Published December 11, 2004
COLUMBUS, Ohio – The band Damageplan had just started playing Wednesday night at the Alrosa Villa nightclub outside Columbus when a gunman walked on stage and shot top heavy metal guitarist "Dimebag" Darrell Abbott (search) five or six times at point-blank range.
The shooter then turned his weapon into the packed crowd, killing at least two fans who were at the club to see the Texas-based band, formed from the ashes of the legendary thrash-metal group Pantera (search), authorities and witnesses said.
A police officer walked backstage as the gunman held another man at gunpoint, killing the gunman with a shot to the face from a rifle before he could fire again. The hostage was not hurt.
In all, five people lay dead and at least two others were wounded.
Police spokeswoman Sherry Mercurio identified the victims of Wednesday's shooting as Abbott and three other men, Nathan Bray, 23; Erin Halk, 29; and Jeff Thompson, 40.
Mercurio identified the gunman as Nathan Gale, 25, of Marysville, 25 miles northwest of Columbus. Police said they had no information on a motive or any connection to the band.
FOX News has learned Gale may have been a U.S. Marine. That could not be confirmed, but the Marines did say they had a member named Nathan Gale, an Ohio resident born in 1979.
Bray's family said the suburban Grove City man was a Damageplan fan. Halk worked for the club loading band equipment, said the club's lighting designer, Brian Kozicki. Thompson's last known address was in Texas, police said.
The two wounded were both taken to the hospital. Police said one was in intensive care and the other stable.
One report said Gale had shouted out "You broke up Pantera!" before shooting Abbott.
Police spokesman Sgt. Brent Mull said the gunman's exact statement was unclear because of the loud music. He said some witnesses reported hearing an accusation about Abbott breaking up his former band, but it could not be confirmed whether the speaker was the gunman or a fan.
Mull said police believe there were earlier threats against the band. He declined to give specifics.
"You really couldn't hear anything," witness Steph Elias told FOX News. "It was so loud in there. It was just chaotic."
The gunman had a hostage in a headlock and seemed to be preparing to kill him when the officer, James D. Niggemeyer, managed to shoot without injuring the hostage, police said.
A man who called 911 told the dispatcher at one point that the man had a gun pointed at someone's head.
On another call, a woman said someone was shooting the band onstage. "They're screaming, 'Call 911,'" she said.
A sound like a gunshot is heard, and then the woman swears and says, "They're still shooting. The person is still loose with gun."
Abbott, 38, one of metal's top guitarists, and his brother, Damageplan drummer Vinnie Paul Abbott, were among the founding members of Pantera, a Grammy-nominated thrash-rock pioneer that enjoyed wide popularity in the 1990s.
One witness, 22-year-old Chris Couch, said he was standing about 30 feet from the stage when he saw a man wearing a Columbus Blue Jackets hockey jersey over a hooded sweat shirt walk up to the stage, followed by a bouncer and another club employee.
The man in the sweat shirt climbed onto the stage, started yelling and opened fire on the guitarist, then shot a bouncer who pulled him off the musician, Couch said.
"It was shortly after 10 p.m. and Damageplan had just taken the stage," witness Justin Caldwell told FOX News' David Asman. "We heard a couple of loud pops. I immediately recognized it to be gunfire. Some people started screaming 'Dime was shot, Dime was shot.'
"I jumped on stage and was just holding onto Dimebag and telling him it was going to be okay," Caldwell added. "I got blood all over me and I don't know what happened after that — I was asked to leave the stage and I left of my own accord."
Mull said that after shooting at band members, the gunman fired into the crowd. Niggemeyer, patrolling nearby, arrived within two minutes, he said.
"If the officer wasn't as close as he was, I think this would have been a lot worse," Mull said. "It was a chaotic scene, just a horrific scene."
Niggemeyer, 31, entered the club through a back door and was directed to the stage, where he saw one person lying dead and the suspect holding onto another "pretty much in a headlock," Mull said.
"The officer was able to strategically gun this guy down before he was able to kill this hostage," Mull said. He said the hostage, "probably a fan, maybe someone who worked with the band," was able to maneuver out of the way somewhat before the officer fired.
After the shooting began, Couch and a friend headed for the exit along with a tide of hundreds of fans.
He believed the shooter had a plan. "It was definitely a grudge. It was against something."
