DADE CITY — On the third day of testimony in a trial that was to decide if he spends the rest of his life in prison, Curtis Reeves told a jury Wednesday that he feared for his safety before he fatally shot a young Land O’ Lakes father inside a Wesley Chapel movie theater.
All he did was ask the younger man sitting in front of him to put his cellphone away when the coming attractions began playing ahead of a matinee showing of Lone Survivor inside the Grove 16 theater on Jan. 13, 2014, Reeves said.
But the guy was irate, Reeves told detectives in a recorded interview taken later that day. He yelled at the retired Tampa police captain to “stay the hell out of my face” and that it was “none of your f--king business.” Then he jumped up and turned around, stood in his seat and leaned forward while his wife tried to hold him back.
Reeves was leaning all the way back in his seat, convinced the man was “going to kick my a--,” he told Pasco County detectives. The older man’s left arm was out in front for protection as he cried out either “no, no, no” or “whoa, whoa, whoa.” Then, he said, something hit his face with enough force to knock his glasses askew.
Reeves reached in his right front pocket, grabbed his handgun and fired. The bullet went straight through Nicole Oulson’s ring finger and into her husband Chad Oulson’s chest, piercing his rib, his heart and his lung.
“I mean, this happened so damn fast,” an audibly shaken Reeves told now-retired Pasco sheriff’s Detective Allen Proctor in the interview. “And I … good heaven, I didn’t mean to do that.”
Listen to the full interview below:
If you are unable to see the audio player on your device, click here to listen.
That interview, played for a Dade City courtroom late Wednesday afternoon on the third day of testimony in Reeves’ second-degree murder trial, is now more than 8 years old. In the immediate aftermath of the shooting, Reeves sat in the front seat of the detective’s idling cruiser and told him all the reasons why he felt he had no choice but to shoot the 43-year-old Land O’ Lakes father in the crowded theater auditorium.
At 71, Reeves was no longer the “Superman” he was as a decorated Tampa police captain and SWAT team instructor. Now, even a small bruise on his arm takes at least two months to heal, he told Proctor. He has arthritis in both of his hands and knees. His back, like the rest of his body, “is a physical wreck.”
“I couldn’t take that guy — I couldn’t take anybody. Not anymore,” Reeves said. “I’ve got a problem with my right eye, and the guy hit me in the left side and I’m thinking, ‘Oh s--t, I don’t want to be blind. I don’t want to be any of those things as I get older.’”
But all that fear Reeves expressed toward Chad Oulson seemed limited to the first recorded interview played for a six-person jury after hours of testimony from forensic experts, the county’s medical examiner and law enforcement officers assigned to the case.
You still could hear the apparent fear in Reeves’ voice in his second interview, taken a few hours later that day. This time, though, that fear had turned on himself as he realized what he had done.
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The investigators told him they had questioned everyone in the crowded theater and they said Oulson had simply flung a bag of popcorn into Reeves’ face. No one heard Oulson threaten him verbally. Nobody saw Oulson threaten him physically. Not even his wife, Vivian Reeves.
“I asked her point-blank, ‘Did you ever see a punch?’ and she said, ‘No sir,’” Proctor said.
“I never saw it, either,” Reeves told him.
“Did it happen?”
Reeves couldn’t say.
“I’m sitting back here second-guessing myself,” he told the detective. “I got hit in the left side of my face and temple, got my glasses knocked off. There was nobody else there, man. There was nobody else there.”
Eventually, an audibly shaken Proctor had to tell Reeves the bad news: Chad Oulson was dead, and his wife’s finger was nearly severed. The decorated police veteran was under arrest, accused of aggravated battery and second-degree murder.
“I don’t know what to say, except this is a life-changing event that I would have avoided at all costs,” Reeves said after taking in the news. “My life is ruined. My family’s life is ruined, his family’s life is ruined.”
Should Reeves be convicted of the second-degree murder charge, he could face life in prison. Yet even if he’s given the minimum, 25-year sentence allowed by state law for the charge, a conviction still could be tantamount to spending life behind bars for a man of his age — now 79.
Wednesday’s hearing came to an unusually early end when the audio recordings stopped around 5 p.m. and Judge Susan Barthle dismissed the somber-looking jury
Unlike the previous days, Reeves — who has spent years under house arrest — didn’t wait for his family and friends to leave the courtroom by his side.
Instead, he grabbed his cane, made a quick exit from his defense team and released a long, heavy sigh as he turned his head. Slowly, quietly, he then walked out the back door, alone.
Testimony continues at 8:30 a.m. Thursday.
Tuesday’s testimony largely came from three witnesses who were in the theater that day. Read the full story here.
Opening statements were Monday, followed by testimony from Chad Oulson’s wife, Nicole, who was in the theater with him and was shot in the hand. You can read that story here.
Here are highlights from today’s testimony from our reporter, Anastasia Dawson, who has been live-tweeting from the courtroom.