DAMAGEPLAN Shooting: What Happened The Night DIMEBAG Was Murdered?

January 16, 2005

The following story by John Futty was published in the January 16, 2005 edition of The Columbus Dispatch:

His high-pitched scream spoke to all of the things William Wever couldn't say.

"It was like he suddenly realized, 'I've got another man's blood on me,' " said his friend Crystal Levings, 25, of Mount Vernon.

Wever was cleaning the blood from his hands, face and clothing in the Alrosa Villa bathroom when he was struck by the horror he had witnessed.

Like other fans at the heavy-metal concert by DAMAGEPLAN, he had watched a gunman shoot guitarist "Dimebag" Darrell Abbott in the back of the head, then turn the gun on those who tried to intervene. For reasons he can't explain, Wever climbed onstage to try to save a bleeding victim, even as the gunman, Nathan Gale of Marysville, continued shooting.

"I have no clue why I jumped up there," said Wever, a 33-year old Mount Vernon man who is trained in CPR for his job in store security. "I wasn't thinking anything. I just did it."

Gale was waving a handgun behind a wall of amplifiers as Wever began mouth-to-mouth resuscitation on the victim while another fan, Jimmy Van Fossen of Reynoldsburg, did chest compressions. Both assumed they were working on Dimebag.

But even that was a matter of confusion. The men recently learned that the victim they were trying to save was Jeff "Mayhem" Thompson, DAMAGEPLAN's security chief, who died later at Riverside Methodist Hospital.

Other fans had dragged Dimbag off the stage and onto the floor, where they attempted CPR until paramedics arrived and pronounced him dead.

Confusion continues to swirl around the night of Dec. 8, when Gale rushed onto the stage of the North Side nightclub during DAMAGEPLAN's opening song.

In the three minutes of chaos that between the first shot from his Beretta 9 mm semiautomatic handgun and a Columbus police officer's shotgun blast that killed Gale, the gunman fatally shot four people and wounded three others.

"It was mass hysteria," said Van Fossen, a 35-year old EMT who was one of the fans closest to the stage when the shooting began.

Ty Stewart, a Worthington firefighter and paramedic who was among the first responders, described the scene as "organized chaos."

The Dispatch interviewed more than three dozen witnesses, rescue workers and law-enforcement officers to clarify what happened that night.

The picture that emerges is of a mentally ill man determined to kill and a number of individuals willing to risk their lives to stop the shooting or assist the gravely wounded.

The daylight hours of that Wednesday had passed with the mundane routines of a rock club preparing for a show.

DAMAGEPLAN's tour bus had arrived in the parking lot early that afternoon after an overnight drive from a gig in Buffalo, N.Y. Long before the Alrosa doors were to open, while DAMAGEPLAN's crew began setting up and the band relaxed on the bus, a few hard-core fans began to show up.

Kevin McMeans, 26, of Hilliard, arrived about 1:45 p.m. determined to meet Abbott and his brother, drummer Vinnie Paul Abbott, before they went inside.

The Texas siblings were stars of the heavy-metal world, gaining fame with the band PANTERA, which they formed in 1982. The group's down-tuned sound evolved into a relentless hybrid of punk and speed-metal and the band began playing big heavy-metal festivals, including Ozzy Osbourne's Ozzfest. PANTERA's 1994 album "Far Beyond Driven" debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard chart and was nominated for a Grammy Award.

With his high-pitched, lightning-quick, Eddie Van Halen-inspired solos, Dimebag was one of metal's most influential guitarists by the time PANTERA disbanded in 2002. The brothers then formed DAMAGEPLAN with lead singer Patrick Lachman and bassist Bob "Zilla" Kakaha.

Once featured in stadium shows, the brothers and their new band were working smaller halls such as the Alrosa, a modest, stucco-sided club at 5055 Sinclair Rd. that has featured local and national metal acts for more than three decades.

Vinnie Paul stepped off the bus about 3:40 p.m. the day of the show, followed about 50 minutes later by Dimebag. McMeans chatted with the brothers, who were known for mingling with fans, and got their autographs on several CD booklets. Dimebag joked about the leopard-print jacket and fuzzy multi-colored hat he was wearing while a crew member prepared to snap a photo.

