A stuntman and former Ninja Warrior contestant who was shot dead while filming a music video for hip hop trio Bliss N Eso ‘died because of criminal actions’, a coroner has found.
An inquest into Johann Ofner’s death concluded on Tuesday, with the coroner determining the young father’s death was an ‘avoidable tragedy’.
The 28-year-old from the Gold Coast died from fatal gunshot wounds after a prop gun loaded with blank cartridges was fired at his chest on set at Brisbane’s Brooklyn Standard bar in January 2017.
‘It is evident that what occurred on 23 January 2017 can only be described as an accumulation of errors that resulted in tragedy,’ coroner Donald MacKenzie said on Tuesday.
He placed the blame almost entirely on Warren Ritchie, who was employed as the armourer on set.
The criminal investigation was aided by the disturbing fact that Mr Ofner’s death was captured on camera.
Mr Ritchie, who has since died of natural causes, would have ‘almost certainly’ faced criminal charges if he were still alive, and could have spent more than a decade behind bars if convicted.
The live sawn-off 12-guage shotgun he provided was never test-fired before it was shot at Mr Ofner. It was also capable of shooting live rounds, meaning it was not legally able to be used on set, despite assurances from Mr Ritchie.
The gunfight sequence was thought to be a success until people realised that Mr Ofner had been shot and injured
By all accounts, Mr Ritchie was well regarded in the industry, but was critically unwell at the time of the shoot and reliant on prescribed opioid medications which the coroner found may have impacted his judgement.
The shotgun cartridges used in the music video were supplied to Mr Ritchie by Adam Corless, a firearms dealer who was self-taught in reloading ammunition.
Before his death, Mr Ritchie told Mr Corless he had previously used six of his cartridges on a separate minor production and ‘nothing had happened’.
He said ‘it was the same situation’ and that he’d directed the actor with the gun to ‘aim to the side’.
Corless pleaded guilty to one charge of manufacturing explosives without authority and the unauthorised sale of explosives in the Brisbane Magistrates Court in 2018.
He was fined $2,500, after telling the court he had no idea the cartridges would be used indoors.
During the inquest, Mr Ofner’s mother Maria provided a statement revealing she had cancer and was distraught by her eldest son’s death.
‘The grief will follow me to my grave,’ she said.
Ms Ofner said her son, himself a father-of-one, could ‘light up a room’ and said her world, which was once filled with love and laughter, had been plunged into darkness.
The inquest heard calls for an overhaul of the entertainment industry’s firearm safety restrictions in the wake of the accident.
Stunt coordinator Judd Wild, known for his work on Mad Max: Fury Road, backed calls for a safety overhaul but said he believed the set was safe.
‘If I thought there was any risk of him being struck by a projectile we wouldn’t have done the scene full stop,’ Mr Wild said.
Ofner was tragically killed while filming a scene using prop guns and blanks (pictured above is a still of a different gun from an Instagram video filmed on the set)
A post-mortem found a projectile from the blank cartridge penetrated Mr Ofner’s chest, lacerating his heart
‘If I knew anything would have been coming towards (Mr Ofner) I would have said no.’
The inquest findings come just months after Hollywood A-Lister Alec Baldwin shot and killed cinematographer Halyna Hutchins on the set of his film Rust in October 2021.
Baldwin recently handed over his phone to police in order to help with their investigation into the tragic shooting.
The actor and father-of-seven has not been charged in relation to Halyna’s death, though the investigation continues and lawsuits have been filed.
His lawyer Aaron Dyer said he handed his phone over willingly though ‘his matter isn’t about his phone, and there are no answers on his phone.
‘Alec did nothing wrong. It is clear that he was told it was a cold gun, and was following instructions when this tragic accident occurred,’ Mr Dyer said.
‘The real question that needs to be answered is how live rounds got on the set in the first place.’
Investigations are ongoing regarding the safety of the set and measures taken to protect cast and crew.
Alec Baldwin is seen on October 21, after speaking to investigators about the fatal shooting
The set of Rust, at the Bonanza Creek Ranch outside of Santa Fe where the shooting occurred
Hutchins (center), a 42-year-old cinematographer, died after being shot by Baldwin during a rehearsal in New Mexico on October 21
Meanwhile the Bliss N Eso production failed to employ a safety supervisor or a qualified first aid officer to ensure workplace health and safety regulations were followed, the inquest heard.
At least eight firearms including blank-fire weapons and replica automatic weapons incapable of discharging projectiles were used alongside the sawn-off shotgun.
On the day of filming, actors and crew ran through a final dress rehearsal for the gunfight sequences ‘without testing the firearms’, the inquest was told.
Mr Ofner was wearing protective padding and a ‘jerk’ vest so he could be hauled backward after the shots were fired.
During the scene, the weapon was loaded with homemade ‘blank’ shotgun cartridges manufactured by an employee of a Brisbane gun shop.
Johann Ofner, 28, was shot dead on the set of a Bliss n Eso video clip in January 2017
Ofner was due to appear in Ninja Warrior and made the Grand Final but his scenes were scrapped after his tragic death
The sequence appeared to be a success – until people realised that Mr Ofner had been shot and injured.
Despite frantic efforts to revive the stuntman, he was later pronounced dead.
A post-mortem found a projectile from the blank cartridge penetrated his chest, lacerating his heart.
Investigating officer Detective Sergeant John Fleming said armourer Warren Ritchie had been hired by production company Dreamers Creative Agency to supply the weapons.
Mr Ritchie, now deceased, was responsible for loading and unloading the firearms.
‘The shortened shotgun was a live-fire, Category H weapon and should not have been brought on set,’ Sgt Fleming said.
‘There were a number of offences identified during the investigation… including the unlawful manufacture of the ammunition.
‘Possibly there needs to be a more stringent overview of the industry – there did not appear to be any checks done to see that they were complying with legislation.’
Sgt Fleming said Mr Ritchie purchased the blank rounds for the shotgun more than 12 months earlier.