DADE CITY — It was a movie theater confrontation over cell phone texting that escalated quickly, even before the previews of coming attractions were finished.
Angry words were exchanged.
A bag of popcorn was hurled.
But nothing that happened Monday afternoon in Theater 10 at the Cobb Grove 16 Theatre in Wesley Chapel warranted “taking out a gun and firing at someone’s chest,” said Circuit Judge Lynn Tepper as she denied bail Tuesday afternoon for Curtis Reeves Jr., 71, a retired Tampa police captain charged with second-degree murder.
Reeves, who appeared on a video monitor from the Land O’ Lakes Jail during his first appearance hearing, is accused of killing 43-year-old Chad Oulson of Land O’ Lakes during the altercation over texting. He faces a possible life sentence.
One of Reeves’ attorneys, Richard Escobar, said his client was in fear for his life when he shot Oulson.
“The alleged victim attacked him,” Escobar told Tepper. “Struck him with an object, which resulted in the gunfire.”
The Pasco County Sheriff’s Office reported, though, that while Reeves claimed Oulson struck him with an “unknown object,” no such object was found and witnesses did not observe any punches being thrown. Oulson did throw a bag of popcorn at Reeves, the sheriff’s office reported.
Assistant state attorney Manny Garcia told the judge that Reeves has a habit of confronting people who use phones in theaters. Garcia said he was contacted late Monday by a woman who said she had a similar incident with Reeves in December.
“She was at the Cobb movie theater when she was confronted by the defendant for texting,” Garcia said. “He was glaring at her the entire time.”
Garcia added that Reeves followed the woman to the bathroom, which “made her feel very uncomfortable.”
In attempting to persuade Tepper to set bond, Reeves’ attorneys said their client was a man with significant ties to the community – having lived in the Tampa Bay area since 1966 – and had several health issues that could be better treated outside of jail.
Among those ailments listed were: arthritis in both hands, bursitis, hypertension, high cholesterol, and “very low” levels of oxygen in his blood, which require him to wear a mask that forces oxygen into his lungs.
Those arguments didn’t sway Tepper, who said, “I am ruling that there is no bond.”
During the hearing, Reeves wore a protective knee-length, sleeveless smock. Later in the afternoon, Pasco Sheriff Chris Nocco said the vest was meant for Reeves’ safety, but he wouldn’t comment on whether it was bulletproof or if it was to protect Reeves from himself.
“This is a high-profile case, there’s security issues,” Nocco said. “We can’t reveal some of our information for security purposes, but when we have high-profile cases, we have to ensure the safety of the person that we have in custody.”
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On Monday afternoon, Oulson and his wife, Nicole, were sitting in front of Reeves and his wife and texting during previews before the film “Lone Survivor,” according to the sheriff’s office.
Detectives said Reeves asked Oulson several times to stop texting. Witnesses said Oulson said he was texting his 3-year-old daughter, though authorities later said the texts actually were going to the girl’s babysitter.
Reeves left the theater to complain to staff, and when he returned, Oulson asked whether Reeves had reported him to management, the sheriff’s office said. The two began to argue and that’s when Oulson threw a bag of popcorn at Reeves, an arrest report said.
Reeves pulled out a .380-caliber semiautomatic pistol from his pants pocket and shot Oulson in the chest, the sheriff’s office said. Nicole Oulson put her hand in front of her husband as the shot was fired, and the same bullet struck both of them, the sheriff’s office said.
After the shooting, Reeves reportedly put the gun in his lap and Cpl. Alan Hamilton, an off-duty Sumter County sheriff’s deputy who had come to see the movie with his wife, secured the weapon and detained Reeves, the sheriff’s office reported.
Pasco Sgt. Steve Greiner, one of the first responders on the scene, said Hamilton was about five seats away from the shooting and saw the muzzle flash in the darkened theater.
Hamilton identified himself and grabbed the barrel of the gun, Greiner said. Reeves resisted initially, but then let go of the gun, Greiner said.
Greiner said the gun was jammed and could not have been fired again. He was unsure whether Reeves planned to fire a second shot.
