Retired Florida officer says he had no choice in theater killing

Full Screen
1 / 12

Tampa Bay Times

Former Tampa police captain Curtis Reeves gives testimony while being questioned by defense attorney Richard Escobar during his second-degree murder trial on Thursday, Feb 24, 2022, at the Robert D. Sumner Judicial Center in Dade City, Fla. Reeves is accused of shooting and killing Chad Oulson at a Wesley Chapel movie theater in January 2014. (Douglas R. Clifford/Tampa Bay Times via AP, Pool)

PASCO COUNTY, Fla. – A retired police SWAT commander testified Thursday that he fatally shot a man in a movie theater eight years ago during an argument sparked by cellphone usage and escalated by a thrown popcorn bag because he feared he was about to be attacked by an “out-of-control” person who “looked like a monster.”

Curtis Reeves, a 79-year-old former Tampa police captain, said he shot 43-year-old Chad Oulson on Jan. 13, 2014, because the younger, fitter man was cursing at him and about to attack him because he had complained about Oulson's cellphone use during previews.

Testifying in Pasco County, north of Tampa, Reeves said he fired his .380 handgun because he believed he had no other choice, saying his seated position, his then-71 years and his poor health made it impossible to defend himself. He said something hit him in the face. He believes it was Oulson's cellphone; prosecutors say video shows Oulson grabbed Reeves' popcorn bag from his lap and tossed it at him.

“He was so much above me and so full of rage ... that he was going to strike me with all the strength that he could put together. I figured this was the end of the line for me,” said Reeves, who faces a life sentence if convicted of second-degree murder and aggravated assault with a deadly weapon.

Oulson's widow, Nicole Oulson, glared at Reeves throughout his testimony, rocking slightly back and forth. Her finger nearly severed by the bullet that killed her husband as she tried to get him to sit down, she testified earlier she never heard him curse at Reeves. She said Reeves started the argument by ordering her husband to put away his cellphone as he checked on their 22-month-old daughter at day care. Another witness testified that after firing the shot, Reeves muttered, “Throw popcorn in my face.”

His defense invoked Florida’s “stand your ground,” which allows use of deadly force in the face of mortal danger or fear of serious injury, but that was rejected by Circuit Judge Susan Barthle. Since the shooting, Reeves has mostly been on house arrest as his attorneys’ arguments and the COVID-19 pandemic delayed the trial.

Under questioning by his attorney Richard Escobar, Reeves testified Thursday that he and his wife, Vivian, had arrived early to see the Afghan War movie “Lone Survivor,” sitting in the back row. The Oulsons were sitting one row in front, slightly to Reeves' right.

Dressed in a gray suit and speaking in a clear, calm voice, Reeves said as the previews began, he asked Oulson politely to put down his cellphone because it was shining in his eyes. He said Oulson cursed at him and refused. Turning periodically to face jurors, as police officers are trained, Reeves said he was not angry, but decided to head to the lobby and report Oulson to the manager.

After he returned to his seat, he said Oulson glared at him and seemed to be speaking loudly to his wife or the audience in general. Reeves said he tried to “defuse the situation” by telling Oulson that if he had known he would put his phone away, he would not have involved the manager.

He said he turned away, but when he looked back Oulson had stood up, he saw a reflection and something hit him in the glasses, knocking them askew. He believes Oulson threw his cellphone because it was found on the floor near Reeves' feet.

Reeves said Oulson stood over him, “yelling a lot of profanities and threats."

“The F-word seemed to be his primary vocabulary,” using the word as part of a threat to beat him, Reeves said. “He is very volatile and active. He is trying to come over the seats.

“I am looking up at this guy and he looked like a monster,” Reeves said. He said Nicole Oulson tried to hold her husband back, but Chad Oulson appeared ready to strike.

“I was completely defenseless,” Reeves said. “I have never encountered someone exhibiting that amount of uncontrolled anger and rage.”

He pulled his gun from his pocket and fired once, fatally striking Oulson in the chest. Sheriff's deputies arrived and arrested Reeves.

Reeves appeared less confident under cross-examination by prosecutor Scott Rosenwasser, often struggling to understand and answer questions.

Rosenwasser repeatedly tried to show Reeves was not as debilitated as he claimed, pointing out that shortly before the shooting he went on an archery hunting trip where he walked uphill and climbed 10 feet (3 meters) up a tree.

Reeves also conceded that someone cannot shoot another person who simply threw a harmless item at them and that he had rejected his wife's suggestion that they move away from the Oulsons.

Rosenwasser spent significant time with Reeves going through security video of the shooting, trying to show that the reflection Reeves saw just before shooting was light bouncing off reflective material on his own shoe. He told Reeves there was no indication on the video that Oulson threw his cellphone and he had no markings on his face where he said he had been hit.

Reeves said Oulson did throw it.

“No one can answer that but me,” Reeves said.

The defense soon rested. Closing arguments were scheduled for Friday.