How did a seemingly simple 22-foot fall lead to the death of stuntman John Bernecker? Authorities face hurdles and SAG-AFTRA demands answers: “It’s never a black and white thing.”
In the aftermath of the tragic death of 33-year-old stuntman John Bernecker — who died July 12 after plunging headfirst from a balcony on the Georgia set of The Walking Dead — questions abound about how a seemingly simple 22-foot fall (“the ABC of stunts,” in the words of one veteran stunt coordinator) could go so horribly wrong.
The case has now been assigned to Capt. John Kennedy, an officer within the Coweta (Georgia) County Sheriff’s Office, which, after initially being open about its investigation, has since refused to give materials to the media. A staff member there told THR on July 17 that the office had been instructed to “freeze” all provision of additional materials — no photographs, videos or new reports — per a state law protecting pending investigations.
The Coweta probe will proceed in tandem with two others, led by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration and SAG-AFTRA, though the latter does not hire independent investigators.
Right after the incident, local law enforcement faced problems that might complicate further discovery. Deputy Sheriff J.P. Traylor, the first officer on the scene — he arrived at Raleigh Studios in Senoia, Georgia, at 1:47 p.m., a half-hour after the 1:11 p.m. incident — filled out a four-page report that day but was unable to interview stunt coordinator Monty L. Simons as most crewmembers had been sent away within minutes of the accident, according to Traylor’s report. It’s unclear who asked them to leave the set. (Simons did not respond to an email and call requesting comment, but he was described by veteran stuntman Conrad Palmisano, a former president of the Stuntmen’s Association of Motion Pictures, as “very qualified, a good guy, focused and competent.”)
Nor was Traylor able to interview Walking Dead’s first assistant director on the episode (whose name hasn’t been made public), the person who generally is responsible for set safety, according to the Directors Guild agreement with studios and producers.
Instead, according to Traylor’s report (whose second page has been deliberately withheld pursuant to law, according to a sheriff’s clerk), the deputy was able to contact only two of those present: second assistant director Matthew Goodwin and actor Austin Amelio (who plays Dwight on the series), the other performer on the balcony.
Bernecker’s girlfriend, Jennifer Cocker — herself a stuntwoman who has worked on such projects as the AMC series Preacher — has questioned Amelio’s presence on the balcony on the grounds that it was wrong to have an experienced professional next to a relatively inexperienced actor “who doesn’t know what he’s doing.” (Amelio did not respond to a request for comment.)
Other issues surround the case, including why photos of the scene show a balcony but no padding below, and why it took 17 minutes for an ambulance to reach the stuntman, who subsequently was helicoptered to Atlanta Medical Center. While a fire engine arrived within seven minutes, medevac helicopter Air Life 4 did not evacuate Bernecker until about 30 minutes after the fall. He was declared dead at 6:30 p.m., but remained on life support for several more days.
The tight-knit stunt community (who also are members of SAG-AFTRA) has been devastated by the death, and still remembers other tragedies on the sets of productions including 2002’s XXX and 2012’s The Expendables 2. AMC and showrunner Scott Gimple issued statements saying they were “deeply saddened.”
According to the report by Traylor (who spoke with THR on July 17, after his superiors closed off provision of documents), Bernecker was supposed to fall from the balcony railing onto a pad made of a layer of boxes, PortaPit pads and another large pad, but missed the padding by inches. Traylor’s report quotes Goodwin as saying that, after signaling he was ready, Bernecker got most of the way over “but did not appear to get good separation from the balcony.” He attempted to abort the fall by grabbing the railing with both hands but failed.
Bernecker, who had accumulated 93 stunt credits in less than a decade of work, was experienced enough that eight of those credits were as a stunt coordinator. In that more senior role, he would have been responsible for designing and prepping stunts and would be a key player responsible for the safety of other stuntmen.
Stunt performers also are responsible for examining the stunt design and demanding changes if necessary, according to multiple stuntmen sources.
Now it remains to be seen whether the investigations will lead to changes in the SAG-AFTRA agreement between studios and the union, whose wording on such matters is vague. “All reasonable requests and requirements for safety equipment in connection with the performance of stunts shall be complied with by Producer,” the agreement states, without defining “reasonable.”
Production on the eighth season of Walking Dead, cable’s top-rated show, was halted immediately after Bernecker’s fall, but it resumed July 17, leaving insurers to wrangle over who pays for what. The employer of record is customarily the payroll company, rather than AMC, which produces the series, says HUB Entertainment’s Christie Mattull, an insurance broker. Other entities involved might have general liability policies, but AMC may have to cover the costs of the production delay, as cast insurance usually only applies to stars.
No word was made public at press time about funeral plans, though the family had Bernecker’s organs donated, according to LifeLink Foundation.
“Something obviously went wrong,” says Palmisano, who adds that the cause might ultimately never be known. “It’s never a black and white thing. It’s always a pinch of this, a dash of that, then something tragic happens.”
This story first appeared in the July 19 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.