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It was supposed to be their big break. Now two 24-year-olds are at the center of the ‘Rust’ shooting investigation

A western set at night.
The Bonanza Creek Ranch set of “Rust” outside Santa Fe, N.M., on the evening of Oct. 9.
(Photo provided by a “Rust” crew member)

When Hannah Gutierrez Reed landed a job working on the Alec Baldwin western “Rust,” she couldn’t believe her luck.

“How f— up is it that life’s been so good lately I can’t help but feel like I’m about to fall from grace?” she posted on Facebook on Sept. 29, two days after being offered a dual position as the film’s armorer and key prop assistant.

She had cause to celebrate her good fortune. It was unusual for a 24-year-old who had only been in charge of guns on one prior feature film to get a head armorer position — let alone additional prop responsibility. She would work in New Mexico alongside Sarah Zachry, also 24, who had been hired as the movie’s property master.

The two twentysomethings met just eight days before production. One of their first outings took them to an adobe-style office in Albuquerque with no sign, tinted windows and dying vegetation. The proprietor, weapons expert Seth Kenney, was providing the guns and some ammunition for the film as well as serving as “armorer mentor.” He would work behind the scenes, offering advice and direction to the novices. While Kenney’s name appeared on an internal “Rust” crew list, he was not listed on daily call sheets viewed by The Times.

In a written statement, Kenney confirmed that his company, PDQ Arm & Prop LLC, provided “the guns, Blanks and a portion of Dummy Rounds” for “Rust” but said it “did not provide Live Ammunition.” He said that the “Rust” production company erroneously listed him as the “armorer mentor,” that he did not “hold any other position or capacity with ‘Rust,’ and prior to the tragedy had never been to set or the production office.”

Kenney had referred Gutierrez Reed for the job on “Rust,” according to him and a person close to the production who was not authorized to comment. He had previously worked with her father, industry gunslinger Thell Reed, on a few film projects.

Kenney described Gutierrez Reed as “atypical” for the armorer role but said she had grown up on sets and been trained by her father. Kenney also said that he “made the introduction” between Zachry and the “Rust” producers. He said Zachry also served as PDQ’s “firearms representative.”

Between them, Gutierrez Reed and Zachry had just seven industry credits. They’d been hired only after a long list of other prop masters and armorers were approached for the jobs. Many were unavailable, while some turned it down due to concerns over safety and producers’ demand that one person juggle the duties of armorer as well as prop assistant.

For Gutierrez Reed and Zachry, however, landing such high-pressure roles on the $7-million independent film was a chance for a big break.

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Now they, along with Kenney, are at the center of a tragedy surrounding the death of Halyna Hutchins, who was killed when Baldwin shot a lead bullet from a prop gun that should have contained only harmless dummy rounds. Santa Fe County sheriff’s deputies are investigating key details, including who provided a new box of dummies to the movie set that day. The armorer, prop master and mentor have been named in two lawsuits filed this month by crew members who witnessed the fatal shooting and allege lax gun safety put them in harm’s way.

Those suits also name assistant director David Halls — who was responsible for checking the gun before use and overseeing safety on the set — and fault “Rust” producers for not hiring more experienced crew to handle weapons for the action-heavy western.

There was trouble within the film’s tiny props department long before Hutchins was killed. Six days before Baldwin fired the bullet from his Colt .45 revolver, striking Hutchins and the film’s director, Joel Souza, there was another accidental shooting on set. The incident revealed a fear of reporting mishaps on a set that was already behind schedule, according to texts shared with The Times.

On Oct. 16, Zachry accidentally shot herself in the foot with a blank fired from a gun. She was not injured, but the gun “went off right in her hands,” according to a crew member who witnessed the incident at Bonanza Creek Ranch, 13 miles south of Santa Fe. Will Waggoner, Zachry’s lawyer, did not respond to questions about the accidental discharge.

“Happens to everyone, move on,” Kenney texted Gutierrez Reed following the incident.

