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A movie date, a text message and a fatal shot

Frances Robles
Curtis Reeves appears via video conference before Circuit Judge Lynn Tepper in Wesley Chapel, Fla. on Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2014. Tepper ordered Reeves, 71, held without bond on a charge of second-degree murder in the death of 43-year-old Chad Oulson on Monday. An argument over texting in a movie theater ended with Reeves, a retired police captain fatally shooting Oulson, authorities said. (AP Photo/The Tampa Bay Times, Brendan Fitterer)
Brendan Fitterer
Nicole Oulson looks at a photo of her husband Chad and their daughter Alexis, along with her husband's helmets and motocross gear, on display during a memorial service at the Land O'Lakes Church of God on Saturday, January 18, 2014. Chad Oulson, 43, was killed in a Wesley Chapel movie theater shooting on Monday. Curtis Reeves, a 71-year-old retired Tampa police captain, is charged with second-degree murder in Oulson's death. (AP Photo/Tampa Bay Times, Daniel Wallace)
Daniel Wallace

WESLEY CHAPEL, Fla. -- There's a sticker on the door of the Grove 16 Theater just outside Tampa: no weapons.

Curtis J. Reeves Jr. must have walked right past it on Jan. 13 when he went to a matinee with his wife, carrying a .380 handgun.

Judging by later events, Reeves, a 71-year old retired police captain, seemed more interested in another notice that flashed across the movie screen, the one that warned against talking on the phone or texting during the movie. That message was announced a few times, once by on-screen M&M's that walked and talked, and again in a way that made clear that using a phone could get a patron ejected from the cinema.

Before the movie "Lone Survivor" had even begun, Reeves had killed a phone user, was in handcuffs and faced the prospect of spending the rest of his life in prison. In a moment that instantly sparked a national debate about legal firearms in public spaces, a former homicide detective had snuffed the life from a Desert Storm veteran on a movie date with his wife.

The tale as told by the Pasco County Sheriff's Office, a witness and the victim's friends is of a fatal clash between two Navy veterans who happened to sit near each other in a movie theater.

A woman would later come forward and tell prosecutors that two weeks earlier at the movies, Reeves had menaced her for texting as well, describing a man in sharp contrast to the generous and kind neighbor the people on his block describe.

"What's he bringing a gun to the movies for?" said Charles Cummings, a 68-year-old former Marine who was in the row ahead of Reeves and described him as "aggressive." "That's a happy place. No one is going to kill you there, except that he did go there and kill someone."

"Lone Survivor," a movie about a covert Navy SEAL operation, was set to start at 1:20 that Monday afternoon. The lights had dimmed halfway. The previews were being shown while stragglers made their way to the plush seats.

Only about 25 people attended the showing, among them a nurse and an off-duty sheriff's deputy.

In front of Reeves was Chad W. Oulson, 43, of Land O' Lakes, Fla., a finance manager at a local motorcycle dealership. Oulson was a 6-foot-4 motorcycle enthusiast, whose 22-month-old daughter, Alexis, was at home with a baby sitter and not feeling well. So Oulson defied technology etiquette and texted the sitter. The light from his phone was visible in the semidarkness.

Cummings remembers Reeves kicking the seat in front of him.

"He was agitated," Cummings said.

Reeves asked Oulson to quit texting. Oulson kept at it, explaining that he was just communicating about a preschooler. Reeves left in a huff to get a manager, but he returned alone.

Oulson complained about being tattled on, and the two men exchanged more words. The words got louder. That is when Oulson made what would turn out to be a fatal move.

"He stood up," said Joseph Detrapani, a friend of Oulson's, who heard the story later. "That was it."

This was a boutique theater with rows of large seats that are elevated from one another, with 1 1/2 feet of legroom between them. Oulson turned to face Reeves and swung the popcorn bag at his side; kernels struck Reeves' face.

Reeves, a co-founder of the Tampa Police Department's first tactical response team, reacted. Struck in the face by what he told police was a "dark object," he reached for his .380 and fired, just as his son, Matthew, also a police officer, entered the theater. Oulson's wife, Nicole, had placed her hand on her husband's chest and was struck in the finger.

