While my guitar gently weeps

Staff Writer
Columbus Monthly

This story appeared in the March 2005 issue of Columbus Monthly.

Rick Cautela couldn't just turn and walk away. The horrors of the night of Dec. 8 had given way to the next morning. The 400 or so fans and friends who had been guests in his club hours earlier had dispersed, left to deal with the demons of what they'd experienced in their own way. The police had worked a long night, scouring the Alrosa Villa for evidence, interviewing more than a hundred stunned, sometimes hysterical witnesses. The three COTA buses provided to

keep witnesses secured and warm had returned to their normal duty, as had the handful of unmarked Columbus police cars that had served as temporary interview rooms through the night.

It was 6:55 am when Columbus police Sgt. Jeffrey Sacksteder and his Critical Incident Response Team wrapped up their work at 5055 Sinclair Rd., gave Cautela some brief instructions and left him-alone. And there he stayed, thinking, not thinking, numb. Finally he grabbed as many bottles of bleach as he could find. And he started.

The blood, so much blood. It had to be wiped up. Sodden rags and empty bleach bottles accumulated. The carpet on the stage, on the floor-it could never be salvaged. It shouldn't be salvaged. The stains. The memories. He began tugging at it, tearing at it, ripping it from the floor, discarding it in shreds behind him. Stains, those horrible stains, had soaked through the carpet and into the wood in places. He began dismantling parts of the stage. Three or four times he stopped, stepped outside and threw up. And then he'd return, compelled to do this chore.

Three hours passed. Four. Five. His wife called periodically, worried, asking the same question: "When will you be home?" He couldn't answer. He couldn't leave. Eventually she came to him, bringing donuts, trying perhaps to do what she knew only time could do: heal. The same reason, she knew, he was staying. "I thought in my mind if I could just clean it up, then it didn't happen, it never happened," says Cautela.

But it happened.

Nathan Gale, a 25-year-old with a gun, slipped into Cautela's club and pushed his way through the crowd as the band Damageplan began its set. The band was the newest incarnation of brothers Vinnie Paul and "Dimebag" Darrell Abbott-two former members of the Grammy-nominated heavy-metal band Pantera, a band that Gale once liked with a passion some say teetered dangerously toward obsession.

Once inside, Gale made for the stage. He scrambled up the stage-right steps, streaked through the band and headed straight for guitarist Dimebag Darrell, who was launching into the bone-crunching chords of the show's opening number, "Breathing New Life." Gale pulled out a

9 mm handgun and began pumping bullets into the musician with the trademark crimson beard, killing him instantly with a point-blank shot to the head.

A stunned silence followed, quickly shattered by the eerie feedback squeal of Abbott's guitar as it lay next to his body on stage. Then chaos erupted, as those in the crowd began running for the exits. Security guards rushed the burly shooter in the Blue Jackets jersey and quickly two more people died. A third person was killed when a handful of fans pushed forward to try to help the injured and disarm the killer, and they too became targets.

It ended within five minutes, when Columbus police officer James Niggemeyer entered the back of the Alrosa Villa and brought the gunman down with a single shotgun blast to the head.

In all, Gale fired 15 shots, killing four and wounding three others. Among the dead were Jeff "Mayhem" Thompson, Damageplan's massive but affable bodyguard, Nate Bray, a 23-year-old husband and father who had climbed from the audience to the stage to help Abbott, and 29-year-old Alrosa security guard Erin Halk.

Struggling in the aftermath are the survivors-the friends and relatives of those who died, the fans who witnessed the violence and a family-owned club that for three decades has been an integral part of Columbus's music landscape. "It won't ever be the same for me," Cautela says today. "I would give up all 31 years here for this not to have happened. I would have rather it been me shot and killed than those kids. Some days I just get so fucking angry about it. Why? Why did it have to happen?"

