Nathan Gale sat in his ’95 Pontiac Grand Am, staring at the Alrosa Villa. The small, family-owned nightclub—a tan stucco building on a lonely strip off I-71 in the northern outskirts of Columbus, Ohio—had hosted metal bands since its opening in 1974. Now it was midway through a decent Wednesday bill: The headliner was Damageplan, a new group founded by ex-Pantera guitarist “Dimebag” Darrell Abbott and his brother, drummer Vinnie Paul. Tickets: eight bucks.
It was dark, around 40 degrees, and Gale had been in the parking lot for hours. Three times, security guards had made him move his car out of the way of other traffic; now it was parked near the looming tour bus by the rear entrance. Gale wore jeans and a hooded sweatshirt with the logo of the Columbus Blue Jackets hockey team stretched over his six-foot-three, 266-lb. frame. The 25-year-old gazed through a pair of thick, eye-magnifying specs that his former comrades in the Marines had called “birth control glasses” for their woman-repelling qualities. His blond hair was shaved to the scalp.
Gale got out of the car and started pacing. Other clubgoers and staff had already noticed the big, goggle-eyed figure stalking around the lot and wondered what he was up to. Someone called over that the support act was onstage and Gale might want to go in. “I don’t care about local bands,” he said. He’d already had a gentle rebuff from Damageplan’s gigantic security chief, Jeffery “Mayhem” Thompson, when he was hanging around the tour bus, asking if Dime or his brother were aboard. Finally, at 10:15, Gale decided to try one more time.
He walked over and asked Damageplan’s soundman, Aaron Barns, if either of the brothers was on the bus. Barns told him that they’d already gone inside. Gale turned and strode quickly towards the club.
Coming to a high wooden fence blocking a patio on the club’s side, he jumped up and grabbed hold of the top. Mitch Carpenter, a parking-lot security guard, saw the apparent gatecrasher and came running. Gale hauled himself quickly over and hit the pavement on the other side, his pockets clinking with steel and brass: a 9-mm Beretta semiautomatic, two clips and 30 extra bullets.
As he neared the side door he heard cheers erupting inside. Damageplan had taken the stage. Gale broke into a run.
“You never look at your friend as a mass murderer,” says Ryan Hughes, exhaling in mild disbelief. A 26-year-old Marysville, Ohio, resident, Hughes knew Nathan Gale for years prior to the night of December 8, 2004, when Gale shot four people to death, including a leading guitar hero of his generation. Of all the descriptions of Gale offered since the murders—“tweaky,” “sweet,” “creepy,” “gentle”—Hughes does the most to reconcile conflicting memories, to put a human behind the monster. “You ever read Of Mice and Men?” he asks. “Lenny? That’s what Nate was like. He’d come running up to you and you weren’t sure if he was going to hug you or snap your neck.”
But details fade fast in the light of an event as shattering and unexpected as that of December 8—the first-ever onstage murder of a rock star. It’s the kind of horror you want to get away from fast. Friends and family of a mass murderer’s victims, along with anyone else touched by the deaths, tend to simplify the killer’s reasons—saying, “Oh, it was drugs,” or “Oh, he was crazy.” “It’s a way for them to get distance from it,” says forensic psychologist Dr. J. Reid Meloy. “But mass murders are typically overdetermined. In other words, there are lots of factors that go into it.”
And those factors are out there, scattered among history, documents, testimonies and, sometimes, albums. In this case, the album is Pantera’s 1992 thrash-metal pinnacle, Vulgar Display of Power—much more than Nathan Gale’s favorite record by his favorite band. It was an object for meditation, a tool for transcendence and, finally, a labyrinth he couldn’t escape. Even now, the 50-minute rage opus shouts warnings from an unknowable mind. “I won’t let you in to have a story to tell,” snarls “Live in a Hole.” “Possessed/I feel a conquering will down inside me.” If Nathan Gale had wanted to join rock mythology, he couldn’t have picked better material. The album even has an account of what changed between Gale and his idols, the inner process in which a fan—like John Lennon’s killer, Mark Chapman—becomes something else. “Deeper within me,” run the lyrics of “This Love,” “Love was twisted/ And pointed at you.”
Nathan Miles Gale was born in Lansing, Illinois, on September 11, 1979, the last of three boys in the family. His father, Gerald Gale, had left his mother, Mary, by the time he moved to Ohio, where he entered Benjamin Logan Elementary School for fifth grade. School administrators noticed mental health issues early on and put Gale in special-ed classes for a learning disability.
