The Movie Theater Murder

Michael Daly
January 15, 2014
The Movie Theater Murder

The attorney for the retired cop charged with shooting a Florida moviegoer who had been texting his three-year-old’s daycare provider spared his client from an uproar by not speaking the words Stand Your Ground.

But the legal argument that attorney Robert Escobar put forth on behalf of 71-year-old Curtis Reeves at Tuesday’s preliminary hearing in the Pasco County courthouse was the same as if he had uttered the name of the Florida law that says a person is justified in using deadly force if he or she reasonably believes they are in danger of death or great bodily harm.

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"The alleged victim attacked him," attorney Richard Escobar told the judge. "At that point in time, he has every right to defend himself."

Escobar reported that 43-year-old Chad Oulson had thrown “an unknown object,” maybe a bag of popcorn, at Reeves.

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”Which resulted in gunfire,” Escobar said.

Judge Lynn Tepper was not impressed.

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“It may or may not have been popcorn,” Tepper said. "An unknown object does not equal taking out a gun ... It doesn’t warrant taking out a gun and firing it at someone’s chest.”

At one point, prosecutor Manny Garcia told the judge that after Monday's shooting, a woman had come forward to describe an incident at the same movie house in the town of Wesley Chapel last month.

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“She was at the Cobb movie theater when she was confronted by the defendant for texting,” Garcia reported.

Garcia said that the 6-foot-1, 275 pound Reeves had even trailed the woman when she went to the ladies room in the midst of the movie.

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“He was glaring at her the entire time,” Garcia reported to the judge.

Tepper ordered Reeves held without bail on a charge of second degree murder. He was already in the Pasco County jail, having participated in the hearing via video-conferencing and appearing in the courthouse only on a flat screen affixed to a wall. He looked as forlorn as might be expected of a retired cop who finds himself the one behind bars. He was bare armed under a protective jacket a jail official termed “a kind of flak jacket.” His hands were cuffed together as he rose to return to the cells at the end of the proceeding.   

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After this initial hearing in Case CRC1400216CFA, the attorney Escobar reminded reporters that Reeves had a distinguished career with the Tampa police. Reeves had served as a street cop and a homicide detective, and he is credited with organizing the department's first Tactical Response Team, the equivalent of a SWAT unit, responding to hostage situations and barricaded suspects, among other emergencies. He had also served as the firearms coordinator when the department was first introducing semi-automatic pistols to replace revolvers.

“A great man,” the lawyer Escobar said.

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Escobar may figure that between his client’s résumé and the Stand Your Ground statue, he has a chance to mount a successful Popcorn Defense.

"Certain circumstances will show that he is innocent," Escobar told the press.

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But there are other circumstances--these concerning the victim--that could land Escobar’s client behind bars for the rest of his life. Oulson was by all accounts a world class dad, just as his wife, Nicole, is a world class mom. And, as the best parents know, part of making a happy family is to keep a little spark going between dad and mom.

But for dad and mom to go out at night would mean spending less time with their daughter, Lexy. They were away from the child enough while he was at his job running the finance department at a power sports dealer and she was at her job with an insurance company. Dad is off on Mondays and Lexy is at daycare, but it is a regular work day for mom.

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And the Oulsons might have been even less of a mind just to leave Lexy with a nighttime babysitter after she had been mauled by a dog some months ago. The photos on Facebook show that her face healed with no noticeable scars, but still it must have been a big scare for everybody.

On this most recent Monday, the Oulsons decided to make a kind of holiday for themselves. Mom took a day off from work and went on a lunch date with dad, to be followed by a movie, Lone Survivor, at the Grove 16 in Wesley Chapel, a few miles north of Tampa. They chose the 1:20 p.m. show so as to be out in time to pick up Lexy.

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Perhaps the daycare provider texted Chad with a concern of some kind. Or maybe he was just checking in, as a 3-year-old’s dad might. He might have been a little more liable to worry because they were departing from their usual routine.

