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Curtis Reeves trial: Oulson’s widow testifies in Pasco movie theater shooting case

It has taken eight years for the high-profile case to reach trial.
Nicole Oulson identifies Curtis Reeves as the man sitting behind her and her husband, Chad Oulson, the day they were shot at a Wesley Chapel movie theater in January 2014. Oulson was providing testimony for the prosecution during the second-degree murder trial for Reeves, a former Tampa police captain, Monday at the Robert D. Sumner Judicial Center in Dade City. Reeves stands accused of shooting and killing Chad Oulson during an incident in which Nicole Oulson was injured.
Nicole Oulson identifies Curtis Reeves as the man sitting behind her and her husband, Chad Oulson, the day they were shot at a Wesley Chapel movie theater in January 2014. Oulson was providing testimony for the prosecution during the second-degree murder trial for Reeves, a former Tampa police captain, Monday at the Robert D. Sumner Judicial Center in Dade City. Reeves stands accused of shooting and killing Chad Oulson during an incident in which Nicole Oulson was injured. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Feb. 14|Updated Feb. 15

After more than eight years of waiting for the retired Tampa police captain who killed her husband to finally see his day in court, widow Nicole Oulson faced Curtis Reeves in a Dade City courtroom on Valentine’s Day.

Related: Curtis Reeves trial: All you need to know about the Pasco theater shooting

The last date she ever shared with her husband, Chad Oulson, was on Jan. 13, 2014 — the day he was fatally shot by Reeves during an argument over his cellphone use while the previews played inside the Grove 16 theater where both couples bought tickets to see the biographical war film Lone Survivor.

Oulson’s widow, now 41, was the first witness called to testify Monday after lengthy opening statements from the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney’s Office and Reeves’ defense team, spearheaded by attorneys Richard Escobar and Dino Michaels.

Related: TUESDAY UPDATE: Testimony continues in Curtis Reeves trial day after victim's wife takes stand

It was never a question of whether Reeves fired the fatal bullet into Chad Oulson’s chest that day. Instead, the arguments centered on his intent in that moment. Both sides admitted the two men got in a heated argument after Reeves asked Oulson to turn off his phone, and no one denies that the argument eventually led Oulson to stand up from his seat, reach over into Reeves’ lap and grab the small bag of popcorn he was sharing with his wife, tossing it back in the elder man’s face.

It was at that moment that Reeves reached into his pocket and pulled out a loaded .380-caliber handgun, firing a single bullet into Oulson’s chest, striking his wife’s finger on its trajectory. Her injury — prosecutors said her left ring finger, where she wore her wedding ring, was nearly severed — added an aggravated battery charge to the second-degree murder charge Reeves faces for Oulson’s death. Should he be found guilty, Reeves, now 79, could be sentenced to up to life in prison. State law specifies a minimum of 25 years in prison for the crime, but for a man of his age that, too, could likely be a life sentence.

Vivian Reeves, 75, leaves court with her husband, Curtis Reeves, at the conclusion of testimony during his second-degree murder trial Monday at the Robert D. Sumner Judicial Center in Dade City. Reeves, a retired Tampa police captain, stands accused of shooting and killing of Chad Oulson, 43, after an argument that began in a Wesley Chapel movie theater Jan. 13, 2014. Oulson's wife, Nicole, was injured.
Vivian Reeves, 75, leaves court with her husband, Curtis Reeves, at the conclusion of testimony during his second-degree murder trial Monday at the Robert D. Sumner Judicial Center in Dade City. Reeves, a retired Tampa police captain, stands accused of shooting and killing of Chad Oulson, 43, after an argument that began in a Wesley Chapel movie theater Jan. 13, 2014. Oulson's wife, Nicole, was injured. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

The case has taken an unusually long time to reach trial. 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.

It was Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Susan Barthle who ensured Reeves would one day sit before a jury after she rejected his team’s “stand your ground” defense following a 10-day hearing in 2017. And were it not for Barthle’s insistence that Reeves’ trial begin Monday, the six lawyers involved in the case could still be searching for six jurors and four alternates.

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In his opening statements, defense attorney Dino Michaels argued there was more to the confrontation than just popcorn being tossed.

“There was an attack before the popcorn was thrown,” he said.

The defense indicated it also is going to use Reeves’ age and health to bolster its case that the defendant was afraid when he shot and killed Oulson.

What happened that day can only be discerned through grainy and incomplete surveillance footage, coupled with the memories of those who were in the theater the day the retired Tampa police captain shot and killed Oulson more than eight years ago.

Both men were with their wives, the Oulsons seated one row ahead, when Reeves noticed the young father was on his cellphone during the film’s previews. He told Oulson to stop and the two argued, prompting Reeves to leave the theater to complain to a manager.