"This picture will be a classic," the guitarist told McMeans as they flashed the two-fingered heavy-metal salute. [see Dimebag's final photos here]

McMeans wasn't the only person who came looking for the brothers behind the club.

A man later identified as Nathan Gale approached the bus shortly before the band took the stage to ask if the brothers were on board.

Aaron Barns, the group's sound man, told him the Abbotts were already inside.

Before the doors of the club opened, three other men met up in the parking lot to share beers.

Billy Clark had com east from New Carlisle, a small city north of Dayton, while his Army buddy John Muirhead had traveled from his home in the northern Pennsylvania town of Snow Shoe.

The friends had trained at Ft. Campbell, Ky., and served together for six months in Afghanistan. Clark also spent six months in Iraq.

Clark, 23, and Muirhead, 25, were there as fans of PANTERA and DAMAGEPLAN, but it was the first heavy-metal show for Clark's other friend, Troy McKelvey of Dublin.

"Billy had been talking about Dimebag for three weeks," said McKelvey, 27, who also served in the Army. "He was pumping it up, telling me Dimebag was the greatest."

They watched the four warm-up bands, moving closer to the stage as the time approached for DAMAGEPLAN to begin performing.

Alrosa can accommodate up to 700 music fans, some of whom mingle around the pool tables and bar near the front of the nightclub, but most of whom descend into the mosh pit — a sunken floor where fans sometimes collide to the music— and squeeze toward the stage.

By the time DAMAGEPLAN took the stage around 10:15 p.m., Clark was standing against the chest-high, metal barricade separating the crowd of about 400 fans from the stage.

The band was playing it's opening song, "Breathing New Life", when Gale — a 6 foot-5, 268–pound semipro football player wearing a Blue Jackets jersey and blue jeans — emerged from behind the 7½-foot-high wall of amplifiers and headed across the stage for Dimebag. With many in the crowd thinking they were witnessing a stunt, Gale pulled a handgun fired three shots at close range into the back of the guitarist's head and another that struck his hand.

Dimebag collapsed, his right leg twisting awkwardly under his body, his head and shoulders toward the crowd. Feedback screeched from his guitar.

As patrons realized it was no stunt, the club erupted in chaos.

Some fans and crew members moved to grab Gale or help Dimebag while others headed for the exits, toppling tables and chairs adjacent to the pit. At least 10 people placed frantic calls to 911, several from inside the club.

"The person is still loose with the gun," a breathless Lisa Moore, 42, of Columbus, told an operator as she fled the club. "Please hurry, please." [download an audio file containing some of the 911 emergency calls that were placed as the tragic events of Dec. 8 were unfolding at this location]

Alrosa security guards think Gale, 25, got inside by scaling a 6-foot wooden fence on the north side of the club. One saw him enter through a patio door and work his way through the crowd toward the stage.

A longtime PANTERA fan, he had no previous history of violence. But his mother and a former employer have said that Gale told them he was discharged from the Marines because of a diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia.

His mother, Mary Clark, also has said he was not taking medication for his illness — a claim confirmed by an autopsy conducted by the Franklin County coroner's office, which found no trace of drugs in Gale's system.

Former acquaintances in Marysville said the symptoms of his illness included claims that PANTERA had stolen some of his songs.

Gale was discharged from the Marines in October 2003, less than two years into a four-year stint. Military records appear to link the discharge with his weight. One document from April 2003 criticized him for weighing 243 pounds, 23 pounds above his permitted maximum.

His mother bought him the gun he used at the Alrosa ad a Christmas gift during his military service and before his illness was diagnosed.

Clark said she won't tell the story of his life.

"Nothing I say about him is going to erase what happened in the end, in those few minutes," she said. "People don't want to hear it. They'll just think, 'Well, she's the mom, what else is she going to say?"

"I'm sorry for what happened, I'm sorry for those people who were killed, but I lost a son, too.

