‘I realized I was in a life-or-death struggle,' Curtis Reeves says of theater shooting

Published March 1 2017
Updated March 1 2017

DADE CITY — In the darkened theater, the older man shrunk back in his seat as the younger man lurched from the row in front of him, hurling obscenities.

Something had struck the older man in the face, he recalled. He thought the younger man was going to punch him.

"It looked to me like he was out of control," 74-year-old Curtis Reeves said Tuesday, explaining why he shot 43-year-old Chad Oulson in the chest, killing him.

"He was in a fit of rage. He was trying to get over the seat at me."

For three years, the defendant in a Wesley Chapel theater shooting had remained publicly silent while in the center of one of the area's most high-profile court cases. That ended Tuesday, as Reeves told a judge his version of what happened on Jan. 13, 2014, during a matinee showing of the movie Lone Survivor at the Cobb Grove 16 cinema after a dispute over cellphone use.

Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Susan Barthle is presiding over a hearing to determine whether Florida's controversial "stand your ground" law should apply. The law says a person has no duty to retreat and can use deadly force when faced with a violent confrontation if he or she fears death or great bodily harm.

If she rules that the law applies, Reeves would not be prosecuted, meaning he would remain free. Otherwise, he faces trial on second-degree murder and aggravated battery charges.

Reeves, a retired Tampa police captain, testified for five hours, speaking in a low, measured tone as he answered his attorney's questions. At times, he appeared emotional. At times, he injected levity into the proceedings. At times, he grew testy, especially when a prosecutor pushed hard.

Reeves recalled that he and his wife, Vivian, sat in the back row of the theater, directly behind the Oulsons. Reeves was behind Oulson's wife, Nicole, while Vivian was behind Oulson.

Commercials had started. A courtesy announcement asked for cellphone silence.

Reeves noticed glare from a light on Oulson's phone, he said. As previews began to roll, Reeves leaned forward.

"My voice was low," he said. "And I said, 'Sir, can I get you to put your cellphone away?' "

Reeves said Oulson swore at him. Reeves sat back, he said. He waited at least 30 seconds. He saw Oulson's wife talking to him.

"I felt like he would ultimately comply," Reeves said. "I didn't press the issue."

But Oulson kept looking at the phone, he said. Reeves told him he was going to tell the manager.

"I don't give a f- - - what you do," Oulson said, according to Reeves.

In the lobby, Reeves approached a manager and told him what happened. The manager said he would take care of it. Reeves returned to the theater.

Walking back in, Oulson stared at him, Reeves said.

"As I went past, as a goodwill gesture, I told him, 'I see you're not on your phone. Sorry I involved theater management,' " Reeves recalled. "It may not have been those exact words."

Oulson and his wife began to interact, Reeves said. She had both hands on her husband. Then, Oulson stood and swung around.

"When I looked up, he was coming over the seat at me, across from where my wife was," Reeves said, "and I saw just a snapshot of something dark in his hand. Almost immediately, I saw what I perceived to be a glow from a light screen right in front of my face, and I was hit in the face."

Defense attorneys have argued that Oulson threw a cellphone, hitting Reeves near his left eye.

The blow jostled Reeves' glasses, he said. He became disoriented. He heard Oulson yelling and swearing again.

Reeves said he started to stand but realized that leaning forward would put him closer to Oulson. He leaned back in his seat. He put his right leg forward, he said, to keep Oulson away from his wife.

"I realize I'm trapped," Reeves said. "I can't get up. I can't get out. He's right in front of me and he's trying to get over the chair.

"I realized I was in a life-or-death struggle. He was no longer a loudmouth. He was now a very definite threat."

Reeves reached for his pistol.

He said he has no memory of Oulson grabbing Reeves' bag of popcorn and throwing it at him, as was captured on a surveillance video. He said he thought Oulson was readying to punch him.

He pointed the gun and fired.

"At that point," Reeves said, "it was either his life or mine."

"Did you think he was going to hurt you?" asked defense attorney Richard Escobar.

"No question about it," Reeves said.

In the quiet that followed his answer, he looked down at his necktie. He pressed his lips together, removed his glasses, ran his hand over his eyes and took a sip from a bottle of water.

Quiet laughs came from Oulson's friends and relatives gathered in the court gallery when Reeves said he had tried to "de-escalate" the situation.

Assistant State Attorney Glenn Martin challenged Reeves' recollection of the sequence of events and asked why he left out details for detectives — like Chad Oulson staring at him as he returned to his seat after speaking with management.

Much of Reeves' testimony Tuesday afternoon focused on his 27-year career with the Tampa Police Department.

He recalled his early days as a cop in the 1960s who routinely saw people injured by acts of violence. He described his rise to the rank of a detective in the homicide and robbery unit, his role in helping the agency establish a tactical response team, and his development as a firearms instructor.

His voice cracked a few times when his testimony touched on family life or his 1988 brush with cancer. He mentioned his son, Matthew, who followed in his footsteps as a police officer.

Questions about his background lasted for more than an hour before Reeves, at his attorney's coaxing, looked at a lifetime of award and training certificates on a projection screen and explained why he received each of them. That took another hour.

He mentioned the term "officer survival" several times, both in terms of training he experienced and in lessons he imparted to those he supervised.

"That was the was the thing," he said at one point, "to teach your officers how to go home at night."

Reeves was the last of more than two-dozen witnesses for the defense. The state begins its case this morning.

Contact Dan Sullivan at [email protected] or (813) 226-3386. Follow @TimesDan.