A retired Tampa police captain on trial for fatally shooting a 43-year-old father for texting inside a movie theater in 2014 believed the man was going to attack him, he told detectives in the hours following the incident, audio from a recorded interview revealed in court on Wednesday.
Curtis Reeves, 79, had a solemn look on his face as the interview played for a Dade City courtroom on the third day of testimony in his trial for the second-degree murder of Chad Oulson, then 43.
Reeves, who was 71 at the time, said all he did was ask Oulson, who was sitting in front of him at the Tampa-area movie theater, to put away his phone as the movie Lone Survivor started. But he claims Oulson became irate and started yelling in his face.
‘I don’t think I’ve ever had anybody get in my face like that and it scared the crap out of me,’ he’s heard telling detectives in the 2014 interview.
Oulson was with his wife Nicole at the Grove 16 movie theater on January 13, 2014, and was checking in with a babysitter on his phone when the two men began arguing.
Reeves demanded that Oulson stop using the phone and was met with a curse-filled response.
That’s when Reeves reached into his right front pocket, grabbed his handgun and fired. The bullet went straight through Nicole Oulson’s ring finger and into her husband Chad Oulson’s chest, piercing his rib, his heart and his lung.
‘If I had to do it again, it never would’ve happened,’ Reeves tells detectives in 2014.
‘So what made you do it,’ the detective is heard asking.
‘I thought the guy was going to beat the hell out of me,’ Reeves replies. ‘I don’t think I’ve ever had anybody get in my face like that and it scared the crap out of me.’
Reeves’ trial finally began on Monday after a series of delays over the years, much of which has been attributed to pre-trial hearings, various motions and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the court system.
Curtis Reeves, 79, (pictured) said he feared for his life, according to audio from 2014 played for a Dade City courtroom on Wednesday, during his trial for the 2014 shooting of Chad Oulson
Chad Oulson, pictured, was with his wife, Nicole, and texting his young daughter’s baby-sitter before he was killed at the movie theater after and argument with Reeves
PICTURED: The aftermath of a shooting at the Grove 16 movie theater where Chad Oulson was shot and killed on Janaury 13, 2014, following an argument with 71-year-old Reeves
Sumter County Deputy Alan Hamilton testified Tuesday that he witnessed Oulsen propped up against his seat and tell Reeves ‘I was just texting my f**cking daughter’ before he flicked popcorn at Reeves just before a gunshot rang out.
But investigators told Reeves they had questioned everyone in the theater and no one had heard Oulson threaten Reeves, which made him start to second guess what happened that night.
‘I’m sitting back here second-guessing myself,’ he told the detective in the interview after the shooting. ‘I got hit in the left side of my face and temple, got my glasses knocked off. There was nobody else there, man. There was nobody else there.’
During his interview in 2014, detectives gave him the bad news. The man he shot was dead, and Reeves’ life was forever changed.
‘I don’t know what to say, except this is a life-changing event that I would have avoided at all costs,’ Reeves said. ‘My life is ruined. My family’s life is ruined, his family’s life is ruined.’
Former Tampa Police Captain Curtis Reeves attends the first day of his second-degree murder trial on Monday
Vivian Reeves leaves court with her husband Curtis Reeves at the end of testimony on Monday
Reeves is a U.S. Navy veteran and former Tampa police captain who helped launch and lead the agency’s first SWAT team before retiring in 1993, the Tampa Bay Times reported.
He later worked as director of security for the Tampa Busch Gardens amusement park and was an active member of his neighborhood’s Crime Stoppers organization.
The former cop claims he shot the unarmed Oulson with a .380-caliber handgun in self-defense because he feared for his life after the two argued over Oulson’s cellphone use in the theater.
The trial of retired Florida cop Curtis Reeves (pictured in court in 2014) began on Monday
Aftermath: This photo released by the attorney’s office shows Curtis Reeves handcuffed in the movie theater where he shot Chad Oulson in 2014
Nicole Oulson, wife of Chad Oulson, was struck in the hand by the same bullet that killed her husband.
She testified on Monday about what it was like to watch her husband die.
‘I see his eyes were just glazed over and I knew at that moment,’ she said. ‘I told him, ‘Chad, we need you, please hang in there, we need you.’
According to Oulson, the two men bickered over the cellphone dispute and at one point Chad Oulson stood up, causing her to put her left hand near his chest to guide him back to his seat.
That’s when the shot was fired, she testified, nearly severing a finger.
‘I felt like my hand was blown off,’ Nicole Oulson said. ‘He took a couple of steps and then collapsed. I knew he was way worse than me.’
Oulson was using his cellphone during previews before the movie began, prosecutors say, in part to check on his young daughter at a local daycare.
Reeves demanded that Oulson stop using the phone and was met with a curse-filled response, Michaels told the jury.
‘Chad Oulson was annoyed when Curtis Reeves tells him to put his phone away. He stays annoyed,’ Michaels said.
Nicole Oulson testified she did not hear any profanity from her husband in the exchange.
‘He said, ‘What’s your problem? The movie hasn’t even started yet,” she said, quoting her husband.
