“Dimebag” Darrell Abbott’s death on Dec. 8, 2004 was so surreal that most of those who witnessed it thought it was part of a performance.
On that night, Nathan Gale, the “No. 1 fan” of Abbott’s former band Pantera, walked on stage and shot the rock guitarist point blank in the face. Abbott and his bandmates in Damageplan were performing in the Alrosa Villa nightclub in Columbus, Ohio. In that one shot, Gale ended it all.
Gale, 25, killed three more people that night: Nathan Bray, 23, Jeff Thompson, 40, and Erin Halk, 29. The horrific nightmare ended when police officer James Niggemeyer approached the gunman on stage and killed him with one shot.
The shock of Abbott’s death reverberated throughout the heavy metal community. Damageplan’s official website called it “the worst day in metal history,” and nobody seemed to disagree. In the wake of the shootings, Austin American-Statesman readers wrote letters to the editor expressing their sadness from losing one of the all-time greatest metal guitarists.
“He never seemed arrogant or cocky, despite making it to the top of the heavy metal world,” Steve Heinze wrote to the Statesman in December 2004. “He wasn’t mad at the world. He also had that Texas pride thing, which gave him a down-to-earth vibe.”
Abbott grew up in Arlington with his brother, drummer and bandmate Vinnie Paul. Before both of them could even drive a car, they began performing at house parties and at the local skating rink. Their performances — with Abbott’s lightning-fast solos — garnered a devoted fan base.
Later, with singer Phil Anselmo and bassist Rex Brown, the brothers paved a new path in extreme thrash metal. Pantera’s first major label release, “Cowboys from Hell,” sparked a wildly successful streak that included Grammy nominations, more than 7 million albums sold and global tours.
The reason behind Gale’s seemingly mindless killing spree is difficult to comprehend. In 2004, the Associated Press interviewed Gale’s former friend, Dale Johnson, who said he used to be Pantera’s No. 1 fan. Johnson said Gale began talking and laughing to himself, and once acted as if he was holding an imaginary dog.
“After a while something happened,” Johnson told the AP. “He just kind of snapped. He went from being a cool guy to being a guy you didn’t want to be around.”
In a Washington Post story written on Dec. 10, 2004, Brian Windzigl, 22, said he watched Gale walk on stage and kill Abbott.
“My friend heard him yelling, ‘Darrell, Darrell! You’re the reason Pantera broke up. You ruined my life,’ ” Windzigl said.
Many reporters noted the significance of the date Abbott died. John Lennon was gunned down by a deranged fan outside of his Manhattan apartment 24 years ago the same day.
In a blog posted in December 2004, then-Austin American Statesman music writer Michael Corcoran wrote about the inevitability of violence at Pantera shows:
“The Dallas thrash metalheads set out to be harder, fiercer, faster than the rest, and their fans reacted more jubilantly savage than any I’ve ever seen. Pantera was the Marines, while all the other metal bands were the Coast Guard. Coaxed on by the devil’s barker, singer Phil Anselmo, Pantera fans didn’t start mosh pits, they brawled to the monster shrieks and the manic shredding of guitarist Dimebag Darrell Abbott. When they limped out after the concert, nursing split lips and bloody noses, the Pantera devoted looked like they’d survived an explosion.
“It was no surprise that violence broke out at a show by Pantera spinoff Damageplan last week in Columbus, Ohio. The scope of the carnage, as well as the precedent it set, was shocking, however.”
Prior to a Pantera show in December 1996, Vinnie Paul talked to the Statesman about the legacy he and his brother hoped to leave as musicians.
“We definitely buy into the idea of Texas music and being a Texas band,” he said. “I know many people maybe wouldn’t think of us as fitting the bill, but those people probably don’t know much about us. We’ve done this on our own terms, the way we wanted to. And I think we’ve formed our own identity, a unique one, which is something that can be said of all of Texas’ greatest.”