Retired Officer Says He Had No Choice in Theater Killing

(Associated Press) A retired police SWAT commander testified Thursday that he fatally shot a man in a movie theater eight years ago during an argument sparked by cellphone usage and escalated by a thrown popcorn bag because he feared he was about to be attacked by a person he said was “out of control” and “looked like a monster.”

Curtis Reeves, a 79-year-old former Tampa police captain, said he shot 43-year-old Chad Oulson on Jan. 13, 2014, because the younger, fitter man was cursing at him and about to attack him because he had complained about Oulsen’s cellphone use during previews.

Testifying in Pasco County, north of Tampa, Reeves said he fired his .38-caliber handgun because he believed he had no other choice, saying his seated position, his then-71 years and his poor health made it impossible to defend himself with his hands.

“He was so much above me and so full of rage … that he was going to strike me with all the strength that he could put together. I figured this was the end of the line for me,” said Reeves, who had been hit by his own popcorn bag, which Oulson had grabbed from his lap and tossed back at him. He faces a potential life sentence if convicted of second-degree murder and aggravated assault with a deadly weapon.

Oulson’s widow, Nicole Oulson, glared at Reeves throughout his testimony, rocking slightly back and forth. Her finger nearly severed by the bullet that killed her husband as she tried to get him to sit back down, she testified earlier she never heard him curse at Reeves. She said Reeves had started the argument by ordering her husband put away his cellphone as he checked on their 22-month-old daughter at daycare. Another witness testified that after firing the shot, Reeves had muttered, “throw popcorn in my face.”

His defense invoked Florida’s “stand your ground” law that allows use of deadly force in the face of mortal danger or fear of serious injury, but that was rejected by Circuit Judge Susan Barthle. Since the shooting, Reeves has mostly been on house arrest as his attorneys’ arguments and the COVID-19 pandemic delayed the trial.

Under questioning by his attorney Richard Escobar, Reeves testified Thursday that he and his wife, Vivian, had arrived early to see the Afghan war movie “Lone Survivor,” sitting in the back row in the middle. Their son, now a Tampa police officer, was supposed to meet them. The Oulsons were sitting one row in front of them, slightly to the side.

Dressed in a gray suit and speaking in a clear, calm voice, Reeves said as the previews began, he asked Oulson politely to put down his cellphone because it was shining in his eyes. He said Oulson cursed at him and refused. Turning periodically to face the jury, as police officers are trained to do when testifying, Reeves said he was not angry, but decided to head to the lobby and report Oulson to the manager.

After he returned to his seat, he said Oulson glared at him and seemed to be speaking loudly to his wife or the audience in general. Reeves said he tried to “diffuse the situation” by telling Oulson that if he had known he would put his phone away, he would not have gone to the manager.

He said he turned away, but when he looked back Oulson had stood up, he saw a reflection and his vision went fuzzy as something hit him in the glasses, knocking them askew. He didn’t think Oulson was close enough to reach him — the defense has argued that Oulson had thrown his cellphone, which was found on the floor near Reeves.

Reeves said Oulson was standing over him, “yelling a lot of profanities and threats.”

“The F-word seemed to be his primary vocabulary,” using the word to threaten to beat him, Reeves said. “He is very volatile and active. He is trying to come over the seats.

“I am looking up at this guy and looked like a monster,” Reeves said. He said Nicole Oulson appeared to be trying to hold her husband back, but Chad Oulson appeared ready to strike.

“I was completely defenseless,” Reeves said. “I have never encountered someone exhibiting that amount of uncontrolled anger and rage.”

He pulled his gun from his pocket and fired once, striking Oulson in the chest. He died in the theater. Sheriff’s deputies arrived and arrested Reeves.

Reeves spent the first part of his testimony discussing his history in law enforcement and his health issues.

After being hired by the Tampa police in the 1970s, he attended college, graduating with honors. As a sergeant, he founded the department’s SWAT team and became its commander. After reaching captain, he led various squads, including homicide, before leading the vice unit.

He survived cancer in 1988 and retired from the police department in 1993 after 27 years to become head of security for the Busch Gardens theme park. He spent 12 years there before retiring, saying that because of leg problems he could no longer walk around the park.

He was scheduled to face cross-examination from prosecutors Thursday afternoon.