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 pulled out a .380-caliber handgun and shot Oulson in the chest. He died at 43 years old, leaving behind a young daughter — then 22 months old — and his wife of seven years.

In his opening statements, Assistant State Attorney Scott Rosenwasser told jurors that Reeves showed signs of being angry with Oulson, who had been scrolling through social media on his cellphone during previews. This will help the state prove the case of second-degree murder.

An exchange between the two resulted in Oulson grabbing Reeves’ bag of popcorn and flicking some at him, but Rosenwasser said that’s no reason to shoot and kill a man.

“You can’t kill someone for that,” he said.

In her testimony, Nicole Oulson spoke of how Reeves’ request for Oulson to put his phone away was “just rude.”

“It was demanding, it was like it was an order,” Nicole Oulson said. “There was no ‘excuse me,’ or ‘Do you mind?’ or an explanation that the light was blinding. It was just very matter of fact that ‘you need to do this.’”

Her husband “kind of blew him off,” saying something like “what’s your problem, I’m not making any noise and the movie hasn’t started yet,” Nicole Oulson testified. He didn’t use profanity or “drop any F-bombs,” she said, but both of the men did raise their voices above the typical movie-theater whisper.

When Reeves left the theater, her husband tried to brush off the incident and continue watching the movie, Nicole said. But when he returned, and the two began quarelling again, she saw Chad Oulson stand up in his seat and turn around.

On instinct, Nicole Oulson stood up, too, and put her hand on her husband’s chest, attempting to turn him toward the movie screen and get him to either sit back down or walk away.

“I was embarrassed,” Nicole Oulson told prosecutor Glenn Martin Jr. “I thought they would just cause more of a commotion when people saw these two men bickering.”

Then she heard a loud bang and her hand suddenly felt like it was on fire; “like my hand was blown up.”

The pain quickly left her mind, though, she said, as she turned toward her husband and saw blood pouring from his mouth. She started to panic.

At one point, Nicole Oulson said she remembers trying to call her mom, but she was quickly becoming hysterical. Moviegoers had rushed to her husband’s side, and another man took over her phone call because “I guess I wasn’t making sense.”

Nicole Oulson describes the moment she was shot in the hand at a Wesley Chapel movie theater in 2014 during the second-degree murder trial for former Tampa Police Capt. Curtis Reeves on Monday at the Robert D. Sumner Judicial Center in Dade City. Reeves stands accused of shooting and killing Nicole Oulson's husband, Chad, and inuring her.
Nicole Oulson describes the moment she was shot in the hand at a Wesley Chapel movie theater in 2014 during the second-degree murder trial for former Tampa Police Capt. Curtis Reeves on Monday at the Robert D. Sumner Judicial Center in Dade City. Reeves stands accused of shooting and killing Nicole Oulson's husband, Chad, and inuring her. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

It was then, after hours of maintaining remarkable composure during questioning, that Nicole Oulson’s face began to flush and her voice cracked, choking back sobs.

“I knew from prior experiences that if you saw me panicking you would be more worried about me and I wanted them to help my husband so I tried to pull it together,” Oulson testified.

She bent down over her husband, hiding her face as she looked at his. His eyes looked glazed over and in that moment she knew, Oulson said. Still, she stayed bent over her husband, intent on “double checking” for signs of life.

“At that point I really started to lose it and was getting hysterical so I just tried to tell Chad to please hold in there, ‘we need you.’ But then I stood up and let other people in the movie theater could try to save him,” Oulson told the court.

In the midst of the horror she noticed her ring finger was “pretty much hanging by a string,” Oulson said, and she was taken for surgery. The finger was so “destroyed” that Oulson said doctors had to take bone from her wrist, pinning and cutting it into place to rebuild a finger.

Now, she lives with constant pain in her left ring finger, Nicole Oulson said. It’s shorter and crooked in multiple places, covered in scars, with very limited mobility.

Testimony will resume Tuesday at 9 a.m. in Dade City. Barthle has set aside the next three weeks for Reeves’ murder trial, with a verdict expected after the month of February.

Court TV is covering the case and you can watch it live here:

If you can’t see the video player on your mobile device, click here.

Nicole Oulson, center, arrives for the start of the second-degree murder trial for former Tampa Police Captain Curtis Reeves on Monday. Reeves is accused of shooting and killing Nicole’s husband, Chad Oulson, at a Wesley Chapel movie theater in January 2014.
Nicole Oulson, center, arrives for the start of the second-degree murder trial for former Tampa Police Captain Curtis Reeves on Monday. Reeves is accused of shooting and killing Nicole’s husband, Chad Oulson, at a Wesley Chapel movie theater in January 2014. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
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