“It sure doesn’t look good, tho,” Gutierrez Reed responded.

The texts between the two have been viewed by The Times and authenticated by two people close to the situation who are not authorized to speak publicly. In the messages, Kenney urged Gutierrez Reed not to report Zachry’s accidental discharge to the “Rust” production office, and he suggested the armorer had slipped up too.

“Accidents and mistakes happen,” Kenney wrote to Gutierrez Reed. “Accidental discharges are accidents. A mistake is where the Armorer provides a gun and Full Load Ammo to be fired with a horse in the vicinity. Will you tell Production about that?”

“Don’t forget [Zachry]’s your boss. Don’t push it,” continued Kenney.

“Excuse you? What mistakes do you think I’m making? Will I tell production about what?” Gutierrez Reed wrote back.

“You think I’m running to production to taddle?” Gutierrez Reed wrote. “If [Zachry] doesn’t like me, when I barely said anything about it, you can come back and finish the show. I’m not going to stay where I’m a f—ing problem.”

Gutierrez Reed declined to comment.

In his statement, Kenney said: “There is no industry wide reporting criteria when it comes to injury-free on set accidental discharges. Regardless, Sarah did the right thing, had already self-reported and was accountable for her actions.”

People on the set of a western
The Bonanza Creek Ranch set of “Rust” outside Santa Fe, N.M., on Oct. 8.
(Provided to the Los Angeles Times)

Zachry and Gutierrez Reed were not the filmmakers’ first choice, or even their fifth. The Times spoke with more than a dozen people in New Mexico, Los Angeles and Texas who said they’d been approached about prop master and armorer jobs on “Rust” in late August and September.

On Sept. 21, exactly one month before Hutchins was shot, Gabrielle Pickle — the Atlanta-based line producer who arrived in New Mexico several weeks earlier to run the day-to-day production of “Rust” — reached out to Scott “Sarge” Rasmussen, an armorer in Albuquerque.

“We are in a bind and need someone to start in props immediately,” Pickle wrote to Rasmussen, according to a copy of the email that was viewed by The Times.

Two days later, production managers advertised the position in an email blast and on an online portal that lists upcoming jobs for members of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees.

“Rust … is in search of a prop master asap. Previous western or armory experience [is] a plus, but not necessary,” the posting said, noting that the position would start that very day.

Fueled by generous tax credits and streamers hungry to produce new content after production delays due to COVID-19, producers have flocked to New Mexico. The boom has strained the New Mexico hiring pool, leaving an insufficient number of experienced union film workers to staff all the productions clamoring to hire.

During the week of the IATSE job posting, the film’s unit production managers were simultaneously trying to recruit Rasmussen and L.A.-based prop master Neal W. Zoromski to run the props department.

Both eventually turned down the job.

Rasmussen, who has nearly a half-century of experience handling guns, ultimately wasn’t interested in being both prop master and armorer. In an interview, he said he offered to serve only as the armorer but never heard back.

Zoromski, who has worked three decades in Hollywood, previously told The Times that he declined to participate after getting “a bad feeling” about the project. Like Rasmussen, he was put off by producers’ insistence that one person perform two important and time-consuming jobs.

Much of a prop master’s work, including sourcing a multitude of period-specific objects and weapons needed for a western, takes place during “prep.” Several experienced prop masters said they would expect at least two weeks prep time for a film like “Rust,” which was set in the 1880s. Prop masters want to make sure props look authentic and are in usable condition.

Time was running out. Cameras were set to roll Oct. 6.

Questions linger about the handling of guns on the “Rust” set. Prop weapon supplier Seth Kenney was attached to the production.

Zachry, who did not respond to a request for comment, had been employed on five movie sets before joining “Rust.”

She worked as a cardiovascular technician before entering the film industry and in college considered becoming an occupational therapist. She also dipped her toe into modeling, setting up a profile on the casting-call website ExploreTalent. There, the Albuquerque native said she enjoyed “socializing, teaching and mentoring (at church), do[ing] anything outdoors, reading, photography, and looking for new places to visit.”

