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Movie theater shooting suspect was once go-to guy on Tampa police force

Patrons were evacuated from the Cobb Grove 16 theater in Wesley Chapel after the shooting before a showing of "Lone Survivor" Monday afternoon. About 25 other people were in the auditorium where the shooting occurred, officials said. Inset: Curtis Reeves Jr., 71, retired from the Tampa Police Department in 1993 as a captain. After that, he worked for Busch Gardens.
Published Jan. 14, 2014

TAMPA — In the 1980s, Curtis Reeves Jr. was the go-to guy for some of the toughest calls at the Tampa Police Department.

Hostage situations, suspect standoffs, civil disorder — the chiefs knew he could handle it, a close friend and co-worker recalled Monday.

Reeves launched the agency's Tactical Response Team, often referred to as the SWAT team, said retired Tampa police Officer Carson Helms, who worked on the squad when Reeves was in charge.

"In my opinion, he was the best of the best," Helms, 59, said.

Pasco County deputies say Reeves, 71, fatally shot another moviegoer Monday at the Cobb Grove 16 theater, near Interstate 75 in Wesley Chapel.

It's an allegation that shocked many of Reeves' friends and neighbors. Helms said he felt nauseous when he got a call about it early Monday afternoon.

"I don't know what caused this to happen," Helms said. "I think Curtis is a good man."

Reeves retired from the Tampa Police Department in 1993 as a captain. After that, he worked for Busch Gardens, eventually becoming director of security.

He left the theme park in 2005 and retired near Brooksville, settling into a large ranch-style house in Mountainview Estates with his wife, Vivian. He'd ride his motorcycle and sometimes hunt.

They had rocking chairs on their front porch, an American flag in the yard. Their son, Officer Matthew Reeves, has worked for Tampa police since 2003.

Though Helms retired to North Carolina, he still considers Curtis Reeves a close friend. They met for dinner in October when Reeves and his wife visited. Reeves seemed happy and normal, Helms recalled.

"There was no reason for me to think there was anything going on in his life to cause this," Helms said.

He wonders if Reeves feared for his or his wife's safety in the movie theater. On Monday, Pasco investigators did not say anything like that had occurred, but Helms said law enforcement officers — both current and retired — know that is the only justification for deadly force.

At Reeves' home Monday evening, a man asked a reporter to leave. Neighbors in the rural community of Spring Lake described the 71-year-old as kind, generous and a family man.

As the sun set, they were quickly learning of Reeves' arrest from news reports and journalists knocking on their doors.

Joe D'Andrea, 64, said he has lived near Reeves for more than a decade. D'Andrea saw him at a few neighborhood parties and on Reeves' frequent walks through the neighborhood with his wife, whom D'Andrea described as "a sweetheart, a beautiful lady."

Besides walking in Mountainview, D'Andrea said, Reeves liked to ride his motorcycle through the surrounding countryside.

"Curtis is a nice guy. Every time I talked to him, he seemed like a top-shelf person," D'Andrea said. "I don't know what would have pushed him over the edge."

When Martin Mazurek moved in a few years ago and started making improvements to his home, Reeves offered to lend him tools and help.

Mazurek was trying to make sense of how Reeves could be accused of shooting a stranger in a movie theater.

"It must have escalated somehow," he speculated. "He must have felt threatened."

About 18 months ago, neighbor Matthew Harris found that Reeves could speak up when something was bothering him.

Harris said that he was working on his car stereo in his driveway when Reeves approached and asked him to turn down the volume. Harris said Reeves mentioned that he was a former police officer and security guard.

"He kind of snapped at me at first, but then he calmed down," Harris recalled.

He said Reeves told him to holler if he ever needed anything. Then the two men shook hands, and Reeves walked away.

Times news researcher John Martin and staff writer Dan DeWitt contributed to this report. Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at jvandervelde@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3433.

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