Mitch Carpenter has been a metal fan for nearly two decades. Pantera, however, wasn't among his favorites-until he met Dimebag. The guitar player had a personality as big as his home state of Texas. Brad Tolinski, editor in chief of Guitar World, says he called him "Yosemite Sam," because, "He had this colorful, creative spin to everything he did, from his playing to his image, with his bright red beard, to his language, which was this mix of Texas slang that he called 'Dimebonics.' "

Tolinski says it's sad and ironic that Dime would become the first musician ever assassinated on stage. "The only way Dime would ever hurt anybody is if he hugged you to death . . . or maybe drank you under the table," Tolinski says.

Though Abbott never adopted the egocentric rock star attitude, he was an undisputed rock star nonetheless. Last year, Guitar World ranked him No. 7 on its list of the top 100 heavy metal guitar players of all time. Pantera was among the most influential bands of the genre in the 1990s; its third major-label release, 1994's Far Beyond Driven, debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard charts, with the song "I'm Broken" receiving the first of Pantera's three Grammy nominations. Still, Abbott considered himself a brethren with the metal fans, many of whom can fondly retell stories about the time they got to party with Dimebag.

Carpenter has his own tale to tell. At the 1997 Ozzfest at Polaris-the one where Ozzy didn't show and the crowd rioted-Carpenter managed to sneak backstage. "There was no security," he says. "They retreated when they found out Ozzy was a no-show. I walked right up on stage, running back and forth with my little Kodak taking pictures."

Pantera was on the bill that day, and Carpenter worked his way into the band's dressing room. "I held my camera up and said, 'Dime, can I get a shot with you?' And he takes this bottle of Crown Royal out of the bag and says, 'Not unless I get a shot with you,' " says Carpenter. The drinking started, and the "Pantera-type chaos," as Carpenter calls it, quickly followed. Tables, chairs, pictures-anything that could be grabbed and smashed was fair game. "I thought, 'How many chances do you get to trash a room with a rock star?' " says Carpenter. "I jumped up and Dime announces me like a baseball pitcher. . . . 'Coming up out of the bullpen, we have Mr. Mitch,' he says. It was a blast."

It was no surprise that Carpenter was looking forward to the Dec. 8 Damageplan show at the Alrosa. It was his favorite club, an intimate place, and since he'd been working there part-time as a security guard in recent months, he felt sure he'd get to see Abbott again. "I figured I'd walk up to him later, after the show, and see if he remembered me," Carpenter says. "I never got that chance. Instead, I had to watch him be destroyed like that."

Carpenter first encountered Nathan Gale sometime between 9 and 9:30 the night of the Damageplan show. He was working parking lot security with his brother, David Sheets, when Gale pulled his red 1995 Pontiac Grand Am into a spot right by the club entrance. "He parked beside the front door," says Carpenter, "where staff parks. I walked over to him and said, 'You can't park here. You'll have to move.' "

"But then he moved like 50 feet and parked under the marquee, halfway blocking the people coming in off Sinclair [Road]. I walked over to him like, 'Dude, what the fuck is your problem? You can't park here either.' His window was rolled up and kind of fogged. But he looked at me and kind of waved his hand like, 'OK.' I can still see his face," Carpenter says.

In hindsight, Sheets thinks Gale was trying to park strategically. "He was parking right by the exit, and backed into the spot," he says. "Then he moved by the marquee and parked so his front end was pointed toward Sinclair Road. I think he was thinking about his escape."

The brothers then saw Gale again a bit later. Though it was December, the Alrosa patio was open and a vendor with a food cart was grilling gyros and Philly steak sandwiches there. Mitch and David took a break from the parking lot duty to grab a bite during the break before Damageplan came on. "The vendor has his cart blocking the outside gate, but I saw [Gale] pacing back and forth outside the fence," says Carpenter. "At one point I asked him if he had a ticket to go in and he said, 'Yeah. I'm just waiting for the headliner.' Was he suspicious? I guess maybe pacing back and forth, smoking cigarettes outside the gate could be suspicious behavior. But I see that every show."