The sheriff’s office confirmed that Reeves talked with a manager to complain about Oulson’s cell phone use, Detective Timothy Harris said.
“The manager said he was glad that he made him aware of it and (Reeves) returned to the theater,” Harris said.
The shooting happened, though, before the manager made it inside the theater to take action, he said.
Reeves’ son, Mathew Reeves, a patrol officer with the Tampa Police Department, was supposed to meet his father and mother to see the movie, but was running late, sheriff’s spokeswoman Melanie Snow said. He arrived in the lobby as previews were beginning, but had not made his way to Theater 10 where “Lone Survivor” was showing when the shooting happened, the sheriff said.
Although Reeves said he was in fear of being attacked, Nocco said he does not believe the case falls under the state’s stand-your-ground law, which allows people to use deadly force when they fear their lives are in danger, even if they can safely retreat.
“We know any possible defense will be brought up in a courtroom,” Nocco said. “Knowing that, as the investigation is going on, we look to see if there could have been a defense for stand your ground.”
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Charles Rose, a professor at Stetson University College of Law, said the case theoretically could prompt a stand-your-ground defense, but the success could hinge on numerous details, from the lighting in the room to the relative size and strength of the two men, to what happened in the moments leading up to the shooting.
If not stand your ground, a defense attorney alternatively could use a straight self-defense argument, Rose said.
Although popcorn doesn’t seem like a serious weapon, throwing it at someone could be considered an assault, Rose said. If a defense attorney could show that the popcorn incident was part of a series of escalating events that caused Reeves to fear more was coming, then there is “a good self-defense argument and potentially a stand-your-ground argument,” Rose said.
On the other hand, Rose said, if evidence shows that Reeves egged on Oulson and was abusive toward him, and that Oulson responded to that abuse, then it’s more difficult to argue self defense.
“It’s a tragedy,” Rose said. “But like most Shakespearean tragedies, we can’t not watch it so there is going to be a lot of talk about it.”
Nocco said the sheriff’s office is looking into the report from the woman who said Reeves confronted her about texting at the theater in December.
“What we’re doing is going back now, our detectives are investigating it and seeing if we can pull video and see is it the same person,” Nocco said. “We’re going to look into this matter.”
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On Tuesday morning, a woman who identified herself as Chad Oulson’s sister answered the door as rain fell at his Land O’ Lakes home.
The sister, who would not give her name, said the family was still in shock and had no comment on what took place Monday afternoon. She said she and her mother traveled from Illinois on Monday night.
The house sat quiet with the garage door open. One car was in the driveway, while inside the garage, a motocross motorcycle rested on a stand. Next to it was a gold pickup truck. In front of the motorcycle was a child’s wagon.
That motorcycle played a large part in Oulson’s life, according to friends who spoke about him Monday night.
“He loved his job, loved his family, loved motocross, loved the motorcycle world,” friend Joseph Detrapani said Monday night. “He grew up riding motocross and loved to keep doing it, even at his age of 43, he’s still out there every weekend riding in East Bay and all that.”
Reeves retired from the Tampa Police Department on Sept. 30, 1993, and does not appear to have had any contact with the agency since his retirement, said police spokeswoman Laura McElroy. Reeves was instrumental in establishing the department’s Tactical Response Team, she said.
Reeves also served as director of security at Busch Gardens, a position he left in 2005.
Nocco said the fact Reeves is a former member of the law enforcement family won’t cloud the investigation.
“It all goes back to the fact that we want a conviction,” he said. “Whether a law enforcement officer or whoever he is, he did something wrong and he deserves justice to be served.”
Nocco said, in addition to a death over texting, he was disturbed about where the shooting took place.
“There’s certain blankets of protection in our county and our community and our country: a school, a hospital and movie theater,” Nocco said. “Those are (places) we hold sacred because of the fact we believe when we’re there, nothing bad is going to happen to us. Someone goes to the movie theater, they’re there to relax, enjoy themselves and remove the stress of society.
“Unfortunately, in those horrible moments, stress was brought in. … That blanket of protection was ripped from them.”