With more than 200 interviews to sort through, Columbus police detectives are still figuring out the details of what happened after Gale shot Dimebag.

"We may never know exactly," said Sgt. Jeff Sacksteder.

Witnesses speak of a struggle on stage, with one or more fans or crew members wrestling with Gale after Dimebag fell.

The commotion — and the sound of more gunfire — moved behind the wall of amplifiers on the right side of the stage and out of view for many concertgoers.

Lachman, the band's singer, leaped off the front of the stage and told fans that what was happening was real and to call 911.

Witnesses think all of the victims after the 38-year-old Dimebag were trying to help the guitarist or subdue the gunman.

Thompson, the 40-year-old crew member who some say was the first to grab Gale, was shot twice in the body and once in the leg.

Erin Halk, a 29-year-old Alrosa employee from Columbus, was shot four times in the chest, once in the hand and once in the leg.

Nathan Bray, a 23-year-old fan from Grove City who apparently had jumped onstage, and Chris Paluska, 39, DAMAGEPLAN's tour manager, each were shot once in the chest.

John Brooks, 34, the band's drum technician, was shot twice in the leg. A bullet also grazed the arm of Travis Burnett of Gahanna, 23, a crew member for VOLUME DEALER, one of the warm-up bands.

As victims fell, others tried to grab them and pull them to safety.

Billy Clark was among the fans who climbed over the barricade and reached for Dimebag. He put one knee on the stage for leverage and shouted for his friends, Muirfield and McKelvey, to help.

"I said, 'We've got to get him out of here. He's still a target.'

"I'm not sure if the soldier in me took over. He was up there bleeding and needed help."

The trio and at least one other man pulled Dimebag off the stage and carried him to the floor, where Clark began CPR after searching unsuccessfully for a pulse.

Mindy Reece, a 28-year-old Columbus nurse, was scrambling from the mosh pit with a friend when she turned and saw Dimebag being carried from the stage. She went to his side, identified herself as a nurse and asked for someone's shirt to place against Dimebag's wounds.

McKelvey pulled off his T-shirt, which they slipped under the guitarist's head.

Meanwhile, Van Fossen and a friend, Andy Meravy of Gahanna, worked their way from a spot on a platform left of the stage to Thompson. The bodyguard, a giant of a man at 6-foot-8 and 346 pounds, was on his back on the right side of the stage, one of his feet dangling off the edge.

Van Fossen, who has worked for two Columbus hospitals, detected a weak pulse and began chest compressions. Wever quickly climbed onto the stage beside him. He could see Gale behind the speakers, waving the handgun.

"I'm certified in CPR," Wever told Van Fossen and began mouth-to-mouth after Meravy, also trained in CPR, cleared Thompson's airway.

"I had to spit blood out a couple of times," Wever said.

As sporadic gunfire continued, Meravy convinced Van Fossen that they needed to leave. Outside the back door, they bumped into Columbus Police Officer James D. Niggemeyer.

Niggemeyer had just started his shift at the 18th Precinct, about 2 miles away at Morse and Karl roads, when the report of shots fired at the club came in at 10:18 p.m.

He pulled into the Alrosa parking lot, grabbed the 12-gauge shotgun that police are trained to use even in situations that involve crowds, and headed for the back door of the club. Meanwhile other officers ran past panicked concertgoers fleeing through front and side doors.

"People were screaming, 'Get in there, get in there. He's killing people,' " said Officer Ricky Crum, who head three or four shots as he approached the building.

When Gale realized officers were closing in, he grabbed one of his victims and began using him as a shield. A handful of bystanders, some onstage, pointed at Gale and screamed for officers to shoot him…

"He got spooked and started retreating," said Officer Kevin G. Ferencz. "That could have been just pure by luck, but I believe he did see some of us coming at him."

Crum, armed with a shotgun and climbing steps on the left side of the stage, thinks that Gale was preparing to fire at officers in the pit when Niggemeyer stepped through the stage door.

With the shotgun raised, Niggemeyer moved around the abandoned drum set and killed Gale with a single blast of lead pellets to the face.