In 2019, she got her first job on a film set, working as a set decorator on the Lifetime movie “The Secret Life of a Celebrity Surrogate.”

The Times spoke with more than a dozen of Zachry’s friends and former production colleagues, most of whom asked to remain anonymous given the sensitivity of ongoing investigations. They described her as exceedingly nice, hardworking and eager to please.

Before “Rust,” Zachry worked in the props department on three low-budget independent films in 2021.

“Poor thing was running around because we were a small crew and had to wear multiple hats,” said Eric Kirker, special effects supervisor on one of those films, “The Price We Pay,” on which Zachry oversaw both props and weapons. “You’d see her running back and forth, but she was great. She did her thing safely.”

Zachry met Kenney in July, when she was sourcing weapons for “The Price We Pay,” according to Kenney and a person close to Zachry who was not authorized to comment.

With “Rust,” Zachry was excited at the prospect of being a department head for the first time, one of her friends said. And the job paid well: about $30 an hour. Zachry had told friends that she was saving money for her wedding next year. She and her fiance have known each other since Zachry was in high school; both were active in their church, where she mentored young women.

Zachry was approached by the production on Sept. 23 and accepted the job on “Rust” a day later, according to her lawyer.

Alec Baldwin leans over with his hands on his knees
A distraught Alec Baldwin outside the Santa Fe County Sheriff’s Office in New Mexico after fatally shooting cinematographer Halyna Hutchins and wounding director Joel Souza.
(Jim Weber / Santa Fe New Mexican)

Kenney has worked in the film industry since at least 2011, when he began a five-year stint at Los Angeles’ Hand Prop Room, where he handled the store’s weapon arsenal before an acrimonious departure in 2016. In 2019, he opened PDQ Arm & Prop LLC in Albuquerque, after forming the similarly named PDQ Media Arm & Prop in Lake Havasu City, Ariz., two years earlier, according to state records.

Gutierrez Reed reached out to Kenney in September, asking if he knew of any available armory jobs. He then gave her name to “Rust” production managers, according to Kenney.

Zachry’s lawyer said Kenney also suggested Gutierrez Reed to her, and she passed the armorer’s name to production managers.

“She was not the hiring person on this, just more of a messenger than anything,” said Waggoner, Zachry’s attorney, noting the production ultimately hired Gutierrez Reed. Zachry did not supervise Gutierrez Reed in her armory duties, Waggoner said.

The armorer and Zachry met for the first time Sept. 28 — just over a week before the start of production. The two women picked up guns and ammunition from Kenney that day, Waggoner said.

“The props department started literally a week before we started shooting,” a “Rust” crew member involved with preproduction recalled. “They just weren’t there. And then one day it was like, ‘Here are the props people.’”

Zachry expressed several times to a friend in the film business that she wasn’t sure she was ready for such a big job. According to that friend, who was not authorized to speak publicly about the matter, Zachry said she would have preferred to be the prop assistant rather than the prop master. The friend viewed her hesitancy as indicative of Zachry’s humble nature.

In a written statement, Waggoner, Zachry’s lawyer, said she was happy being prop master and did not want to be a prop assistant.

With Gutierrez Reed doubling as key prop assistant — an uncommon title that several prop masters said probably connoted that she was second in command in the department — Zachry turned to her fiance’s 19-year-old sister, Nicole Montoya, for additional help.

Montoya was identified as prop assistant in production records viewed by The Times. On social media accounts, she described herself as a film and digital media studies student at the University of New Mexico and had previously worked at Dion’s Pizza, a local favorite in Albuquerque. Montoya did not respond to repeated calls from The Times.

Unlike Zachry, Gutierrez Reed had grown up around film sets, accompanying her father to such productions as “3:10 to Yuma,” which was filmed in part at Bonanza Creek Ranch.

