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Curtis Reeves trial: Defendant’s wife describes shooting at Pasco theater

Vivian Reeves tells the jury that her husband “spoke so softly I couldn’t hear what he said” before the confrontation that ended in Chad Oulson’s death.
 
Vivian Reeves, 75, testifies Monday in a Dade City courtroom during the murder trial of her husband, former Tampa police Capt. Curtis Reeves, 79.
Vivian Reeves, 75, testifies Monday in a Dade City courtroom during the murder trial of her husband, former Tampa police Capt. Curtis Reeves, 79. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Feb. 21, 2022|Updated Feb. 22, 2022

DADE CITY — As her husband’s murder trial entered its third week early Monday morning, Vivian Reeves was there — sitting in her normal spot on the hard wooden gallery pews of a Pasco County courtroom, flanked by a small army of friends and family on either side.

She’s always been listed as a possible witness in the long-awaited jury trial of Curtis Reeves, the retired Tampa police captain who fatally shot a Land O’ Lakes father in 2014 during an argument over the man scrolling on his cellphone inside a Wesley Chapel movie theater.

But questions arose about whether she would take the stand after she appeared in court, sitting behind her husband, throughout the course of the trial. Typically, potential witnesses are not allowed inside the courtroom during hearings for cases where they could be called to testify.

But in this case, court spokesperson Stephen Thompson said, Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Susan Barthle and the attorneys involved made an exception.

“Mr. Reeves’ attorneys asked if it were OK if Mrs. Reeves were allowed to attend the trial. Prosecutors agreed with their proposal, so it was allowed,” Thompson said.

Attorney Rohom Khonsari, a former prosecutor and founder of Khonsari Law Group, said witnesses usually aren’t allowed to listen to other testimony in court so that their recollections aren’t swayed by other witnesses’ memories. However, since there have been other hearings and depositions in the Reeves’ case prior to the trial this year, that may have influenced attorneys’ decisions to let Vivian Reeves remain in court while other witnesses took the stand, Khonsari said.

”I think it’s just very clear as to what everyone’s going to be testifying to because they’ve testified to it multiple times now,” he said.

Vivian Reeves is a witness that both sides consider critical in this case.

She was there, sitting at her husband’s side, when the fatal bullet was fired. Before it pierced Chad Oulson’s chest, the bullet nearly severed the ring finger of his wife’s left hand, which she had placed on his chest as she urged him to walk away from the unfolding argument.

Now, after a failed 2017 attempt to gain immunity under Florida’s controversial “stand your ground” law, Curtis Reeves is facing charges of aggravated battery and second-degree murder. If convicted, the now 79-year-old could face life in prison. Even the most lenient sentence offered by Florida law is a minimum 25 years behind bars.

Vivian Reeves’ testimony Monday came in the middle of a series of expert witnesses called by the defense to speak on the effects of aging and video/audio forensics.

In the moments before she took the stand in her husband’s defense, friends sat at her side, holding her shoulders and offering a few last-minutes words of comfort and support. She held a small tissue in her tightly clenched fist as she swore to tell the truth, walked up to the witness stand and closed her eyes as she thought back to that trip to the movies on Jan. 13, 2014.

She spoke with that unmistakable, softly southern sing-song accent of a woman born and bred in Tampa Bay. Yet her voice also trembled as she struggled to remember the details of that day more than eight years ago. October marked the 54th anniversary of her marriage to Curtis Reeves, she told defense attorney Dino Michaels. And like her daughter and son told the court last week, it was safe to say that even eight years ago the couple was “growing old together.”

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Vivian Reeves said she knew they had begun the irreversible process of aging when, one day, she fell in their Brooksville home and her husband — the strong and fit former police officer — couldn’t pick her up off the floor.

She let out a short gasp when Michaels showed her one of the black athletic shoes her husband wore to the theater that day, noting its design didn’t require him to tie shoelaces — “just like my granddaughter’s.”