Like many kids with divorced parents, he acted out a little, racking up some disciplinary complaints, but was put back into mainstream classes in ninth grade. But in tenth grade—the year of his mother’s second divorce—he began getting into more trouble, missing 33 days of school. When he and his mom relocated to Marysville, he attended the Ohio Hi-Point Career Center, a vocational school where reports say he got along well with his peers and, at age 18, completed training as an electrician.
On his off hours, Gale hung with the guys in Marysville and did all the things you do when you’re young and rebellious in a small town. “We were all pretty crazy back then,” recalls Ryan Hughes, who met Gale at Hi-Point. “Just partying, drinking a lot, doing drugs, having band practice, hanging out.” Gale and Hughes were part of a gang who’d gather at a run-down house on Delaware Avenue, a place out by the highway where someone’s older brother had a lease and dudes could crash, party, crank music or jam into the night.
On one of those nights at the house, Gale announced he wanted to try cocaine. He went off to do lines and came back different. “He was a hyper dude anyway,” recalls Hughes, “but now he was just sitting in the chair and rocking. I mean, for a long, long time—just rocking back and forth, real fast. I realized later, that’s how crazy people rock.”
As Damageplan kicked the opening rumble of “Breathing New Life,” Gale stepped into the club. He walked fast through the crowd of 400, trailed by security guard Mitch Carpenter and another bouncer who joined the chase—both hesitant to attack someone his size, both assuming he was just a fan dodging the cover charge. Gale continued past the pool tables and across the tiled floor. He jogged up the steps to the carpeted seating section next to the sunken mosh pit area and darted behind the giant main speakers at the front of the stage.
He pushed past the club’s 19-year-old assistant, Emili Lewis, past stagehand Erin “Stoney” Halk, and strode quickly onto the stage. “My first reaction was, ‘OK, he’s just a kid who’s gonna crowd-surf,’” Lewis recalls. “Then I remember seeing him come right in front of the drum riser.” Silent against the deafening stage volume, the huge, mute, hooded figure of Nathan Gale emerged from behind a seven-foot-high wall of amplifiers. He walked across the stage, behind the bass player, behind the singer, and came up behind guitarist Dimebag Darrell.
Back in the day, most everyone in Marysville loved Pantera. A rural town half an hour from Columbus, Marysville is a place where most of the jobs are at the Honda plant, and a Confederate flag hangs in a window on Fifth Street. Pantera was a hard-rock consensus-builder, shit-kicking Texans who defined a rebel attitude for kids who felt far from the fast track.
“Anybody our age grew up here with that as their lifestyle,” says Lucas Bender, 25, manager of a Marysville tattoo parlor where Gale used to hang out. “You smoke pot, listen to Pantera, go to concerts.” Resident Mark Break, 30, says they provided an emotional outlet too: “Everyone liked them,” he says of Pantera. “And a lot of us, we were on food stamps, on welfare. Maybe some of us needed them.”
Sociologist Donna Gaines, whose 1992 book Teenage Wasteland studied the culture of alienated teenage metal fans, describes the role music can play for especially troubled kids. “Something about the music speaks to them on an inner, psyche level,” says Gaines. “It really can become what recovery experts call a ‘higher power.’ Somebody like [Gale] was searching for something to help him make sense of his feelings.”
Weeks after his rocking, post-coke fugue state, Gale revealed a sudden desire to sing. So one afternoon, while the guys in the Delaware Ave. house were bashing heavy grooves on guitars and a drum set, Gale sat furiously scribbling lyrics, pages and pages of them. Finally, he got up to the mic. Ryan Hughes encouraged him to sing what he’d written. “And we’d be jamming and Nate would be about to scream—red in the face, veins popping, contorted with rage, lyric sheet up in his face. And he’d never say a word.” Hughes shakes his head. “Never, dude. He tried over and over, and he just couldn’t do it.”
Around this time, Gale also began listening to one particular album by one particular band. Most of his friends had moved on from Pantera. But when Hughes gave Gale his copy of Vulgar Display of Power, he began playing it constantly: “He listened to that tape for two years, every day, all day long,” says Hughes. And he began writing in a journal, long stream-of-consciousness entries complaining of an inability to hear his own thoughts.
This infuriating inner disconnect must have made the visceral power and tortured psychological imagery of Vulgar Display all the more mesmerizing. “Revenge/I’m screaming revenge again/Wrong/I’ve been wrong for far too long,” goes “Mouth for War”; in “By Demons Be Driven,” there’s another kind of call to arms: “By demons be driven/Beckon the call.” Some people heard it and banged their heads; Gale heard it and got sucked in.
