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Behind the Murder of 'Dimebag' Darrell

Deranged fan killed guitar hero and three others at Columbus, Ohio show

December 30, 2004 12:30 PM ET
1997 dimebag darrell
Dimebag Darrell performs during the 1997 OzzFest in San Bernardino, California.
Vaughn Youtz

This story is from the December 30, 2004 issue of Rolling Stone.

A young fan obsessed with heavy metal shot and killed former Pantera guitarist "Dimebag" Darrell Abbott and three other people during a show by Damageplan, Abbott's latest band. The tragedy took place on the evening of December 8th at the Alrosa Villa nightclub in Columbus, Ohio.

The shooter, Nathan Gale, 25, was killed by a Columbus police officer minutes after the violence erupted. A stocky former Marine, Gale was reportedly upset that Pantera had broken up – last year – and may have blamed Abbott for the band's acrimonious split. The deaths came on the twenty-fourth anniversary of the murder of John Lennon.

The other victims were 23-year-old fan Nathan Bray, Damageplan crew member Jeff "Mayhem" Thompson, 40, and club employee Erin A. Halk, 29.

Abbott, 38, was known as an expressive guitarist who brought the fluid dynamics of Eddie Van Halen's technique to Pantera's much harder power-groove thrash. One of the Nineties' most uncompromising metal acts, Pantera were also one of the most successful: During its 18-year career, the band sold more than 7 million records, according to SoundScan; 1994's Far Beyond Driven entered the charts at Number One and sold 1.4 million copies.

Four bands were on the bill at the Alrosa Villa, and about 250 people, paying around eight dollars per ticket, had shown up, well short of the venue's capacity of 600. Members of a local group, Volume Dealer, one of the opening acts, dressed in combat fatigues. Another local opener was named 12 Gauge.

In the chilly darkness, Gale had been hanging out in the club's parking lot while the music pounded inside. A construction worker from Marysville, Ohio, a blue-collar suburb twenty-five miles northwest of Columbus, Gale stood six feet three and weighed more than 250 pounds. He wore thick glasses and a Columbus Blue Jackets hockey jersey over a hooded sweat shirt.

"Hey, man, why aren't you watching the show?" a fan asked him.

"I don't want to see no shitty local bands," he said.

"You can at least go inside and stay warm."

"No, man," Gale said. "I'm gonna wait for Damageplan."

Club manager Rick Cautela pegged Gale as a harmless hanger-on – one without a ticket. "He was just a crazy fan trying to talk to members of the band," Cautela said. "One of my guys who helps to set up the bands eventually told him to leave."

Instead, as Damageplan took the stage, Gale jumped a six-foot-high fence and rushed into the club through a side door. Walking swiftly past pool tables, a bar and the sound booth, he reached the left side of the stage. Witnesses thought Gale, whose head was shaved, wanted to stage-dive. It was about ninety seconds into the first song of the set, Damageplan's new single, "New Found Power."

"The dude was way determined," said Billy Payne, the singer for Volume Dealer, who saw Gale enter the club. "He was on a mission. He looked angry. He was walking like he was going into battle."

Onstage, Gale drew a Beretta 9mm handgun and headed straight for Abbott. Joe Dameron, bass player for Volume Dealer, thought Gale shouted something about Pantera, but he wasn't sure. "With the feedback, I didn't hear what he said," Dameron said. "I saw him open his mouth to yell something, but I don't know what it was. He just looked determined." Gale shot Abbott – who was headbanging, his hair in his face – at least once in the forehead. "Dime was doing his thing," said Aaron Benner, a fan who was standing nearby. "He gets really into it, so he was blindsided."

Cautela, who was tending bar, thought firecrackers had gone off. Others figured the speakers had popped or somebody had fired a cap gun. "I thought they were playing a big gimmick," said Ryan Melchiore, who was working security. "People were pumping their fists, thinking it was a hoax." Cautela kept pouring drinks.

The music stopped; drummer Vinnie Abbott, Darrell's brother, stood up behind his kit. Abbott's guitar began to emit feedback in a high-pitched shriek.

A security guard tackled Gale, who continued to shoot into the crowd. One bullet grazed the arm of a Volume Dealer roadie, Travis Burnett, a burly former soldier who dropped his beer and ran toward the stage to try and disarm the shooter. "I asked him, 'Dude, what the fuck are you doing?'" Burnett said. "He was like, 'Get out of here, get away.' As I went to grab him, he shot at me. The bullet went through my shirt, and I didn't even feel it."

Darrell Abbott lay on the stage, bleeding from his head. While most fans fled, one concertgoer, Mindy Reece, a registered nurse from Columbus, rushed forward. "I said, 'Fuck this, I'm a nurse,'" said Reece. "'He needs help.' I did chest compressions for fifteen to twenty minutes. I kept saying, 'Dimebag, come on, come on, please, stay with me.'" Abbott was near death by the time paramedics arrived.

From the backstage area, Officer James Niggemeyer appeared, carrying a twelve-gauge Remington shotgun. He walked past a stack of amplifiers and saw Gale, who had taken a male hostage. Holding his gun to the unidentified man's head, Gale began moving toward the rear of the club. From twenty feet away, Niggemeyer fired once, killing Gale.

Nathan Gale, according to people in Marysville, was troubled, but not prone to violence. He enlisted in the Marines in 2002 but left the Corps, for as yet unknown reasons, eighteen months later. He worked on construction sites; in an oil-change shop, Minit Lube; and as a landscaper. Gale also played offensive guard for Lima Thunder, a local semipro football team. On the team bus, Gale could often be found with his headphones on, listening to Pantera.

On November 17th, at 3:20 A.M., police arrested Gale for driving with a suspended license. By then, friends told the Columbus Dispatch, Gale had changed; he'd begun talking and laughing to himself. He told a friend that Pantera had stolen his songs and that he was going to sue them.

Lucas Bender, manager of Bear's Den Tattoo in Marysville, across the street from Gale's house, said Gale was a frequent visitor. "He got a tattoo on his right or left forearm, a big custom-design tribal," said Bender. "He also got his ear pierced about a week or two ago. He came in on a daily basis. I tried to keep him away from the clientele; he kind of gave everyone a weird impression."

Bender said Gale told him he'd left the Marines due to mental problems, was taking medication and may have been bipolar. "Nathan was infatuated with guitarists," said Bender. "One of our tattoo artists plays guitar, and Nathan started trying to hang out with him."

As police officers and detectives flooded the Alrosa Villa on December 8th, Vinnie Abbott escaped into the Damageplan tour bus. He climbed into Dimebag's bunk and wept.

"Damageplan loved us," lamented Billy Payne, the Volume Dealer singer. "They told us to stay after the show, they were going to talk to us and have drinks with us. It was a local band's dream maybe coming true – turned into a nightmare."

Additional reporting by Andy Greene, Brian Hiatt and Bill Werde

Related
The 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time: Dimebag Darrell
Dimebag Darrell Killed
Friends Remember Dimebag
Dimebag Darrell's Death: Five Years After Rock's Big Tragedy

This story is from the December 30th, 2004 issue of Rolling Stone.

To read the new issue of Rolling Stone online, plus the entire RS archive: Click Here

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