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Curtis Reeves trial: Defendant takes stand in Pasco movie theater shooting

“I’d never encountered somebody exhibiting that kind of anger and rage,” Reeves said. “At that point I had no other choice and reached for my pistol.”
 
During court testimony Thursday, Curtis Reeves describes the confrontation that led to a fatal shooting in a Wesley Chapel movie theater. Reeves is standing trial on charges including second-degree murder in the shooting death of Chad Oulson.
During court testimony Thursday, Curtis Reeves describes the confrontation that led to a fatal shooting in a Wesley Chapel movie theater. Reeves is standing trial on charges including second-degree murder in the shooting death of Chad Oulson. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Feb. 24, 2022|Updated Feb. 25, 2022

DADE CITY — It’s a story he’s told many times before — in depositions, in court testimony and in handcuffs after he shot and killed a man inside a Wesley Chapel movie theater.

But when Curtis Reeves told his story to a Dade City courtroom Thursday, the retired Tampa police captain knew it would likely determine whether he spends the rest of his life in prison or surrounded by friends and family in his beautiful Brooksville home.

Reeves was the first witness to take the stand Thursday morning and the last to testify in his long-awaited, three-week murder trial.

But Reeves’ testimony was the culmination of more than eight years of legal wrangling — a six-month jail stay, years of house arrest and check-ins with parole officers, interrogations, depositions, attorneys’ fees, and a failed appeal after Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Susan Barthle denied his 2017 attempt to gain immunity under Florida’s “stand your ground” law.

On Jan. 13, 2014, days after he returned from a father-son hunting trip, Curtis Reeves took his wife, Vivian, to the movies. Their son Matthew, a Tampa police officer, had recently read the book behind the film Lone Survivor, and agreed to meet them for a matinee showing at the Cobb Grove 16 theater.

Before the movie even began to play inside Theater 10, though, he had killed a man with a single gunshot through his chest, the bullet nearly severing the wedding ring finger of the man’s wife in the process.

Nicole Oulson, widow of Chad Oulson, awaits court testimony Thursday from the man on trial in his shooting death.
Nicole Oulson, widow of Chad Oulson, awaits court testimony Thursday from the man on trial in his shooting death. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Reeves was 71 then, but now seems a much older 79. He walks with a cane, suffers arthritis in his hands and knees and has a plastic hip due to a fall after his arrest, radiologist Michael Foley testified earlier this week. The herniated discs in his back and time-ravaged tendons in his shoulders caused him to slouch — camouflaging his 6-foot-2-inch-tall stature.

A six-member jury has heard witness accounts from every angle and aspect of the minuteslong encounter that preceded Reeves pulling out a gun and shooting 43-year-old Chad Oulson, a Land O’ Lakes father who was scrolling on his cellphone during the previews.

On Friday, it will be up to that jury to determine if Reeves is guilty of two charges: aggravated battery and second-degree murder. If convicted on the murder charge alone, 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.

Reeves didn’t seem like a man easily rattled as he spoke of the encounter he’s long claimed scared him so badly he saw no other option but to shoot Oulson or risk his own life in an attack from the younger, stronger man.

“I truly thought this was the end of the line for me,” Reeves said. “I thought at the very least I would be seriously injured, if not killed.”

Even when provoked and prodded by Assistant State Attorney Scott Rosenwasser, Reeves responded in the same manner as he started. Only once did tears ever betray his steely, self-assured demeanor.

“I didn’t want to shoot anybody,” he told his attorney, Rick Escobar, during questioning. “I came to the theater with my family to enjoy a movie, not to be attacked by some guy that’s out of control. I had never experienced anything like that in my entire life — not inside a theater or anywhere else. It was a shock.”

The Reeveses entered the theater just as public service announcements asking guests to turn off their phones played on the screen. The Oulsons were already seated when the Reeveses took their seats behind him, and almost immediately Curtis Reeves said he was bothered by a light shining in his eyes.

He soon traced the source of the light to Chad Oulson’s cellphone, he said, and he leaned over to quietly ask, “Can you turn your cellphone off, please?”

Oulson didn’t look up from the phone, but spoke loudly when he told Reeves to “f--k off” and “Get the f--k out of my face,” Reeves said.

He told the court he sat back and watched Oulson continue to scroll. When it was clear he wasn’t going to put it away, Reeves said he leaned forward a second time and said, “You leave me no alternative other than to notify management.”

At first, Reeves said, he thought Oulson was just being “mouthy.”

He had built a career on dealing with people like that, he said. But despite his years in law enforcement, which was followed by a career as head of security at Busch Gardens, Reeves told the court he never once fired his service weapon. He credits his extensive training in de-escalation tactics.

Yet after he left the theater, spoke to the manager, and returned to his seat, Reeves said he noticed Oulson staring at him and talking loudly about efforts to get management involved. He said he was trying to “diffuse the situation” when he leaned over a third time and said, “If I had known you had put your phone away I wouldn’t have involved the manager.” But then Reeves saw movement out of his right eye, he said, and as he turned to look at Oulson the man already had jumped to his feet. Reeves said he only saw the flash of an object in Oulson’s hand before he was struck above his left eye and his vision went fuzzy. He later realized that was because something had knocked his glasses askew.

“I’d never been in that kind of position before, sitting down in a completely defenseless position,” Reeves said. “I’m looking up at this guy and he looked like a monster standing there. He was mad and he exhibited explosive behavior, both verbally and physically, like I had never seen. He was a threat.”

Reeves said he was certain Oulson was climbing over the back of his seat, so he leaned as far to his left as he could, trying to lead the man away from his wife while also trying to back away. He saw Nicole Oulson try to calm her husband down, with her hand on his chest, but the man was “completely out of control,” Reeves said.

In that moment, he said he remembered visiting the medical examiner’s office as a young police officer in the homicide unit, and seeing firsthand that sometimes all it takes to end a life is a well-placed, hard-driven punch. When he made the decision to grab his gun, it was his only option, Reeves testified.

But ever since, Reeves said, he’s “been second-guessing it for the last eight years.”

“Anyone who’s involved in something like that and doesn’t second-guess it has got to be nuts,” Reeves said. “I think if you’re a human and you have respect for human life you would second-guess it constantly, every single day. I second-guess this entire event.”

Judge Barthle told the jury to be in court by 8:30 a.m. Friday to hear closing arguments before their deliberations begin.

Staff writer Anastasia Dawson, is reporting live from the trial at the Robert D. Sumner Judicial Center in Dade City. Her tweets appear below.

If you are unable to see the tweets on your device, click here to read them.

And catch up here on the trial so far, in reverse order: Wednesday, Tuesday, Monday, Friday, Feb. 17, Feb. 16, Feb. 15 and Feb. 14. Read the full background on the case here.