Retired Tampa Police Capt. Curtis Reeves Jr. has spent the past 8 years in his own home, tethered to a GPS-tracking ankle monitor but free from jail on bail until the day he is called before a jury in a fatal shooting at a Pasco County movie theater.
After a lengthy stand your ground trial, appeals hearings that reached the state Supreme Court, legal wrangling over changes to Florida’s self defense-laws and even a pandemic, Reeves’ second-degree murder trial in the slaying of Chad Oulson will finally begin today.
The charge carries a sentence of up to life in prison.
No one denies that Reeves, now 79, shot and killed Oulson, 43, during a Monday matinee showing of the Mark Wahlberg film Lone Survivor at Wesley Chapel’s Cobb Grove 16 Theater on Jan. 13, 2014.
Both men were with their wives, the Oulsons seated one row ahead, when Reeves noticed the young father was texting during the film’s previews. He told Oulson to stop and the two argued, prompting Reeves to leave the theater to complain, grunting and kicking the backs of seats as he left.
He returned and the arguing escalated. Oulson stood up to face the man behind him, then threw a bag of popcorn in his face. Reeves reached into his pocket, pulled out a .380-caliber handgun and shot Oulson in the chest. On its way, the bullet hit Nicole Oulson’s hand as she attempted to hold her husband back. Witnesses said Chad Oulson tried to speak, but too much blood seeped from his mouth.
As frantic moviegoers performed CPR and called 911, Reeves sat back down in his seat with his gun in his lap, court records said. Oulson was rushed to a nearby hospital, where he was pronounced dead later that day.
Reeves says he acted out of fear for his life, an argument that bolstered his request for immunity under Florida’s controversial stand your ground law. When a circuit judge ruled against him, Reeves appealed. Then lawmakers changed the law, shifting the burden of proof to prosecutors and raising questions about whether Reeves’ argument should get another chance in court. Ultimately, the Florida Supreme Court ruled that the change couldn’t affect cases retroactively.
Prosecutors have accused Reeves’ attorney, Richard Escobar, of intentionally delaying the case by mounting defense arguments designed to keep Reeves free on bail for as long as possible. But with more than 100 depositions and changing case law, Escobar counters that the complexity of the case demanded time to get it right.
Escobar told the Tampa Bay Times he’s confident a jury will acquit his client on all charges. That’s because Reeves, he claims, “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.”
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Yet attorney T.J. Grimaldi, who represented Oulson’s widow in a lawsuit against the cinema, said Reeves’ history in law enforcement is what makes his actions that day so perplexing.
“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?”
Jury selection will begin today and could take days. Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Susan Barthle said last month that jurors should not be excluded for simply knowing about the incident.
It could become an issue, she said, if they’d formed an opinion or had fixed ideas about it. Grimaldi and Escobar acknowledged that finding unbiased jurors in East Pasco County could be a tough task. The shooting made international news in 2014 and has remained a talking point in the county ever since.
Because of this, Grimaldi said he was surprised the trial wasn’t moved to a different jurisdiction where jurors are less likely to already have an opinion on the case.
Escobar, meantime, said he’s optimistic that impartial jurors will be found and a fair trial held.
“We’ll be able to get a group of jurors that are open-minded and understand that, in our system of law, it’s the prosecution who will have to prove their case beyond a reasonable doubt,” Escobar said.
The story quickly captured interest from the likes of HLN’s Nancy Grace, CNN and conservative pundit Piers Morgan. The Pasco County Sheriff’s Office reported fielding media calls from Hollywood to South America.
Curtis Reeves Jr.
Curtis Reeves, 79, 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. He later worked for Busch Gardens as director of security and was an active member of his neighborhood Mountainview Estates Crime Stoppers organization in Brooksville’s Spring Lake community. Reeves and his wife, Vivian, have a daughter and two sons, one of whom works as a Tampa police officer. Reeves faces life in prison if convicted on charges of second-degree murder and aggravated assault with a deadly weapon.
Vivian Reeves, 75, is Curtis Reeves’ wife and was seated next to him in the Cobb Grove 16 Theater when he fatally shot Chad Oulson in 2014. During Reeves’ stand your ground hearing in 2017, his wife testified that she wasn’t able to make out what her husband said to Oulson when he leaned forward to ask him to put his cellphone away. But she said she could hear Oulson reply with a stream of obscenities. As the argument escalated, Vivian Reeves became scared that Oulson would attack her husband and was so uncomfortable she had to turn away, she told the court. Her response, defense attorneys say, made Curtis Reeves fear for his safety.
Oulson, of Land O’ Lakes, was 43 when he died from a gunshot to the chest Jan. 13, 2014. He worked at Sky Powersports, an ATV and personal watercraft dealership in Port Richey, and lived with his young family in the suburban Connerton community off U.S. 41 in Land O’ Lakes. His wife Nicole, then 33, had taken the day off work so she could go on a date with her husband, who worked a Tuesday through Saturday schedule. Before the movie, they dropped their 3-year-old daughter off at a daycare. Oulson began texting with staff at the daycare to check in on her as the movie previews played.