Amanda Stankus, 19, who attended the show with Couch, said she initially thought the shooting was part of the show.
"I just saw the guitarist fall down, and we decided to get out of there," she said.
"He just started unloading on him," Couch told FOX News. "It was just unreal. It was absolutely insane."
Of the shooter, "he was not a small man," Couch said. "He was on a mission from the time he walked past us."
Mull said he believed there was amateur video that officers could view for clues but that police had no answers yet.
"We may never know a motive for this, unless he left a note," Mull said.
Gale has a minor police record in Marysville, said Police Chief Floyd Golden. He was pulled over for driving with a suspended license last month.
The tall, physically imposing Gale hung out at Bears Den Tattoo Studio, staring at people and trying to get them to talk about music and bands, manager Lucas Bender said.
"He's not wanted," Bender said. "The most pointless conversations."
Thursday morning, a dozen yellow roses, still in plastic wrap, lay near the entry to the low-slung beige building that since 1974 has hosted mostly heavy metal acts. The 641-person-capacity club, just off a freeway exit on the city's north side, sits amid motels, small businesses and office complexes.
The Abbott brothers produced Damageplan's debut album, "New Found Power," which was released in February. Other band members are vocalist Patrick Lachman and bassist Bob "Zilla" Kakaha.
"Damageplan carries on the tradition Pantera started, the ... hell-raising tradition we were all about," Vinnie Paul Abbott told The Dallas Morning News in October. "We do play some Pantera songs. Me and Dime wrote them, and we feel like we have the right to play them. But the focus is on Damageplan.
"It took awhile for some of the Pantera fans to accept it; we knew that was gonna be the case," he said. "Change is something that people have a hard time accepting. But me and Dime intended on doing this our whole lives."
A message left with Atlantic Records Group, which oversees Damageplan's label Elektra, was not immediately returned.
Asked whether violence at concerts and in nightclubs was increasing, Rolling Stone magazine editor Joe Levy disagreed.
"I would say what happened in Columbus is almost unprecedented — it's an aberration," Levy told FOX News' Bill McCuddy.
"Is there a connection between this music and violence? Yes. Violence is a part of this music," Levy conceded. But he added that "this kind of music is more about social pressure and pain and anger."
Asked whether the violent content of Pantera and Damageplan's lyrics may have contributed to the shootings, Mötley Crüe (search) members Nikki Sixx (search) and Tommy Lee (search) had one response for FOX News: "That's retarded."
The pair refused to answer any more questions about the incident and proceeded instead to plug their upcoming tour.
Juliya (search), host of the "Uranium" heavy-metal show on the Fuse cable-television music channel, praised "Dimebag" Darrell as "the most life-loving, friendliest, sweetest person."
As for the content of Abbott's bands' lyrics, she called that "a metaphor ... the music takes out aggression through poetry."
She told FOX News Pantera's music had helped her through hard times, even preventing her "from doing something horrible to myself."
Damageplan's Web site said Darrell and Vinnie Abbott grew up in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, where their father, country songwriter Jerry Abbott (search), owned a recording studio.
Telephone numbers for Darrell and Jerry Abbott are unlisted and could not be reached early Thursday by The Associated Press.
Pantera, known for its fast, aggressive sound, recorded several albums in the 1990s, attracting a massive cult following. The third release, "Far Beyond Driven," debuted at No. 1 in 1994, surprising chart-watchers and critics alike.
Other hit albums were "The Great Southern Trendkill" and "Reinventing The Steel." A song by the band became the Dallas Stars hockey team's signature tune in 1999.
Pantera also scored an episode of the Nickelodeon children's cartoon "SpongeBob SquarePants," apparently a band favorite.
The group was nominated for Grammies for best metal performance in 1995 for "I'm Broken" and in 2001 for "Revolution Is My Name."
The video "The Best of Pantera: Far Beyond the Great Southern Cowboys' Vulgar Hits" hit the top 10 for music-video sales earlier this year; another video, "3-Watch It Go," hit the top 10 in 1998.
The shootings came exactly 24 years after John Lennon was shot to death outside his New York apartment building by a deranged fan.
Dozens of messages were posted to the Dallas band's Web site after the shootings.
"This is the worst day in metal history," one posting read.
"The metal world feels your pain," another wrote.
By mid-afternoon Thursday, 268 items related to "Dimebag" Darrell Abbott and his death were up for sale on eBay.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.