Oulson was hit once in the chest. The people nearby laid him down on the floor and rested his head on Cummings' foot. Cummings' son called for help while the nurse in the audience rendered aid.

Police said Reeves sat down calmly, put the gun on his lap and stared ahead. A sheriff's deputy from nearby Sumter County who saw the muzzle flash snatched the weapon from him. Police said Reeves resisted at first and then acquiesced.

The gun was jammed.

At 1:30, a call came over the police radio that someone had been shot at the theater. The police feared the worst and prepared to respond to mass casualties.

"When you hear this come over the radio, I can tell you, your heart drops," Sheriff Chris Nocco told reporters.

Reeves, whose clothes were taken for evidence, was taken to jail in a readily available hazmat suit after TV cameras showed him walking up to the police cruiser as if it were his own, with no officer escorting him close behind.

His lawyer, Richard Escobar, said Reeves, who is charged with second-degree murder, acted in self-defense. He suggested that Reeves was hit in the face with something other than popcorn, and had every right to defend himself with deadly force.

In court, Escobar described his client as a person who attends Bible study and has been married to the same woman since 1967. Reeves, he said, was a commander in the Police Department for almost 17 years and has health problems including bursitis and respiratory ailments.

"He has been protecting the community from individuals that do commit crimes," Escobar told the judge at a bail hearing last week.

Escobar has said that because of his age, Florida law supports Reeves' self-defense claim. In Florida, a misdemeanor assault against anyone older than 65 or older is a felony. And in Florida, a person who has a reasonable fear of great bodily injury or death is not obligated to retreat.

"He's throwing spaghetti against the wall to see which noodle sticks," said TJ Grimaldi, a lawyer representing Oulson's widow, Nicole.

Escobar suggested that he is likely to seek immunity under the hotly debated Stand Your Ground law, which became a household term in 2012 when the police in Sanford, another Central Florida city, cited it as the reason a neighborhood watch volunteer, George Zimmerman, was able to go home after killing an unarmed teenager, Trayvon Martin, who he said attacked him.

But even Zimmerman's defense lawyer said that given what is known so far, it would be difficult to come up with a Stand Your Ground defense in these circumstances.

"A felony in and of itself does not justify deadly force," said Mark O'Mara, who successfully defended Zimmerman at his trial this summer. "I would call that a Hail Mary pass."

The use of deadly force is justified only if the fear of bodily harm is reasonable and if the felony is dangerous, regardless of the shooter's age, O'Mara said.

A judge agreed and held Reeves without bail. Another extended bail hearing originally set for Wednesday was scheduled for Feb. 5.

The shooting and Reeves' appearance in court, looking dazed in his dark green anti-suicide smock, shocked those who know him and describe him as generous and friendly.

"He always had a smile on his face," said Bill Costas, his next-door neighbor in Brooksville, a small town 55 miles north of Tampa. "He is always very decent and very kind to my wife and myself."

Although he stressed that he was not present for the dispute and the shooting, Costas suspects the victim must have been aggressive enough to put Reeves in fear.

"If everybody would just treat each other with respect," he said.

Reeves' family declined to comment, as did the management of the theater, part of the Cobb chain.

Oulson's friends worry that the killer's strong community ties mean he will never face justice.

Oulson, originally from Illinois, lived in Florida for about a decade and was married for almost seven years. He was known as a doting father who always found a way to bring any conversation back to whatever adorable thing his daughter Alexis had last done. He loved motorbike racing. His Facebook page is full of pictures of him and his daughter - on Halloween, at the beach, the child on a pony.

His widow, who had surgery on her finger on Thursday, has declined to speak to reporters, but is expected to make a public statement Wednesday. Detrapani has set up a Facebook page and organized a memorial motorcycle ride for February to raise money for the family.

"If you knew him for two minutes or 20 years, he touched everybody's life. You wanted to be in his gravitational pull," Detrapani said. "In my mind I can't see anything that happened in that theater that justifies a bullet to the chest. He doesn't carry weapons. He doesn't threaten with weapons. He doesn't threaten."

 


By FRANCES ROBLES
The New York Times