As soon as Gale reached the middle of the stage, six-foot-one stagehand Erin Halk, a former Marine, and Damageplan’s head of security, the six-foot-eight, 346-lb. Jeffery “Mayhem” Thompson, started to converge on the apparent stage-diver from either side. Before they could get there, Gale pulled out his Beretta and grabbed Darrell Abbott in a headlock. Standing still, with his arm around his neck, Gale fired three shots into the back of his former hero’s head, then one more that struck the guitarist’s hand. Abbott fell forward, right leg twisting under him, his upper body slumping over his lightning-bolt-shaped guitar. The sound of feedback screeched in the air.
No one saw it happening, but at some point in 1998, Nathan Gale began to have trouble distinguishing between his own inner life and what he heard on Vulgar Display of Power. Sometimes, his friends in the house on Delaware Ave. found that the lyrics he was submitting as his own were actually from that album. “I just think he listened to it so much, he didn’t know they weren’t his lyrics,” says Hughes. “He really thought he’d written them.”
One night that year, Gale went with friends to see Pantera play in Dayton, Ohio. He got separated from the group, but returned the next day telling everybody how he’d befriended the band. He then produced a pamphlet that he’d found—some ’zine or promotional booklet—and said it revealed the fact that Pantera was going to play a graduation party Gale’s friend was planning.
“The way you could find that out was to read something on such-and-such page, and it will tell you to go to this other page and you’ll read such-and-such—it was like a puzzle,” Hughes remembers. Just as countless stoners have sat limning the hidden meanings of, say, Slayer’s “Raining Blood,” Gale was now parsing secret messages in real life. “And he was serious,” Hughes says.
But with all the late nights and frying synapses of early-20s debauchery, his buddies were hardly up to diagnosing a mental disorder; it was impossible for them to know if Gale’s strange behavior—petting an imaginary dog at a party, or telling them God had told him to kill Marilyn Manson—meant he was sick or just goofing around. “He’d been kind of weird before that, so we thought it was another ‘Crazy Nate’ thing,” Hughes’s buddy and sometime bandmate David Johnson told reporters. “That was our nickname for him: ‘Crazy Nate.’”
People in places like Marysville grow up faster than in other towns, and soon Gale’s buddies went on to the next stage of their lives. They gave up the lease on the Delaware Avenue house—the center of one of the last stable communities Gale had. As friends left for school, had kids, took jobs, moved on, Gale had trouble finding his next chapter. He had a series of jobs but lost them all. And life at home with his mother had its own friction. “She was always telling him to shut the fuck up, get out of her face,” Hughes recalls. “It never seemed like there was a lot of love there.”
For a while, Gale’s mom banished him from the house, and he took to sleeping in parks. He began looking increasingly spaced out and unkempt: a lone, shabby figure roaming the streets, listening to a Walkman. Sometime around 2001, though, he seemed to turn a corner. “He kinda cleaned himself up,” says Hughes, “got back to where he was looking like he showered.”
But the old fixations remained: Hughes remembers talking to him in the car when Gale started going on and on about Pantera. “And I was all, ‘Man, that’s old-school ’80s metal—they suck.’ And he was like, ‘They don’t suck!’ He got real mad. Then he seemed to blow it off. But after about 15 minutes, he looked at me and said, [gravely serious] ‘You really think they suck?’ He’d been sitting there, just thinking about it.”
In 2002, after the lackluster chart performance of their final studio album, Reinventing the Steel, Pantera disbanded. The Abbott brothers reportedly found this out third hand, after singer Phil Anselmo told the press, and the break came with bitterness on both sides.
For someone with Gale’s level of obsession, Donna Gaines says, such an event could have a psychological impact similar to that of a parent abandoning a young child. “He’s not going to be able to get back on his feet and say, ‘Let me see what [the Pantera members’] new music is, maybe I can grow with them.’ Or ‘Fuck them, let me check out Slayer.’ He didn’t have that. What was at stake was survival. Faith. Hope. Possibility. Identification. Community.”
In such cases, obsessive identification with a celebrity can turn into its opposite—as with John Bardo, who in 1989 murdered actress Rebecca Schaeffer, or Mark David Chapman, who killed John Lennon 24 years to the day before Dimebag Darrell’s murder. “They start out idealizing the person they end up murdering,” says psychologist Ross Meloy. “Mass murders are usually premeditated for days, weeks or months. It’s what we call ‘predatory’ rather than ‘affective.’ It tends to be very planned, purposeful and emotionless.”
