LAND O’ LAKES — It was as if her body knew what was about to happen before her brain could make sense of it.
Sitting in the small lobby of the east Pasco County courthouse, surrounded by friends and family and by those supporting the man who shot and killed her husband, Nicole Oulson trembled when she heard the jury had reached a verdict.
Barely three hours had passed since a judge had sent the six jurors to deliberate whether Curtis Reeves, a retired Tampa police captain, was guilty of second-degree murder for shooting Chad Oulson after Oulson threw popcorn at him in a Wesley Chapel movie theater.
Nicole Oulson thought she would feel relief when the legal system finally decided the case, ending more than eight years of depositions and hearings and constant references to the man she loved as an “out-of-control monster.”
Instead, she felt dread. She then froze as the verdict was read: Not guilty.
Nearly a month later, Oulson spoke with the Tampa Bay Times at her Land O’Lakes home during more than four hours of emotional interviews. For the first time since Reeves was acquitted on Feb. 25, she talked about how she met her husband, their courtship and marriage, the void that his death left behind, and the anger and disbelief she has felt since the verdict.
“It’s hard to even explain it,” Oulson said. “You just sit there numb inside, and your mind’s racing and your body is breaking down and you can’t comprehend that, even though my husband was killed right in front of all these people — he was just ‘Not guilty’ of anything.”
The guy she should marry
The young widow smiled as she struggled to remember the name of the woman at work who insisted Nicole was destined to marry Chad. Back then, in 2002, she was Nicole Gaspard — a shy college junior in her early 20s who worked the night shift at a Citibank call center in nearby Jacksonville. Chad Oulson worked mornings, and in many ways was her opposite.
Ten years her senior, Chad was spontaneous and funny with a gregarious personality. He loved anything fast — motorcycles, speed boats, horse racing — but had a passion for dirt bikes and was an avid fan of the professionals in the sport. Since childhood, he had been known as a jokester and a people person. He thought nothing of striking up conversations with strangers while sitting in traffic or waiting for a table at a restaurant.
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Chad never went to college, Nicole said. He didn’t want to live like his older brother and sister, who never left the small town where they grew up, Camp Point in western Illinois. Instead, Chad went off and joined the Navy after high school with dreams of traveling the world to find his own perfect corner to call home.
He served in Operation Desert Storm, and decided to make his home in Jacksonville when he retired from active duty in 1997.
In high school, Nicole had a few close friends but kept to herself. She overcame nerves and anxiety to join the team of baton twirlers with the marching band. She chose small, private Flagler College so she could stay close to her family’s roots in St. Augustine. She excelled in business school and later pursued her master’s degree.
At Citibank she worked quietly in her corner cubicle. She didn’t understand why the tall, handsome man whose shifts didn’t coincide with hers began stopping by her desk as she got ready to leave.
There were often unexpected reasons to laugh with Chad, Nicole said. Like when he confessed, days later, that the night he took her to dinner for their first date was actually his birthday.
He was sweet and thoughtful, but it was the way he treated others that made Nicole want to marry him.
“He would notice those little things that most people overlook, like if a neighbor got a haircut or if someone did a good job at work, and instead of keeping it to himself he loved walking up and encouraging or complimenting people — even people he didn’t know,” she said. “He knew how to make people smile without even trying, and he just knew how to really love everyone, everything that he had in his life.”
After five years of dating, while on vacation in the Virgin Islands with Nicole’s family in 2007, Chad took her shopping for a wedding ring. They already had talked about starting a life together, so Nicole wasn’t looking for any grand romantic gestures. But that night at dinner, he got down on one knee to ask for her hand.
No goodbye moment
Seven years later, on Jan. 13, 2014, Nicole watched in horror as doctors at a hospital in Wesley Chapel sliced her wedding ring off her finger while prepping her for emergency surgery. When Reeves pulled the trigger, the bullet tore through Nicole’s finger before hitting her husband in the chest.
Chad had been taken to another hospital with this gunshot wound, but no one could tell her which one.
Their daughter Lexy, 22 months old then, had been dropped off at daycare so Chad could surprise Nicole with a date on her day off from USAA. (Curtis Reeves’ wife, Vivian, worked there, too, but they never crossed paths.)
Finally, detectives from the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office came into the hospital room and told Nicole that Chad was gone. Those words rang in her ears when they asked her questions about what happened at the theater, did he throw anything at Curtis Reeves before Reeves drew the handgun and shot him.
Much later, Nicole would learn that this would form the backbone of Reeves’ defense. He told jurors that he feared the younger man would cause him serious injury, that Oulson was angry and out of control after Reeves reported him to management for using his cell phone in the dark theater. Reeves said he thought his attacker threw something besides popcorn at him, maybe the cell phone.
