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Heavy-Metal Fans Shaken by Killings in Ohio Club

Times Staff Writers

Heavy-metal music fans gathered in a cold rain outside the Alrosa Villa nightclub Thursday as police and patrons reconstructed the rampage that had unfolded the night before. It left five people dead, including “Dimebag” Darrell Abbott -- a Grammy-nominated musician -- and the ex-Marine who jumped on stage and shot Abbott at least five times at point-blank range.

Abbott, 38, had a huge following as the guitar hero of his original band, Pantera. His death shocked the world of heavy metal, whose longtime fans have outgrown a reputation for violence, though the music still contains morbid imagery.

The shooter, identified by police as Nathan Gale, 25, of Marysville, Ohio, was killed by a Columbus police officer who had been on patrol near the club. The officer had responded within two minutes to frantic 911 cellphone calls from several patrons.

Officer James D. Niggemeyer encountered “a chaotic scene, just a horrific scene,” when he entered the club about 10:20 p.m. Wednesday, according to police spokesman Sgt. Brent Mull. Firing his gun for the first time while on active duty, Niggemeyer, 31, killed Gale instantly, Mull said.

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“If the officer wasn’t as close as he was, I think this would have been a lot worse,” Mull said.

Gale -- clad in jeans and a Columbus Blue Jackets hockey jersey worn over a hooded sweatshirt -- attacked Abbott as his current band, Damageplan, started playing. Also killed were Jeff Thompson, 40, a bodyguard for the band; 29-year-old Erin Halk, a club employee; and concertgoer Nathan Bray, 23.

Two others in the crowd of about 300 were wounded.

Witnesses said Gale -- an auto mechanic -- was apparently about to shoot another man when Niggemeyer killed him.

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Columbus police said Thursday evening that they had not established a motive for the shooting. But witnesses said Gale had appeared to be angry over the breakup of Pantera.

Chris Couch, 22, said the shooter was clearly upset as he made his way through the crowd. “It was definitely a grudge,” he said. “It was against something.”

Pantera had received Grammy nominations for best metal performance in 1995 for “I’m Broken” and in 2001 for “Revolution Is My Name.” Guitar World magazine had named Abbot one of the Top 10 heavy-metal guitarists ever, right behind Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page.

Ozzy Osbourne, who frequently toured with Pantera, said Thursday: “Dimebag was a dear friend of mine. I’m absolutely beside myself with grief. I can’t for the life of me understand why someone would do this.”

Gale spent his teen years in Ohio. A small black-and-white yearbook photograph from Benjamin Logan High School in Bellefontaine shows him as a sophomore, sporting thick glasses and a military buzz cut.

Gale transferred in the middle of his junior year to Marysville High School; from there he enrolled in a vocational program, Ohio Hi-Point Career Center, where he studied construction and electrical work.

“The teachers here remember him as a quiet student who worked hard to learn,” said Kim Wilson, superintendent of the Ohio Hi-Point’s board of education. “He was very detail-oriented.”

Gale lived in Marysville, about 20 miles northwest of here, in an apartment above Maggie’s restaurant; employees there remembered him as socially awkward.

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At a tattoo parlor across the street, an employee who spoke on condition of anonymity described Gale as “very quiet and odd. He didn’t hang out with anybody. He would try to come in and hang out in the shop, but it’s not a place for soliciting and we ask people to leave who aren’t there for business.”

A Defense Department official said Gale was in the Marines for about 18 months, but was discharged in November 2003. The official would not release the cause of termination.

In front of the nightclub Thursday, several bouquets of yellow roses rested on a rock, though they wilted quickly in the rain. Fans added Pantera and Damageplan CDs to the memorial. Carefully placed atop the rock were some unopened beers -- a six-pack of Heineken and a 24-ounce can of Budweiser.

As his fame in heavy-metal circles grew, Abbott took on the nickname of “Dimebag” -- a reference to a small quantity of drugs sold in a street deal.

Some fans took the name as a nod to the group’s drug-using fan base, while others simply saw it as a comic bit of defiance.

“He started using the name when the ‘Just Say No’ to drugs campaign was all the rage” during the Reagan administration, said Howard Kramer, curatorial director of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland. “People understood the humor value.”

Pantera and Abbott may not be household names, but the band sold 7 million albums in a decade-long run; in 1994, they claimed the No. 1 slot on a weekly chart of the best-selling CDs in America. Abbott’s violent death was a blow to the many fans who made Pantera concert T-shirts one of the most popular souvenirs of the hard-core culture’s past decade.

“For these fans, heavy metal is part of their identity,” said Kramer. “People of a certain age, who didn’t like the music, aren’t going to understand.”

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Dave Lowery, one of many fans drawn to the club Thursday, said: “Darrell was an amazing musician. And these guys, they treated their fans better than any band in the world.”

The Alrosa Villa occupies a squat, beige building in a light-industrial neighborhood just off Interstate 71 in north Columbus.

“That venue is known as the place time forgot; it’s the unofficial metal club of Columbus,” said Brian O’Neill, a freelance music writer and a clerk at a popular local music shop that caters to metal fans. “This is the place a lot of the metal bands played at in the 1980s on their way up, and played in recent years on the way down.”

While the music of Pantera was characterized by song titles such as “Cemetery Gates” and “Mouth for War,” “metal is not a culture of violence,” Guitar World magazine editor-in-chief Brad Tolinski said Thursday. “Through the years, I’ve found the opposite is true: It’s a culture of catharsis, a super heavy-duty outlet for people’s aggression.”

Heavy metal was the teen-rebel music of choice in the 1980s. But many of the fans are older now, office or factory workers who are looking for a few hours of entertainment.

To the crowd that followed Damageplan -- which Abbott started with his brother, Vinnie Paul Abbott -- Pantera was one of heavy metal’s most important bands, O’Neill said. Their split was “like the Beatles split, for its acrimony and importance.”

William Damon, 28, a Columbus occupational therapy aide, was at the concert Wednesday.

“I thought [the shooting] was part of the act at first, or maybe just an overenthusiastic fan,” said Damon. “But very quickly you could see that something truly horrible was going on. There was blood everywhere. This guy just went up and started shooting, bap-bap-bap. I don’t think Dimebag had a chance.”

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Verhovek reported from Columbus, Boucher from Los Angeles and Huffstutter from Chicago. Times researchers Lianne Hart in Houston and John Beckham in Chicago contributed to this report.


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