Thell Reed, 78, is known around Hollywood for training actors to use weapons on such films as Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood” and “Django Unchained.” He has worked closely with Brad Pitt, Leonardo DiCaprio and Jamie Foxx.

Gutierrez Reed, who lives in Bullhead City, Ariz., studied cinematography and film production at Northern Arizona University. But she also expressed interest in appearing in front of the camera. In 2016, while she was a college student, she joined Model Mayhem, a website that connects aspiring models with photographers.

“I’ve been modeling for half a year now I’ve found a burning passion and yearn to turn it into a career,” she wrote on her page, where she went by “blastbeatbabe.” “Lets take some shots, and some great pictures too hahaha.” (Following Hutchins’ death, Gutierrez Reed deleted a number of her social media accounts, including her “CosmicCorpse” Twitter profile.)

Her first professional job on a film set came earlier this year, when she traveled with her father to Montana to work together on the western “Murder at Emigrant Gulch.” Reed had been hired as an armorer on the movie, and Gutierrez Reed was his assistant. In a September podcast interview, Gutierrez Reed said her father showed her how to load blanks into guns and took her “from being completely green and taught me everything.”

One crew member from “Murder at Emigrant Gulch” told The Times that there were “never any issues” with guns. “Part of that could have been that Hannah wasn’t the head of the armory department, and we had a separate props department,” the person acknowledged. “When we weren’t shooting guns, Hannah and Thell were just standing by. They didn’t have other jobs.”

This person said Gutierrez Reed was eager to learn, though at times she was unfamiliar with set protocols. “I would call the first team ... and sometimes she wouldn’t come right away. So I’d have to say, ‘Hannah, listen to your radio. You have to listen to the walkie-talkie all the time.’”

Soon after “Murder at Emigrant Gulch” wrapped, Gutierrez Reed got her first major break: working as the lead armorer on “The Old Way,” a Nicolas Cage western also shooting in Montana. “I almost didn’t take the job because I wasn’t sure if I was ready,” she said in the September podcast interview. But she did accept the position, and there were two unannounced gun discharges on “The Old Way,” one that irked Cage.

An experienced key grip on “The Old Way,” Stu Brumbaugh, asked for her dismissal.

“Most of the crew could see that she was in deep water, and barely treading,” Brumbaugh said. “She had different people screaming at her to rush and she was running all over the place, and when you’re 24 years old and it’s your first film … it’s difficult to say ‘no.’”

Neal W. Zoromski has worked on movies big and small. But dealing with producers of “Rust” gave him “a bad feeling.”

Increasingly, the problem in the entertainment industry, Brumbaugh said, “is that producers are being cheap. They create shortcuts by hamstringing department heads with limited crew, support and sufficient time to do their jobs safely and efficiently.”

The producers, Rust Movie Productions LLC, said in a statement: “The safety of our cast and crew is the top priority of Rust Productions and everyone associated with the company.”

Once filming commenced at Bonanza Creek Ranch, the pace grew frenetic.

Gutierrez Reed and Zachry were frequently yelled at for not having props or guns ready on time, according to multiple crew members who spoke with The Times.

Waggoner, Zachry’s lawyer, said several times that having Gutierrez Reed serve as both prop assistant and armorer “didn’t work out,” and an additional props assistant was brought in because of this. However, he later clarified in a written statement that Gutierrez Reed “was never actually removed from helping or doing prop assistant work with Sarah.”

Gutierrez Reed complained to production managers about the lack of a dedicated cart for her guns and the ammunition. Experienced prop handlers typically have their own “kit” with equipment that they’ve amassed over the years. Gutierrez Reed begged the production office for a cart, according to a source familiar with the matter and “Rust” production office internal communications, which were shared with The Times.

On the third day of filming, Katherine “Row” Walters, the unit production manager, mentioned the request for a props cart in a message in the group’s Slack communications channel. “I just need to have something,” Walters wrote Oct. 8. “She’s been asking me for days and I keep telling her just to go buy it but apparently it’s our problem now.”