Nicole Oulson, 41, was seated next to her husband at the Cobb Grove 16 Theater and testified in 2017 that Reeves was “rude,” “angry” and “demanding” when he confronted Chad Oulson about his cellphone use. She told the court she couldn’t remember exactly what was said when Reeves returned to his seat and continued “nagging” Chad Oulson, but it was enough to prompt her husband to stand up and turn around to confront the older man. When he did, Nicole Oulson put her hand on her husband in an attempt to hold him back from a potential fight. As she did, a bullet fired from Reeves’ pistol grazed her finger before striking her husband in the chest, killing him.
Jan. 13, 2014
Curtis Reeves and Chad Oulson bring their wives to a 1:20 p.m. showing of Lone Survivor at the Grove 16 theater in Wesley Chapel. The Reeveses arrive after the Oulsons and choose seats in the row behind the young couple. When Oulson begins to text his daughter’s daycare during the previews, an argument breaks out between the two men. As tensions mount, Oulson throws his popcorn in Curtis Reeves’ face and Reeves reaches for his gun, fatally shooting Oulson in the chest. Reeves is arrested on charges of aggravated battery with a deadly weapon and second-degree murder.
Jan. 14, 2014
Curtis Reeves makes his first court appearance with defense attorney Richard Escobar, who argues his client acted in self-defense and should not be considered a flight risk or danger to the public. After a short hearing, though, Circuit Judge Lynn Tepper orders that Reeves be held in the Land O’ Lakes Jail without the possibility of bail as he awaits trial.
Feb. 7, 2014
After a two-day bond hearing featuring more than 12 hours of testimony, Curtis Reeves is denied bond a second time by Circuit Judge Pat Siracusa. Reeves and attorney Escobar appeal to the 2nd District Court of Appeals.
July 12, 2014
After seven months, Reeves is released from the Land O’ Lakes jail on $150,000 bail after winning his appeal. The conditions of his release on house arrest require him to wear a standard ankle monitor for GPS tracking at all times, allowing only for trips to the grocery store, his attorney’s office, religious services and for medical treatment. Reeves also is ordered to surrender all firearms to the Pasco Sheriff’s Office.
Nov. 6, 2015
Reeves and attorney Escobar file a motion to dismiss his criminal charges, laying out a self-defense argument under Florida’s controversial stand your ground law.
Jan. 7, 2016
Nicole Oulson and private attorney T.J. Grimaldi file a civil lawsuit in Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court against Cobb Theaters LLC, Oakley Grove Development LLC and theater employee Thomas Peck, claiming they neglected to enforce the company’s prohibition on weapons the day Reeves fatally shot her husband. The complaint also asserts that Peck was negligent for not acting more urgently when Reeves left the theater to complain to management about Chad Oulson.
Feb. 21, 2017
Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Susan Barthle begins hearing evidence in Reeves’ long-awaited stand your ground hearing to determine if Reeves should be immune from prosecution or be tried before a jury on a second-degree murder charge. The law says a person has no duty to retreat when faced with a violent confrontation and can use deadly force if he or she fears death or great bodily harm.
March 11, 2017
After a two-week hearing, Circuit Judge Barthle issues an order denying Reeves’ request for immunity from prosecution under Florida’s stand your ground law, prompting the defense to file an appeal.
May 8, 2018
The 2nd District Court of Appeal declines to reverse Judge Barthle’s ruling on Reeves’ request for immunity under the stand your ground law, putting the retired Tampa police captain one step closer to a murder trial. Reeves and his attorneys say they may still seek a new stand your ground hearing, based on a change to the state law establishing that prosecutors now bear the burden of proof in such cases. His criminal trial will remain in limbo until state courts determine whether the new rule can be applied to cases that were pending at the time it took effect.
Dec. 20, 2019
The Florida Supreme Court rules that the 2017 law switching the burden of proof from the defense to the state in stand your ground cases is not retroactive, allowing such cases across the state that stalled while awaiting clarity from the justices to move forward. The case means Reeves, now 76, is once again set to stand trial in criminal court.
Feb. 5, 2020
Now six years after Oulson’s death, Reeves’ attorneys ask the courts to set a date for his second-degree murder case. The trial is scheduled to begin in January 2021, but will see a number of delays as the coronavirus pandemic spreads across the state.
Dec. 17, 2020
A Pinellas-Pasco Circuit judge dismisses a civil lawsuit filed by Oulson’s widow against Cobb Theaters, employee Peck and the company that owns the complex where the cinema is located. Court documents show that Nicole Oulson and those named in her lawsuit reached a private settlement.
Dec. 17, 2021
Reeves’ criminal trial finally is rescheduled by Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Kemba Lewis, with jury selection set to begin Feb. 7. Lewis puts the case on court calendars after hearing a week’s worth of motions in the case, a move typical of the final steps before a trial.
Feb. 2, 2022
Judge Barthle holds the final pretrial hearing in Reeves’ case before jury selection can begin, settling the last of 20 outstanding motions. Barthle also sets the parameters for the jury pool: The clerk of court will summon 250 East Pasco residents to be considered for the six-member panel. They’ll be broken into groups of 50 people per day over five days of jury selection. Once a jury is selected, Reeves’ trial is expected to last three weeks.
The Story So Far
Want to catch up on the details? Check out the Times’ extensive coverage.
Pasco movie theater trial postponed amid coronavirus concerns (July 14, 2020)
Stand your ground’ law becomes issue in Pasco movie killing (Jan. 17, 2014)
Movie fight, fatal gunfire (Jan. 14, 2014)
Times staff writer Josh Fiallo contributed to this report.