Saturday, December 16, 2017
Public safety

Widow of theater shooting victim: Husband's death 'unbearable'

TAMPA — Like many parents of toddlers, Nicole and Chad Oulson didn't get many opportunities to spend quality time alone.

So when both managed to get a rare day off work, they left their 22-month-old daughter with a sitter and went to a movie.

"I was just so excited and looking forward to spending the day with the love of my life," said Nicole Oulson, who met the tall ex-Navy sailor while the two worked at a Jacksonville bank about 14 years ago.

The Oulsons were at the Cobb Grove 16 in Wesley Chapel on Jan. 13 for a matinee of Lone Survivor when a man behind them became agitated because Chad Oulson was texting on his phone during previews.

Authorities say Curtis Reeves Jr., also a Navy veteran and a retired Tampa police captain, left the theater to complain to management, then returned and started arguing with Chad Oulson. Witnesses said Oulson threw a bag of popcorn at Reeves, who then pulled a .380 semiautomatic pistol and fired once.

On Wednesday, her face pale and drawn, Nicole Oulson spoke out for the first time about her husband's death, calling it "unimaginable."

"In the blink of an eye my whole world just got shattered into a million pieces," Oulson, 33, tearfully told the media gathered at a news conference in her attorneys' office. "Now I'm left trying to pick them up and trying to put them all back together.

"It's so hard and so unbearable," she added before leaving the room.

Reeves, 71, is in jail in Pasco County, charged with second-degree murder.

Attorney Stephen Leal, a member of the law firm hired by Mrs. Oulson, said his client would oppose bail for Reeves, who has a court hearing set for Feb. 5. Leal said it might be tough to argue that Reeves, who spent most of his life in the area, is a flight risk. But it could be successfully argued that he poses a danger to the community.

"I don't know how anybody could be able to convince a judge … the community is safe if this man is out," he said.

Attorney TJ Grimaldi said Nicole Oulson was surprised that Reeves' attorney said he acted in self-defense.

"I think she's kind of shocked," he said. "She doesn't understand what he was defending himself over."

Grimaldi wouldn't close the door on suing the Alabama-based Cobb theater chain but would not comment further.

"We're exploring all options, but our main focus right now is to guide her through this difficult time of grief, her own personal injury and the entire circus that is the criminal case," he said. "It's sad when it's gotten to this level that we can't go to a movie theater and feel safe."

Florida law allows two years for a wrongful death case to be filed and four years for an injury lawsuit.

Attorney Brandon Scheele, who has defended corporations in injury and death cases, said he thinks the plaintiffs would have a difficult time. The law requires them to prove that the shooting was "foreseeable and preventable." Reeves simply complaining to management about someone texting wouldn't be enough, he said.

"He'd have to have said he was going to shoot the guy" if employees didn't take action, Scheele said.

Personal injury attorney Hutch Brock said the substance of Reeves' complaint — who he talked to and what he said — would also be critical in determining whether there was negligence by the theater staff. If Reeves, who has been accused of complaining about another patron's texting about a month before the shooting, had a reputation for making threats, "then I think the movie theater likely had some kind of a higher duty than just to let this guy keep coming back in."

He said most personal injury lawyers allow the police to do their jobs before deciding whether to sue.

"They try to stay out of their way," Brock said.

The Oulsons' daughter, Alexis, is too young to be fully aware of what has happened but she "knows that Daddy's gone," Grimaldi said.

Nicole Oulson said Alexis is where her focus is now "and always will be."

The attorneys said a trust fund has been set up to help Oulson's family. In a grass roots movement, businesses have held fundraisers and donated proceeds. In all, more than $20,000 has accumulated.

Grimaldi said Nicole Oulson has been touched by the community's generosity. "She didn't expect this," he said.

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