It was a spontaneous idea to go catch a matinee showing of Lone Survivor that day, Vivian Reeves said. She was 67 at the time and her husband was 71, but still active. Her husband had just returned from a north Florida hunting trip with their adult son Matthew — also a Tampa police officer — and suggested they go see the movie. Their son had recently read the book, and Vivian was intrigued after learning it was based on a true story.

Vivian told the court their son said he would meet them at the Grove 16 theater in Wesley Chapel, formerly called The Cobb.

They sat right in the middle of the last row. The previews had yet to start playing, but the Oulsons were already seated, she said — Nicole Oulson sitting in front of Curtis, and Chad Oulson in front of Vivian.

At first, she didn’t notice the glow of Chad Oulson’s cellphone — he was too tall, she said. But she saw the soft glow in his lap when the lights dimmed and an advertisement asking patrons to turn off their phones flashed on the screen. She saw her husband lean forward and speak into Chad Oulson’s ear, though “he spoke so softly I couldn’t hear what was said” she told the court.

She could definitely hear Oulson’s response, though. Without turning his head away from the screen, she heard Oulson use “loud and ugly language,” using “the F word and said he was texting his daughter.”

Then, Curtis Reeves stood up and said he was going to get the manager. “I said, ‘Let’s just move,’” Vivian Reeves said, but she didn’t think her husband heard her as he got up and walked away.

When he left, Vivian said she felt “extremely uncomfortable” and tried not to look at the Oulsons, instead staring blankly at the screen.

“I just didn’t want to be there,” she said. But they had already texted their son about where they were sitting, and she knew he’d be arriving soon.

“I thought about getting up,” she said, “but I didn’t.”

After a few minutes, her husband came back and took his seat on Vivian’s left side. He again leaned forward and quietly spoke into Chad Oulson’s ear, she said. Then, Oulson said something like, “You told on me? Who the F do you think you are?”

Then, things started happening quickly — almost as if all at once. Oulson stood up and turned around, standing directly in front of Vivian Reeves as he leaned over to address her husband.

“I thought he was coming over and it just freaked me out. I was terrified,” she said.

She saw Curtis Reeves start to lean back in his chair and move to the left, with his right leg outstretched, before she either closed her eyes or turned her head to look away. Her initial thought was that her husband was trying to get away from Oulson, she said.

But she didn’t see what happened next — didn’t see any punches or cellphones thrown, didn’t hear the slap of skin to skin contact and didn’t see Oulson grab the bag of popcorn from her husband, flipping it back in his face.

She also didn’t hear her husband yell “no, no, no” or “whoa, whoa, whoa” like he told in investigators. She didn’t see him grab the gun or pull the trigger, she said, but she heard the bang.

“At some point I moved a couple of seats away, but I couldn’t go too far until people got up and moved,” she said. “I didn’t know what happened and I just couldn’t believe it. I’ve never been that scared before in my whole life.”

When she looked back at her husband, Curtis Reeves had both hands to his head like blinders. It was then that she saw her son Matthew running toward her. She choked back a sob as she told the jury he had blood on his hands and his clothes after attempting to help Oulson.

He told her he was going to go clean up, then came back to walk her out of the theater, she said.

Prosecutors and defense attorneys alike tried to press Vivian Reeves on her recollections of what she saw that day. Did she see any indicator at all that her husband could have acted in self-defense?

“No. I wish I had,” she said. “I wish I had seen everything.”

Judge Barthle has set aside the month of February to hear testimony in the case. Then, it will be up to a six-member jury to decide Reeves’ fate. The trial resumes tomorrow at 8:30 a.m.

Times staff writer Natalie Weber contributed to this report.

Catch up here on the trial so far, in reverse order: Friday, Thursday, Wednesday, Tuesday and Monday. Read the full background on the case here.

Our reporter, Anastasia Dawson, is reporting live from the trial. Her tweets appear below.