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Closer look at Curtis Reeves shows theater shooter's two sides

TAMPA — Mike Scalise couldn't believe what he was hearing.

The TV news kept saying his friend Curtis Reeves Jr., someone who had worked to keep the peace most of his life, had fatally shot a man in a Wesley Chapel movie theater. And all because he wouldn't stop texting.

Scalise, 66, had gone to the movies dozens of times with Reeves and his wife. He had never heard him complain about cellphones or texting.

"He never lost his temper," Scalise said.

Others say they know a different Curtis Reeves.

Those who remember the 71-year-old when he was a Tampa police officer decades ago say he was loud and always sure of himself, qualities that caused some co-workers to dislike or fear him. Old police evaluations mention a hot temper, forceful personality and inflexibility.

Later, as security director at Busch Gardens, Reeves instituted sweeping changes. They impressed higher-ups but irked longtime employees.

"It was like, 'There's a new sheriff in town,' " former employee Dave Cock recalled. "He was used to telling people what to do, and they would do it."

• • •

The official account of Monday's shooting starts soon after that day's previews began rolling in Theater 10:

Reeves was about to watch Lone Survivor at the Cobb Grove 16 off Interstate 75 in Wesley Chapel with his wife and son, a police officer. He became annoyed when a man in the row in front of him, Chad Oulson, 43, kept messaging his toddler's caregiver.

Reeves left the theater to complain to management. When he returned alone, the pair argued. Oulson threw popcorn, and deputies say Reeves shot him with a .380-caliber pistol he pulled from his pants pocket — despite a posted theater rule banning concealed weapons.

Reeves claimed self-defense, saying he was struck in the face with an unknown object. Deputies dispute that. They arrested him on a second-degree murder charge.

How did it get to this? Reeves' past offers hints, but answers have eluded friends, who both hope and assume that exonerating evidence will soon be revealed. The Tampa Bay Times spoke to a dozen of Reeves' former and current friends and co-workers, as well as Reeves' attorney, neighbors and pastor. His family did not respond to several attempts for comment.

Friends describe Reeves as a proud, church-going man who spent much of his career in positions of authority, a strong leader who never had a problem telling people what he thinks.

Reeves was born in Jacksonville but grew up in Tampa. He attended Hillsborough High School, where he got average grades and sported a classic flattop haircut.

After graduation, he joined the Navy and worked on submarines. He was honorably discharged two years later and worked a few odd jobs. In 1966, he joined the Tampa Police Department.

Reeves' supervisors thought he was good at his job, and he quickly rose up the ranks. In the mid '70s, he and a co-worker started a SWAT team. They got FBI training, gathered World War II supplies from the nearby Army Navy Surplus store and named it the "tactical response team" to differentiate it from the then-popular television show S.W.A.T.

Reeves took on the nickname of the show's main character, "Hondo."

Back then, law enforcement was a men's club where rank mattered. Rookies rarely addressed their seniors. Lieutenants were godlike.

Reeves briefly worked as one of the department's first hostage negotiators and trained at the U.S. Army's sniper school, finishing No. 2 out of 20.

He was good with guns.

Reeves received training in firearms of all types. He was part of the competitive Pistol Club and became the agency's firearms coordinator in the '80s.

"He was real proficient," former Tampa police Chief Austin McLane remembers.

In the tactical unit, Reeves was well-liked. After work, SWAT and bomb team guys would hunt and fish together. Retired Senior Sgt. Jim Diamond worked closely with Reeves for about 15 years and considered him "very personable."

"Curtis was very forthright, and he is a relatively tall man with a deep voice," Diamond recalled. "He was very competent, and sometimes that's taken as abrupt."

A 1977 evaluation notes Reeves' "forceful personality" as an asset.

Later, a supervisor said he should work on his "inflexibility," saying it gives the public a negative impression.

Reeves, meanwhile, worked extra hours and garnered a reputation as a "company man."

In 1982, one supervisor gave Reeves a glowing evaluation and said that people who perceive Reeves as arrogant and self-serving are wrong. They get that impression, the evaluator wrote, because of Reeves' "high personal and professional standards."

• • •

Tampa police SWAT co-founder Tom DePolis thought highly of Reeves and recommended him for the Busch Gardens security director job after Reeves retired as captain in 1993.

At the theme park, Reeves transformed the security force into a para-police force. He led plans for a security building. He launched a radio communication system. He picked out new uniforms.

Reeves met Scalise at Busch Gardens, where Scalise worked as security manager. Scalise reported to Reeves but soon came to regard him as a friend.

"He did a lot of good things to make our security more advanced and more professional," Scalise said.

Not everyone was happy with him. Dave Cock, who worked in the park's aviary area, would keep a low-power rifle to ward off varmints that would attack the birds. Reeves, he said, confiscated the gun without considering how that would affect Cock's job.

"To me, he wasn't a terrible person — he was just a control freak," Cock said.

Cock's wife, Christine, worked in the park's conservation education program and said Reeves, unlike the others on the entire security team, was difficult to work with.

If you weren't on his team, Dave Cock said, he could be condescending.

• • •

In retirement, friends say, Reeves seemed to mellow.

He spent time with his grandchild and kept a swing set in the back yard of his expansive ranch-style home in Hernando, southeast of Brooksville.

He bicycled, went on walks with his wife, Vivian, and did some wood-working.

He and Vivian often traveled. They went out West and visited North Carolina. In 2011, they toured every Hawaiian island with Scalise and his wife. They saw a volcano and Pacific beaches.

His attorney, Richard Escobar, said Reeves is a "gentle individual" who suffers from bursitis in his shoulder, as well as arthritis, respiratory issues and hypertension.

He is close with his two adult children — a daughter and a son, Matthew Reeves, who is a Tampa police patrol officer.

Escobar told reporters that he had heard about the Pasco woman, 33-year-old Jamira Dixon, who says Reeves harassed her last month after she texted during The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. Escobar said he is looking forward to questioning her.

The attorney said he doesn't believe complaints about Reeves' "temper."

"His demeanor is that of a very reasonable and very gentle individual," Escobar said. "He's not an aggressive individual at all."

He is very religious, the attorney said.

Reeves and his wife have been regulars at the red-brick First Baptist Church in Dade City, where they serve as greeters and are active in a Bible study.

At Reeves' first appearance in court last week, some from the study group attended in support.

One man told a group of reporters that Reeves is a "Godly man" before walking away.

A television reporter trailed, microphone in hand. He had another question, but got no answer.

"How does a 'Godly man,' " he asked, "pull a gun on someone in the theater and shoot him?"

Times news researcher John Martin and staff writers Dan DeWitt, Lisa Buie, Sue Carlton and Tony Marrero contributed to this report. Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at jvandervelde@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3433.

Closer look at Curtis Reeves shows theater shooter's two sides 01/17/14 [Last modified: Sunday, January 19, 2014 12:06am]
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