WESLEY CHAPEL — Moviegoers trickled back into the Cobb Grove 16 theaters for Wednesday's lineup of matinees, toting the usual snacks — popcorn and soda. But they were entering an irregular darkness where theater employees stood watch over audiences in the still-shocking wake of a man's violent death.
On the screen before the 12:50 p.m. show of Lone Survivor, cartoon M&M candies advised patrons "cell phones ruin movies."
"This place is jinxed," one patron told another as they took their seats.
Ample security was in place at and around the theater, where 43-year-old Chad Oulson of Land O'Lakes was fatally shot Monday.
Authorities say he got into an argument with 71-year-old Curtis Reeves Jr., a retired Tampa police officer, who was angry that Oulson was texting during the previews. Witnesses said Oulson threw a bag of popcorn at Reeves, who then pulled out a handgun and fired once.
Oulson died at a hospital. Reeves has been charged with second-degree murder and is in the Pasco County jail, without bail.
On Wednesday, both driveways to the building — which sits in a sprawling shopping center complex near Interstate 75 — were blocked off by a security guard and Pasco deputies before the first movie showing at 11:30 a.m.
The security guard stopped cars at yellow cones, letting only theater employees through. Media trucks and personnel were sequestered on a large field next to the highway.
Business appeared to be off to a slow start, with staff outnumbering moviegoers in the early going.
Reeves and Oulson, who didn't know each other, had been there with their wives to see Lone Survivor, about four Navy SEALs on a covert antiterrorism mission in Afghanistan.
The film showed again Wednesday in a different auditorium. A Times reporter purchased a ticket and went inside.
About 20 people streamed in, mostly older men and couples. The atmosphere was tense. Before the movie began, various theater employees cycled in and out of the auditorium. One, with the build of a football player, stayed for a while, standing off to the side with his eyes on the audience.
It appeared that no one was texting.
• • •
Also Wednesday, a glimpse of Reeves' defense emerged — one with little to do with a thrown bag of popcorn and everything to do with his age, his law enforcement experience and his claim of self-defense.
Reeves' attorney, veteran Tampa criminal defense lawyer Richard Escobar, pointed to his client's post-Miranda statements to investigators. Reeves told them Oulson "turned and stood up striking him in the face with an unknown object," the affidavit says. Reeves said he pulled out his gun and fired, and "that he was in fear of being attacked."
"If it was popcorn, don't you think the detective would have written popcorn?" Escobar said Wednesday. "It's an unknown object, dark in color."
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He would not elaborate on conversations with his client regarding an "object."
"Those facts will come out," he said.
A critical element, Escobar said, is the difference in the men's ages. Oulson was 43. Reeves is 71. He noted the law takes age into consideration, making misdemeanor battery into a felony if the victim is 65 or older, for example. He said at a bail hearing that Reeves suffers from arthritis, respiratory issues, hypertension and bursitis.
"My client is 71 years old," an age "which the Legislature has sought to protect," Escobar said Wednesday.
"This all happened because of a text message? No," he said. "This happened because an individual half the age of my client attacked my client in the middle of a movie theater."
He also said Reeves took "the right course" in reporting the texting patron.
"If my guy was the aggressor, if my guy was the instigator, if my guy was quote the bully here, you wouldn't have my client going to management saying, 'Can you take care of this problem?' " Escobar said.
Escobar said he did yet not know theater employees' response to Reeves' complaint.
"He went to management. He didn't punch this guy. He didn't threaten this guy," Escobar said. "The minute he gets back, he gets attacked."
He also pointed to Reeves' law enforcement background. The general public, he said, doesn't have the experience "to evaluate a critical, serious and violent situation," he said. "This guy has 27 years on the force doing exactly that."
Escobar described Reeves as a devout Baptist and a grandfather who is close to his son, a Tampa police officer, and daughter, who is married to a law enforcement officer.
"He's a very gentle individual," Escobar said. "I mean this sincerely: I can't wait for him to testify because I think he's going to make an incredible impact on this community."
He has called Reeves "heartbroken" about Oulson's death.
Escobar said they will have "hours" to present evidence at a hearing Jan. 22.
"What I ask the public is just not to rush to judgment," Escobar said this week.