The mass murder is, in other words, a clinical, almost professional murder. Which is why friends get a chill when they recall hearing that, on February 12, 2002, their friend Nate had, seemingly out of the blue, traveled to the Military Entrance Processing Station in Columbus, Ohio, and enlisted in the Marines.
After the first shots, at 10:18 p.m., Alrosa Villa employee Emili Lewis fled the club to call the police. Before Gale could fire again, stagehand Erin Halk and security guard Jeff Thompson rushed him from opposite sides. There were several sharp reports, like firecrackers. Thompson was shot twice in the body and once in the leg; Halk took bullets in the hand and leg, and four in the chest. Both fell to the floor, fatally wounded.
Damageplan’s vocalist, Patrick Lachman, yelled, “Call 911!” into his microphone, then jumped offstage. Bouncers and fans came rushing from the wings and over the barricades, flooding onto the stage to either help Dimebag or rush Gale. The scuffle moved to the right, behind the wall of amplifiers.
Gale shot Damageplan’s tour manager, Chris Paluska, in the stomach, and then drum tech John “Kat” Brooks. In the tumult, Gale dropped his glasses and asked a stunned Jeff Greene from the opening band, Twelve Gauge, to help find them, gesturing downward with the pistol and then firing—possibly by accident—inches from Greene. His clip spent, Gale calmly ejected it and pulled a fresh one from his pocket.
Nathan Bray, 24, among the fans trying to help Dimebag, was administering CPR when he stopped, turned around and looked at Gale. He put both arms out, palms up, his gesture asking, “What the fuck, dude?” Gale slapped the new clip in and shot Bray in the chest, killing him.
Life in the Marines didn’t do much to transform Gale. If anything, it seems to have pushed him closer to the edge. He struggled to meet the weight requirements and was constantly getting chewed out by his instructors: “Every time we heard someone getting yelled at, it was ‘Gale, Gale,’” says Lance Cpl. Michael Lemire, a 22-year-old Marine supply clerk who attended boot camp and served his first six months of active duty with Gale. “If he got yelled at, you’d see him off talking to himself. He talked to himself a lot.” It wasn’t long before other marines began joking that Gale would be the one to go Full Metal Jacket someday.
After basic training at Parris Island, South Carolina, Lemire, Gale and the other graduates from their class headed to Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, for additional combat training—everything from using an M-16 to throwing a hand grenade. After that, Gale went to a specialist auto mechanic school, where he could often be found in the rec center, playing videogames and jabbering to himself. “If you talked to him face-to-face, he was always polite,” says Lemire. And while Gale never spent any time in the brig, he did get administrative punishment twice in the months leading up to his discharge. “It wasn’t so much that he was a troublemaker,” Lemire remembers. “He just wasn’t all there—up there.”
But he did pass his physical fitness and marksmanship tests and, on April 1, 2003, was promoted to lance corporal. But only seven months later, in November—less than halfway through his four-year commitment, and in the middle of a war—Gale was given an involuntary “administrative discharge” from the Corps. (The military declined to discuss the grounds for Gale’s dismissal, citing privacy concerns.)
Discharged from the Marines, with no financial support—and no obligation to seek treatment—Gale returned to Marysville. When Hughes asked him why he’d been discharged, he just giggled. “I said, ‘Well, did you like it?’ and he says, ‘Not really—but I learned how to blow stuff up. Got to shoot a rocket launcher and some guns.’” Hughes remembers, “It did make me feel weird, because he said it with that kind of Nate giggle—and he was the last person you want to teach how to blow shit up.”
Gale moved into a three-room apartment on Fifth Street, half a block from M&M Pawn and Loan—where he often checked out old PlayStation 2 games. He shared the apartment with his mom as he tried to get on his feet. Soon after his discharge, the Veteran’s Administration placed him with a job at the Minit Lube, whose boss, Rich Cencula, tried to mentor him.
“He was an average kid,” Cencula says. “Later he confided to me that he’d been discharged because of schizophrenia. I asked him if he was taking medication for it and he said yes.” But Gale never missed any work, and got along well with everyone: “He was great with customers’ kids.” Cencula got Gale interested in hockey and started taking him to Blue Jackets games.
Gale’s new interest in sports drew him to try out for the local semi-pro football team, the Lima Thunder, where the coach remembers him as an undistinguished left guard but a goofy, good-natured presence.
In the fall of 2004, Gale’s mother left the apartment they shared to move in with a boyfriend, leaving him responsible for the full rent. The need for more funds, plus his desire to keep free his Saturdays—Minit Lube’s busiest day—so that he could compete in football games led him to quit his job. He took another at Davey’s Tree Service, then another washing trucks. He was fired from that in November of last year for poor job performance.