Production office coordinator Krissy Nothstein replied: “Can we check Walmart for beach wagon. ... And it is not our problem. We are only assisting the best we can with the resources available.” A representative for the unit producers declined to comment Thursday.

A cart eventually was provided.

One crew member described seeing Gutierrez Reed, on several occasions, running while holding guns. He noted that he’d never seen an armorer run on set before.

“Most of the time it’s older guys that just don’t run anyway,” he said.

According to production call sheets viewed by The Times, guns were needed on 10 of the 12 film days, with multiple guns used per day. The production halted on the 12th day of its 21-day schedule, following Hutchins’ death.

Live gunfire was also called for on at least half of the shooting days, according to the call sheets.

Chief lighting director Serge Svetnoy, who held Hutchins in his arms as she lay dying, filed a lawsuit this month that alleged producers were negligent in her death. Baldwin’s Colt revolver was “left unsecured on a prop cart for a period of time” the day of the shooting, the lawsuit said, adding, “The ammunition used on the Rust set was never stored securely and was simply left unattended in the prop truck.”

At a news conference, Svetnoy said he saw Gutierrez Reed carry guns under her belt. The gaffer also said that a few days before Hutchins’ shooting, he saw guns left “unattended in the sand” between film takes and that he reported the incident to “Gutierrez [Reed]’s assistant.”

Gutierrez Reed’s lawyer responded to Svetnoy’s allegations by noting that “Hannah did the best job that she could under the constraints and limited resources that she was provided, working two jobs on set.”

On the same sunny Saturday that Zachry shot herself in the foot with a blank, Baldwin’s stunt double accidentally fired off a round inside a cabin on the set, according to sources who witnessed the incident. A week earlier, there had been a “special effects explosion” as crew members prepared for a gunfight scene, according to a written summary of incidents provided by Lane Luper, the film’s A-camera first assistant.

“We’ve now had 3 accidental discharges. This is super unsafe,” Luper wrote in a text message the afternoon of Oct. 16 to report the latest mishaps to Walters.

3rd Shift Media Productions is facing scrutiny over its role in ‘Rust’ after the cinematographer was killed in an accidental shooting

Criminal charges have yet to be filed in Hutchins’ death, and Santa Fe County Sheriff Adan Mendoza has publicly described Halls, the film’s first assistant director, and Gutierrez Reed as the focus of his investigation, along with Baldwin.

The central question of how live ammunition found its way onto the film set remains unanswered.

Jason Bowles, Gutierrez Reed’s attorney, has raised the specter of sabotage, saying on ABC’s “Good Morning America” that he believes someone “wanted to do something to cause a safety incident on set.”

In the days following the shooting, Zachry reflected on the events immediately preceding the tragedy in a text conversation with a fellow New Mexico film professional, who spoke on condition of anonymity. That conversation was viewed by The Times.

As she struggled to understand how a live bullet had ended up in Baldwin’s gun, Zachry described how a new box of .45-caliber Long Colt dummy rounds had arrived on the set that day.

In a written statement, Waggoner, Zachry’s lawyer, said, “As to what Hannah may have found or did not find [regarding the new box of dummy rounds], Hannah is better to answer that question.”

Gutierrez Reed’s attorney, Bowles, responded: “Hannah had no idea that live rounds were on the set, but we do believe someone brought live rounds onto the set, and we are investigating how they got there.”

According to a search warrant affidavit filed by the Santa Fe County Sheriff’s Office, Gutierrez Reed told detectives that after lunch, Zachry pulled the firearms out of the safe inside the truck and handed them to her.

Zachry’s lawyer denies this. “Sarah is not responsible in any way for this incident,” Waggoner said. “She did not handle the gun that was used in the shooting, did not provide ammunition for it, did not carry it, and did not load it.”

Times staff researcher Scott Wilson, editorial library director Cary Schneider and freelance contributor Ryan Lowery contributed to this report.


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