Whatever the particular reason, Chad was texting in Theater 10 when the previews commenced. Reeves was sitting behind the Oulsons with his own wife, Vivian, and is said to have objected. Chad might have been more accommodating if he had just been involved in some idle social texting rather than communicating with his daughter’s daycare center. And besides, the actual movie had not even started yet.

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Curtis is said to have gone out to find a manager or an usher. He returned alone, and according to at least two witnesses, he was noticeably agitated. He is described by fellow cops and friends and neighbors as a kind and decent man. He is also said to have been a good father and now a doting grandfather. His grown son, Matthew Reeves, had become a Tampa cop. The son had arranged to see the movie with his mom and dad and was even then arriving at the theater. He would have been sitting with them had he not been briefly delayed.

As a retired captain who had gone on to serve for a number of years as head of security at the Busch Gardens theme park in Tampa, Reeves was likely accustomed to having people accede to his objections, most particularly when it came to what seems to have been a pet peeve about movie house texting. He and Chad are said to have exchanged words.

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Chad may have been quicker to anger than usual upon having his date with Nicole disrupted by what likely seemed to him a petty objection to a legitimate communication regarding his child. He is said to have thrown a bag of popcorn--popcorn being by volume, weight, and force one of the very least harmful projectiles.

According to an affidavit subsequently filed by Det. Allen Proctor of the Pasco County Sheriff’s office, Reeves would tell police that Chad had struck him in the face with “an unknown object.”

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“The defendant advised that he removed the .380 auto handgun from his pants pocket, firing one round, striking the victim and that he was in fear of being attacked,” the affidavit says.

One detail not contained in this particular affidavit is that the bullet first passed through Nicole’s outstretched hand, which bravely she had raised to protect her husband. The bullet tore on into his chest.

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“I can’t believe I got shot,” Chad was heard to say.

Blood began pouring from Chad’s mouth as another moviegoer tried to hold him up. He collapsed and one or more off-duty nurses immediately administered CPR.

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As if it were all not horrible enough, Curtis Reeve’s police officer son was just entering the theater when the shot was fired. A cop who happens onto a killing has no choice but to make an arrest even if it is his father. 

Matthew Reeves was at least saved from having to collar his dad.  An off-duty sheriff’s deputy happened to be in the theater and made the arrest as the elder Reeves sat with the just fired pistol in his lap.

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Chad was beyond saving when he arrived at the hospital. Nicole was treated and released. She asked for privacy while she figured out how to tell Lexy that her world class dad would never be coming home.

In the meantime, Pasco County Sheriff Chris Nocco reported that the detectives had considered whether Monday’s shooting was conceivably justified under Florida Statute 776.012, made infamous by the Trayvon Martin case.

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"Working with the state attorney's office, it was determined that Stand Your Ground does not fly here in this case," Nocco said.

But that does not seem to have dissuaded Reeves’s lawyer from seeking to use it as part of a Popcorn Defense.

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In truth, the Stand Your Ground Law should not be a defense but a co-defendant. The provision has the effect of lowering the threshold of when deadly force can even be considered and removes completely the previous obligation for the person to retreat if possible. The thought of pulling a gun and firing ceases to be the very last resort.

Anybody who needs a reminder of the enormity of what a single bullet can do need only go on Nicole Oulson’s Facebook page and look at the photos of Chad and Lexy. One of the photos is of them at home on the sofa two days before the shooting.

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“Nap time,” Nicole wrote.

Just above that is a posting from Tuesday.

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"’Florida man accused of fatally shooting fellow moviegoer charged with 2nd-degree murder and will be held without bond.’ – CNN”

But even if Reeves goes to prison for life, that will not give Chad back even one more instant of life with his little Lexy. And when Nicole reaches out to touch her daughter, her hand will always have that through-and-through scar from the bullet that killed dad after mom tried to save him.

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