Chad had been in a good mood that day. Before the Reeveses took their seats behind the Oulsons, her husband had struck up a conversation with a couple in front of them — true to form, making them laugh.
He was annoyed when Reeves chastised him for scrolling through his cell phone during the movie’s previews, Nicole said. But he wasn’t angry or out of control, she said.
The Oulsons had no goodbye moment. Nicole had her hand on Chad’s chest when the shot was fired, and she became hysterical as people rushed to help hold her finger together.
Her husband, she said, “did what he did, and I’ve never tried to change the story. But I know Chad, and he wasn’t looking to start a fight. The way he was, and the way he was raised, was that if there’s a problem you don’t ignore it. You talk it out and fix it so you can move on.”
‘Made my blood boil’
After the verdict, her brother, tall and muscular like Chad, helped walk Nicole down the courthouse steps to the car for the drive home to break the news to Lexy, now 10. She was just a toddler when her father died. Nicole wailed and sobbed the whole way until Lexy, short for Alexis, finally held her close.
With her long legs, expressive eyebrows and sandy blonde hair, Lexy looks like her father. She melts her mother’s heart making the same silly, scrunched-up faces he would. Nicole calls her daughter fearless and brave.
“It doesn’t matter,” Lexi told her that night. “We still keep daddy with us in our hearts. … He’ll always be there. You can feel him because he knows we still love him, and he’ll always love us.”
Curtis Reeves, 79, won’t go to prison for killing Chad Oulson. But even if he had, the failed eight-year prosecution brought more pain, more loss for Chad’s wife and daughter, Nicole Oulson said.
In an interview with ABC News shortly after his acquittal, Reeves said he had “absolutely no alternative” but to shoot the 43-year-old Oulson. The career law enforcement officer said he had never before seen a person exhibit such rage and “explosive behavior, both verbally and physically.”
Like Nicole Oulson, Vivian Reeves sat at her husband’s side during the shooting and attended years of court proceedings. She told ABC she was “very sorry for what happened,” that she prays for the Oulson family and wishes them well, and that she hopes Nicole “finds someone else to share her life.”
Reeves and his wife declined to speak with the Times. “Mr. and Mrs. Reeves are just looking forward to putting this painful episode behind them,” their attorney Dino Michaels said in an email.
Nicole Oulson, now 41, didn’t watch the ABC interview but heard about it from friends. Vivian Reeves’ message, she said, “made my blood boil.”
“You guys took everything from me and my daughter and now you just want me to find another nice man and just move on?”
‘I still have a dad’
Wednesday, March 23, would have been the Oulsons’ 15th wedding anniversary. Nicole said she isn’t ready to start meeting nice men yet.
Instead, she finds solace in the cards, letters, and crocheted hearts of encouragement sent by people around the world, enough to fill boxes. To the “Oulson girls,” as Lexy calls them, it “feels like being wrapped in a giant hug.”
Lexy helped Nicole find their next step. With help from their lawyer-turned-friend TJ Grimaldi, they are working to start a foundation in Chad’s name that would support children who have lost a parent to gun violence.
Nicole has received undisclosed settlements in a wrongful death suit she filed against Reeves and in negligence suits she filed against the movie theater chain, the theater manager and the owner of the shopping center where the theater was located.
The mother and daughter still live in the Connerton home that the Oulsons built as a young couple when they moved to Land O’ Lakes. The helmets and jerseys Chad wore during his days riding dirt bikes still hang on the wall. He worked as finance manager for an all-terrain vehicle and personal watercraft dealership in Port Richey. Nicole still manages a team of insurance brokers at USAA.
Lexy doesn’t have memories of her father. She relies on others, including the neighbors and friends who have become her extended family. They take turns filling his shoes when the situation calls for a father, joining her for Daddy Daughter Donut Day or cheering her up when bullies at school tell Lexy she doesn’t have a father.
“I know I still have a dad,” Lexy said. “I just feel him. Like … sometimes I make a bad choice, I’ll think, like, daddy’s saying that’s not who he wants me to be. It’s like I just feel him and know him even though I can’t remember him.”
It took a while, but now when Lexy goes to a movie with friends, Nicole makes an effort to go, too. She still can feel her body shake and her stomach tighten when she walks in and she can’t help but notice glowing cell phone screens. But eventually, she said, she’ll focus on the movie again. She’s already able to share a bag of popcorn with her daughter.
“It’s so easy for me to be angry, and just sit there and hate,” Nicole said. “But eventually it will swallow you up. I can’t let that anger get bigger than the feelings of love I have for Chad. And as unfair as it is, I can’t let what happened to him define Chad’s life.”