The metal community was turned upside-down on Dec. 8, 2004. On the 24th anniversary of the assassination of John Lennon, music fans across the globe were bombarded by instant messages, emails and phone calls from friends and family informing them or wanting to know if the rumors that Pantera and Damageplan guitarist Dimebag Darrell had really been killed onstage. Was his brother and drummer Vinnie Paul still alive, and what happened to everyone else?
As the hours passed, the horrible truth was revealed and the metal scene was irrevocably altered. Dimebag had indeed been shot and killed while performing onstage with his band Damageplan. Not only had the world lose a charismatic wildman, a generous soul and a stellar musician, the game instantly changed for nearly every other musician. No longer were fans rushing the stage viewed as welcome participants; they became potential assailants.
“After something like that happens to one of your best friends, how could you ever feel safe, anywhere, ever?” said Anthrax guitarist Scott Ian. “The few times that kids have made it up onto the stage during our show, no matter how friendly the scenario, the first thing I think is, ‘Dude, you should not be on this fucking stage. You should know better.’ To me, everything changed after Dime was killed. The stage became off-limits for everyone but musicians. I don’t give a fuck how much fun you’re having. Stay the fuck off the stage.”
At the time of the tragedy, Damageplan were two shows away from the end of a tour to support their debut album, New Found Power, and Dime and his brother drummer Vinnie Paul were looking forward to celebrating the holidays and then getting and getting back into the studio to work on a follow-up record.
The afternoon of the shooting, the band arrived at the Alrosa Villa club in Columbus, Ohio. Soundcheck went without incident and then Dimebag, who remembered playing the place in Pantera’s early days, thanked the club owner for booking Damageplan, the group he and his brother formed when they put Pantera on hold. After soundcheck, Dime went back to the band’s bus to get ready for the show. Then the two brothers stood by the side of the stage to watch the opening band.
“They were doing Parliament songs heavy metal style and they were all dressed up like G.I. Joes,” Vinnie Paul told me in 2006. “We were catching such a nut on them. We were back there doing shots and peeking out and cracking up about the whole thing. So, we were all in a good mood and we had a full house that night and went up on the deck and right before we went on Dime was warming up his hand and putting his lip gloss on. The last thing I ever said to him was ‘Van Halen?’ And he gives me five and says, ‘Van fuckin’ Halen!’ That was our code word for letting it all hang out and having a good time. And that’s the last thing he ever said to me, man. It’s insane.”
Just a few bars into the opening song “Breathing New Life,” a six-foot-five inch former marine, Nathan Gale, burst out from behind a seven-and-a-half foot-high wall of amps and ran across the stage with a Beretta 9mm handgun.
He stopped directly in front of Dime and fired three shots at the back of the guitarist’s head and one that hit his hand. Gale kept firing as members of the crew charged him. The gunman killed four and injured two before putting Paul’s drum tech, John “Kat” Brooks” in a headlock and taking him hostage.
That’s when officer James Niggemeyer, responding to a 911 call less than three minutes after it was made, arrived on the scene without backup and shot Gale dead with a single well-placed shot from 12-guage Remington 870 shotgun. Gale had 35 rounds of ammunition left when he was killed.
“I knew from that distance I could shoot the suspect, as long as I aimed high enough and wouldn’t hurt the hostage,” Niggemeyer told MTV News in 2005. “At that point, almost immediately, I fired.”
While he was proclaimed a hero, Niggemeyer suffered from severe post-traumatic stress disorder and severe anxiety and eventually quit the police force. In 2011 he got a civilian job and was still seeing a counselor because of the emotional distress he suffered in 2004.
At first, the police thought Gale shot Dimebag because the he was convinced the guitarist was responsible for breaking up Pantera, his favorite band. The news widened the already huge gulf between Vinnie Paul and Pantera vocalist Philip Anselmo, whose continuous pursuit of side projects and lack of communication with the other members of Pantera contributed to the Abbotts’ decision to stop trying to get Pantera back together.
During that time, Anselmo and the Abbott brothers exchanged verbal barbs in the press and Vinnie Paul was especially miffed by a comment Anselmo made to UK magazine Metal Hammer that Dime “deserves to be beaten severely.”
“There’s no doubt the guy who did this was out of his fuckin’ mind,” Vinnie Paul told me. “He’s somebody that should have been incarcerated. When you’ve got somebody with obvious mental problems, it’s not a great idea for his mother to go get him a gun that’s used for killing people in the military. And obviously, he knew how to use it. He wasn’t just some ragtime dude who grabbed a gun. I saw what happened, and I knew exactly that the dude was on a mission, man, for whatever reason. And the kind of shit [Philip] said [to Metal Hammer] is the kind of shit that might incite the guy that did this to do the kind of things that he did.”
A thorough police investigation following the shooting determined that Gale was a troubled schizophrenic who believed that the members of Pantera were stealing his thoughts. Although Anselmo hadn’t spoken with Vinnie Paul since before the shooting and was told he wasn’t welcome at Dime’s funeral, the vocalist continues to speak highly of his former close friend Dimebag and insists “it just keeps getting tougher and tougher” every year without him. In addition, he continued to extend an olive branch to Vinnie Paul until his passing in 2018.
“He can come through that door with fifths, a handshake — any of the above—- just as long as he comes because I love the guy,” Anselmo told me in 2010. “I love him. I love Vince. He’s a big part of my life, man. I just want to say on my end, I am an open door. I am an open door.”
As the first decade since Dime’s death passed in 2014 it became clear that Vinnie Paul wasn’t ready to welcome Anselmo back into his life. “It’s just not important to me,” Vinnie said during a Hellyeah interview. “If you had an ex-wife and it was a pretty bitter split, you might not ever want to talk to her again. Who cares if everybody in the family and your friends want you to say hello again. It’s your choice whether you want to do it or not.”
While time has helped heal the wounds of seeing his brother and bandmate killed in front of him, whenever he stopped and thinks about Dime, Vinnie started to get depressed. That’s the main reason he bought a house in Las Vegas, where he spent much of his time.
“Texas will always be my home, but me and my brother used to go to Vegas all the time to escape,” he said. “When my brother was taken from us, there were so many ‘I’m sorrys.’ In Dallas that never stopped. It’s always a reminder of what happened when it comes up. People don’t understand that. They mean well, but I could be out somewhere watching a show, having a good time and I’ll hear, ‘Hey, sorry about your brother, man,’ and I’m right back to thinking about that night and him. It was hard to deal with. So I started going to Vegas for a few weeks at a time and I didn’t hear that as much. Then I found out you could buy houses for nothing because the housing market crashed. So I got a really nice house and now I really enjoy spending time in both places.”
Loudwire contributor Jon Wiederhorn is the author of Raising Hell: Backstage Tales From the Lives of Metal Legends, co-author of Louder Than Hell: The Definitive Oral History of Metal, as well as the co-author of Scott Ian’s autobiography, I’m the Man: The Story of That Guy From Anthrax, and Al Jourgensen’s autobiography, Ministry: The Lost Gospels According to Al Jourgensen and the Agnostic Front book My Riot! Grit, Guts and Glory.