"I had to do it. I had to do it," he immediately told bystanders and fellow officers.

Niggemeyer has not publicly discussed the incident because it still must be reviewed by a grand jury, as is standard protocol for al fatal shootings by police officers.

Meravy, who was among the concertgoers who witnessed the scene, said, "He seemed floored that he had to do it."

Niggemeyer's shot took on added significance last week, when police revealed that Gale had enough ammunition to do much more violence.

Another five rounds remained in Gale's gun, and he was carrying 30 more live rounds. Sacksteder said the gunman had fired 10 shots, reloaded the magazine and fired five more rounds before he was killed.

"He had the gun in his armpit and he was putting bullets in the clip," recalled Marvin Woodruff, of Mount Vernon, who attended the concert with Wever. "It seemed like it took two seconds to reload that gun."

After Gale went down, Crum saw the hostage scramble away and roll off the front of the stage.

Some of the bystanders who remained on the stage had to be ordered out of the building after they cursed at and kicked Gale's body, Crum said.

Although investigators have declined to name the hostage, Barns, the club's sound man, identified him as Brooks, the band's drum technician. Officers who responded to the scene have said the hostage had gunshot wounds in the leg, which is consistent with Brooks' injuries.

He and the other surviving victims have declined interview requests.

"Jim (Niggemeyer) prevented further injuries and deaths," Crum said.

"The suspect wasn't going to stop unless someone stopped him."

After the shooting had ended, Lt. Rick Schoch of the Columbus Fire Division was the first paramedic to enter the club, walking through the same patio door that Gale used on his way to the stage.

"There was an overall feeling of shock and despair and agony about what had just happened," he said.

Dimebag was on the floor, Thompson and Halk were on the stage and Bray was in the dressing room. He considered all to be in level-one trauma, or critical condition. Gale was pronounced dead.

Columbus firefighters Mark Williams and Bryan Cross arrived aboard Medic 24 six minutes after the first report of shots fired and took their stretcher and other equipment through the patio door.

"People were still leaving," Williams said. "Some were screaming, some seemed to be in shock, with blank stares on their faces."

Schoch directed Williams and Coss to Dimebag's body. They found Reece, the Columbus nurse, performing CPR, and asked her to continue while they hooked up monitors and checked his condition.

He was pronounced dead within minutes. "His heart activity had stopped," Williams said.

Williams and Coss then moved to the small dressing room, stepping over Gale's body to reach Bray. He was alive, with a bullet wound to the chest, but died after they took him to Riverside.

On stage, Tinnerman and two other firefighters from Worthington determined that Halk was dead.

Nearby, Clinton Township Firefighters Chris Biasella and Kellie Ruetsch found Van Fossen and Wever performing CPR on Thompson.

"Dude, we had a pulse right before you got here," Van Fossen told Biasella.

With the help of police officers, they moved Thompson from stage onto a gurney. Van Fossen continued chest compressions until Thompson was loaded onto the Clinton Township rescue squad for the trip to Riverside, where he was pronounced dead.

Paramedics found tour manager Paluska slumped against a vehicle in the parking lot, still conscious but with a serious chest wound. Brooks, the drum tech, wound up on the band's bus after fleeing the club.

Both men were taken to Riverside, where they recovered from their injuries.

Burnett was treated at the scene for a bullet that grazed his arm, but he declined transport.

The remaining members of DAMAGEPLAN haven't spoken publicly since the attack. For many of the other people who witnessed the devastation of that night, the memories are unforgettable.

Niggemeyer, in his only comment to The Dispatch, said he is dealing with the killing, "as good as can be expected."

Alrosa manager Rick Cautela remembers his last view of Dimebag's brother, Vinnie Paul, who took refuge in the club's front bar.

"He was wrapped in a blanket, and he was clutching Dimebag's guitar."

Justin Caudill, of Mansfield, a fan who tried unsuccessfully to pull Dimebag off the stage, cried off and on for a week after the shootings.

"I'm a 28-year-old metalhead covered with tattoos and this is killing me," he said at the time.

"My life's changed, man. I'll move on from it, but it will never go away."

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