounds came from. He did not want to name the man, preferring to call him “this other person.” But he was later identified as Joe Swanson, who runs Motion Picture Blanks, a supplier of blank rounds for the film industry.

Kenney said that a couple of years earlier, Swanson had made some “reloaded” rounds — that is, handmade live rounds — using Starline Brass components. When he heard that the fatal bullet came from a Starline Brass casing, Kenney was sure they had to have come from Swanson.

But how, Hancock asked, would they have gotten from Swanson to a box of dummy ammunition — two years later — on the set of “Rust”?

“Obviously the question going around is, ‘Where did these come from?’” she said.

Kenney said it would be hard to know exactly.

“She just — she commingled stuff,” he said. “That’s my thought. She straight up commingled stuff, and she didn’t do what she was supposed to do. You have to assume that everything’s live coming in. All the Western belts coming in out there are going to be live. Because you can’t trust anyone.”

On Nov. 17 — about a week after the interview with Gutierrez Reed — Hancock talked to her father. Thell Reed, then 78, thought he could help connect the dots. Last August, Reed and Kenney drove out to Texas to work on “1883,” the prequel to “Yellowstone,” the hit Western series on Paramount.

Reed brought along an ammo can with some reloaded rounds, which he had gotten from Swanson. He planned to use the rounds in live firearms training with the actors. Reed said that using live ammunition helped the actors get the feel of a firing a gun, so they would know how to do the recoil during a scene.

After the production wrapped, he said that Kenney wound up with the ammo can and about 200-300 reloaded rounds. Reed said he wanted to get it back. When he came to Albuquerque, three days after the “Rust” shooting, he asked Kenney to return the reloaded rounds. Kenney refused. “He told me to write it off,” Reed said.

“Do you think Seth would still be in possession of this?” Hancock asked.

“I doubt it, the way he’s been talking,” Reed answered.

Two weeks later, the police searched Kenney’s business, PDQ Arm and Prop, and seized “miscellaneous” .45 caliber ammunition and an ammo can. According to Gutierrez Reed’s lawsuit, the ammo can was Reed’s, but the reloaded rounds were missing. Kenney has yet to respond to the lawsuit.

If the police talked to Swanson, it’s not reflected in the documents released on Monday.

“He’s not talking to anybody,” said a woman who answered the phone at his business on Wednesday.

The rounds seized on the set of “Rust” were sent to the FBI’s lab in Quantico, Va., for ballistics analysis. The Sheriff’s office is also waiting for DNA and fingerprint analysis, which may be able to clarify who touched the live rounds. It’s not clear how much longer it will take to get those results — or whether the precise chain of events will ever be established with certainty.

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