A retired Florida police captain told detectives he shot dead another cinemagoer in a dispute over text messaging because he was in fear of being attacked.
Curtis Reeves Jr, 71, made his first appearance before a Florida judge last night charged with the second-degree murder of Chad Oulson, 43, during a violent confrontation at the cinema in Wesley Chapel, near Tampa, on Monday.
Witnesses said that the pair argued over Mr Oulson’s use of his mobile phone to send text messages to his young daughter just before the film they had come to watch was due to start, and that the older man pulled out a pistol and fired the fatal shot when the victim threw a bag of popcorn at him.
In the arrest document, which was released last night, Pasco County detective Allen Proctor wrote: “The defendant advised that he removed the .380 semi-automatic handgun from his pocket, firing one round, striking the victim, and that he was in fear of being attacked.”
Reeves, a former homicide detective for the Tampa police department, appeared in court via videolink from jail yesterday. Circuit court judge Lynn Tepper denied a request from his lawyer that he be freed on bail.
Judge Tepper said: “The affidavit says that he was struck in the face by an unknown object, not that he was knocked around.
“It may or may not have been popcorn, but ‘unidentified object’ does not equal taking out a gun and firing it at someone’s chest. The proof is great in the probable cause affidavit that a second-degree murder took place.”
Assistant state attorney Manuel Garcia told the court that detectives had interviewed a woman who claimed Reeves had confronted her about text messaging at the same cinema last month.
“She said he was glaring at her. She said he followed her to the bathroom and made her feel uncomfortable,” Mr Garcia said.
Witnesses to Monday’s incident, which took place just before the matinée showing of the film Lone Survivor, said they heard Mr Oulson claim he was texting his daughter, aged three.
Reeves, who was sat with his wife, Vivien, directly behind Mr Oulson, objected to the use of his mobile phone in the darkened auditorium and asked him several times to stop, they said.
Pasco County sheriff Chris Nocco said the argument escalated quickly and popcorn was thrown. Reeves, who retired in 1993 after 27 years’ service, then pulled out his gun and fired a single shot that hit Mr Oulson in the chest and struck the hand of Mr Oulson’s wife, Nicole.
“To have a retired police officer, I don’t know what he was thinking at the time,” Mr Nocco told a press conference. “Fate brought these two people together. It was ridiculous.”
Witnesses said Reeves placed his gun in his lap after pulling the trigger, and was then detained by an off-duty sheriff’s deputy among the 25 people who had come to watch the film at the Cobb Grove 16 cinema.
Charles Cummings, a retired US marine and Vietnam War veteran who was in the audience with his son, Alex, told reporters that he was sat several seats away when the argument started. He said Reeves went to get a manager but came back alone, which prompted further taunting from Mr Oulson.
Mr Cummings said: “I can’t believe people would bring a pistol to a movie. I can’t believe they’d argue, fight and shoot one another over popcorn, a cellphone.”
In court yesterday, Reeves’s lawyer, Richard Escobar, described his client as a solid member of the community “with no propensity for violence”.
A spokeswoman for Cobb Theaters said all its cinemas prohibit the use of cellphones in the auditorium and also have a strict ban on weapons.