His last attempt at employment was applying for a bouncer position at the local sports bar and music venue, Lee Dog’s Locker Room. On the application form, he listed his stint with the Marines, said that he had a brown belt in judo and wrote that he could start work on December 6—two days before the murders. The Bear’s Den tattoo shop is on Fifth Street in Marysville, across the street from Gale’s apartment.
Gale started coming to the Bear’s Den during his final stay in Marysville. First he got a tribal tattoo on his forearm and an ear-piercing. Then he began to hang out in the small store, with its biker gear and goth accoutrements, flipping through magazines, listening to death metal. “I think he was trying to find a group he could fit in to,” says Lucas Bender, the manager. “I think that was his problem. I figure he was still trying to fit in.”
At the Bear’s Den, Bender says he often caught Gale staring off into space, or zoning out on a security camera. “He was spooky, but polite and easygoing when you talked to him,” Bender recalls. That was until one afternoon, on December 8, when Gale was sitting on a chair against the wall, flipping through a tattoo magazine. He asked Bo Toller, a tattoo artist at the shop, how he might be able to purchase a tattoo machine, to take up the trade on his own.
“I started telling him about how you need to have a license to have that sort of equipment,” Toller remembers. And Gale became infuriated. “He threw the magazine down, said ‘Bullshit—you’re a liar!’ and walked right out. It surprised me. He never showed anybody his temper before.” Hours later, Gale was on the evening news.
A mass murder is almost always provoked by a single triggering event—something that happens hours or, at most, days before the killing. “It’s typically a rejection or a public humiliation,” says Reid Meloy. “[The murderer] is taking revenge against all those individuals who have hurt and mistreated him for as long as he can remember.”
All of the slights and failures that Nathan Gale had endured in his 25 years culminated in a single act of retribution. “And in his mind,” says Meloy, “he had a right to do this.”
Waving the Beretta, Gale backed away from the bodies and behind the wall of amplifiers. While fans and crew were trying to save the wounded, several police officers had stolen into the club from various entrances. Officer James D. Niggemeyer, 31, having entered through the back door, came sneaking up alongside the main speakers holding a Remington 870 12-gauge shotgun.
As cops closed in, Gale grabbed drum tech John Brooks, whom he had shot twice in the leg, and tried to use him as a shield. Having fired at least 17 times, he had five rounds left in the pistol and more in his pockets. For a mass murderer he was, in fact, lightly armed. “These guys average three weapons,” says Dr. Meloy.
As fans screamed and cops were pointing out Gale, Niggemeyer stepped out of the stage door with his shotgun raised. He moved around the drum set and fired at Gale’s face. Gale fell to the floor, dead. “I had to do it,” Niggemeyer said—to witnesses, to himself—as Gale lay by the stage. “I had to do it.”
By 11 p.m. on December 8, five people in the Alrosa Villa were dead, two wounded, and 400 left to make sense of what they’d witnessed. An oft-repeated Web posting called it “the worst day in metal history.” But this is far from evoking the strangeness of that night. “The whole thing seems so surreal,” says Emili Lewis. “You keep thinking you’re going to wake up.”
In one of the two interviews she gave, Gale’s mother, Mary Clark—who later received death threats—said she couldn’t explain her son’s actions. “Nothing I say about him is going to erase what happened in the end, in those few minutes,” she said. “I’m sorry for what happened, I’m sorry for those people who were killed, but I lost a son, too.”
Now, just about a month after the night, Ryan Hughes sits at a diner in Marysville, sipping a cup of coffee and reflecting.
“In a way, he was just like any of us,” he says of Gale, stroking a scruff of beard. “He just had this. . . problem. Nate was just so big and so tweaky and so weird nobody wanted to deal with him.”
Before Gale’s body was cremated in a private ceremony, an autopsy by the Franklin County Coroner’s office showed no trace of drugs in his system, antipsychotic or otherwise. He came to the Alrosa Villa driven by nothing but his own private demons.
Drugs didn’t make Nate Gale a killer. Nor did metal, divorce, guns or some other single bugaboo. Nobody could have seen it coming, even if now, at least to some friends, all the pieces fit.
“When I heard the news, I was totally shocked, but not surprised,” says Hughes. “I mean, you knew Nate wasn’t gonna stop until he. . . did something. The music, the football, the military—he wasn’t gonna just lay down and not be anybody.”
Additional reporting by C. Mark Brinkley of the Marine Corps Times and Chad Williamson of the Marysville Journal-Tribune.
Blender, May 2005