‘This isn’t about popcorn,’ Defense attorney Dino Michaels (pictured) told the jury. ‘You’re going to see there was an attack before the popcorn was thrown’
‘I felt like my hand was blown off,’ Nicole Oulson said, regarding the bullet that struck her and her husband. ‘He took a couple of steps and then collapsed. I knew he was way worse than me’
Reeves went to theater management about Oulson’s phone use, returned to his seat and that’s when the argument resumed, the popcorn was tossed and Reeves shot Oulson in the chest, according to trial evidence.
To prosecutors, the triggering event in the argument was Oulson’s tossing of a bag of popcorn at Reeves – and that’s not enough to claim self-defense.
‘What the evidence will show you is that Chad Oulson was shot and killed over tossing popcorn,’ Assistant State Attorney Scott Rosenwasser told jurors in an opening statement. ‘That’s no reason to kill another person.’
The defense, however, contends that Reeves, then 71, was in declining health and feared the 43-year-old, larger Oulson would punch or otherwise assault him – and may have thrown his cellphone at the older man.
Defense attorney Richard Escobar told the Tampa Bay Times he’s confident a jury will acquit Reeves on all charges because the 79-year-old ‘truly believed’ he was in danger when he shot Oulson.
‘It may not be what I would have done or what you would have done, but you have to realize how Mr. Reeves was at that time,’ Escobar said. ‘He was 71, in declining health and a decorated officer. He had all that body of knowledge to determine whether he was in a predicament that could have led to him being harmed. At that moment, his perception was that he was in serious danger.’
Pictured: Chad Oulson and his daughter in an undated photo before he was shot and killed at a movie theater in 2014
Chad Oulson’s wife Nicole and their daughter
Defense attorney Dino Michaels said Reeves also understood risk and sensed danger from his 27 years with the Tampa Police Department.
‘This isn’t about popcorn,’ Michaels told the jury. ‘You’re going to see there was an attack before the popcorn was thrown.’
But attorney T.J. Grimaldi, who represented Oulson’s widow in a lawsuit against the cinema, said Reeves’ history as an officer, which included SWAT training make his actions inexcusable.
‘This man used to train SWAT teams, so he knows how to de-escalate a situation and he should have then,’ Grimaldi told the Times.
‘The claim that he was standing his ground is asinine, to say the least,’ he said. ‘Is there ever a good reason to shoot someone for popcorn being thrown in their face?’
Reeves is facing a potential life sentence if convicted of second-degree murder and aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. The trial, expected to last about three weeks, is being heard by a jury of four men and two women with four alternates.
The case has been delayed for years as Reeves sought protection under Florida’s ‘stand your ground’ law that allows use of deadly force in the face of mortal danger or fear of serious injury. Reeves has been on house arrest during most of that time, tethered to a GPS-tracking ankle monitor.
A judge ruled against him, but Reeves appealed. Lawmakers meanwhile changed the law to shift the burden of proof to prosecutors, but the Florida Supreme Court ruled that the changes didn’t affect cases such as Reeves’ retroactively.
The shooting happened after Reeves and Oulson, and their wives, went to a matinee showing of the Mark Wahlberg film ‘Lone Survivor’ at a theater complex in Wesley Chapel, a suburb of Tampa.
Much of the confrontation was captured on grainy theater camera video, but it has no sound. Dozens of witnesses have been listed for trial but it’s not clear how many will actually testify.
Rosenwasser, the prosecutor, said the evidence will prove that Reeves was incensed by Oulson’s cellphone use and couldn’t let it go.
‘He appeared to be agitated and angry,’ Rosenwasser said. ‘This was an intentional and purposeful shooting.’
Transcripts of jailhouse phone calls between Reeves and his family released in 2014 revealed the retired Florida police captain was confident of his acquittal.
Other evidence that was made public by the Pinellas-Pasco attorneys office, including photographs taken from inside the Wesley Chapel movie theater where Reeves shot dead Oulson and injured his wife over a text messaging dispute shed light on the case.
‘When all the facts come out, we all should be in good shape,’ Reeves told his family on January 16 – three days after the shooting, reports the Tampa Bay Times.
In the recordings released by the Pasco-Pinellas State Attorney’s Office, he tells his wife Vivian and his son and daughter to sell his motorbike or kayak if they are in need of money.
‘You all need to know that you’re all the love of my life. And if it need be, y’all plan on me not being there so you plan whatever you have to do to make your life easy, okay,’ he said.
‘My life will be easy if your all’s is. Plan the future and don’t spend all the money on me.’
Photographs from the movie theater after the shooting show Curtis Reeves in handcuffs sitting in a theater seat, scattered popcorn, a dropped cell phone and a spent casing from the bullet that killed father-of-one Oulson.
They also show Nicole Oulson’s badly injured hand after she was shot trying to deflect the bullet that killed her husband.
Video from the scene appears to show Oulson snatching Reeves’ popcorn off his lap and throwing it at him. Reeves responds instantaneously with a single, fatal gunshot.
Reeves has claimed he shot the unarmed Oulson in self-defense because he feared for his life.
‘Like I told everybody, I’ve spent 71 years doing the right thing and this guy just… anyway,’ he said to his family over the phone.
The Tampa Bay Times reported that when testimony ended Wednesday, Reeves grabbed his cane, made a quick exit from his defense team and released a long, heavy sigh as he turned his head and then walked out the back door, alone.
Testimony continues Thursday morning.