Carpenter had finished his sandwich and was leaning near the end of the bar, across from the patio entrance, when something caught his eye. "It was this guy, his whole body on top of the patio fence," says Carpenter. "He kind of fell over it and flopped. It was a big image. He was a big guy. He made a big flop."

Gale picked himself up and bolted past a number of people on the patio, including Penny Reed, who was sitting on one of the picnic tables outside. "He had a little trouble getting over that fence," she says. "He was a pretty big feller. He whizzed right past me and went in the door. I started yelling, 'He's a fugitive! He's a fugitive!' pointing and laughing at him. I didn't pay any more attention to him after that. Then I heard the gunshots."

As Gale entered the bar and began walking toward the stage, Carpenter says he made eye contact again. "He saw me, and I yelled at him but he kept walking toward the front."

Carpenter says, "I just thought he was a kid with no money, trying to sneak into a show. You see it all the time. I've done it myself. You don't tackle those guys. You don't grab them and beat the shit out them. That's not the kind of place Rick [Cautela] runs. I followed him, right up toward the stage. Then he sped up."

Another security guard picked up Gale's trail near the stage, and Carpenter stopped pursuing and turned back toward the bar.

Jeff Muller, a local concert photographer, was leaning on the stage, in front of the bass player. He'd just taken a shot of Vinnie Paul on drums when he noticed Gale cross the stage in front of him. "He was strutting right along, like he was on a mission," says Muller. "Security was right behind him. I just thought he was a stage-diver. I've seen it a hundred times."

"Everything happened so fast," Muller says. "He just started shooting. People started running after him, and he kind of ducked back in a corner behind a speaker. I could only see his arm sticking out, with the gun, firing. I saw bullets hitting the speaker backs. I saw a guy from the tour empty out a beer bottle and go after him." Muller says it might have been the band's tour manager, Chris Paluska, who was shot in the abdomen, but survived. He was released from Riverside eight days later.

"Nathan Bray jumped up onstage and tried to administer CPR to Dimebag," says Muller. "He looked up at Gale and said, 'What the fuck are you doing?' Gale shot him. After Nate got shot, everyone started running. My first thought was about my pregnant wife at home. I ducked down and backed over to the side to the left of the stage. There was a couple next to me, hiding behind a table they'd tipped over. I ducked behind a chair."

"When it all hit me the most was the next day, when I found out Nate Bray had a 2-year-old son at home," says Muller.

Keith Moore was standing directly in front of Abbott when the show started, beside his friend, Jimmy Climer-a huge Pantera fan-while Jimmy's wife Penny was out on the patio. "They'd just started their first song," says Moore. "I saw this guy out of the corner of my eye, and then I heard the shots and saw Dimebag drop."

"He was shooting as he was walking, and he kind of walked past Dime and turned and held his arm out right to Dime's head," says Climer. "I didn't see any blood. All I remember is Dime's hair. He has this big hair, and there was all this smoke coming out of it as he dropped."

Climer says he watched, stunned, as Thompson, the band's bodyguard, rushed out toward Gale. "They started fighting-not punching, but more like a struggle for the gun. The bodyguard was like raking at the guy's eyes and trying to grab his arm with the gun. And this whole time, he's getting shot-not 'bap-bap-bap,' but more like 'bap [pause], bap [pause], bap as they fought. And then he fell, right beside Dime. I turned and ran for my life."

Moore, however, says he was frozen. "I saw someone come out of the pit area and jump onstage. He ran over to Dimebag and then he was shot. The shot knocked him flat on his back. Jimmy took off, but I just-I don't know. I guess I lost my mind. I wasn't even sure it was real. I ran up the stairs to the stage. I guess I wanted to see for myself. I looked down and saw this big blood clot coming out of Dimebag's nose, like a chicken liver. And then I saw the shooter, kind of behind the speakers, waving the gun. I jumped off the front of the stage and made myself invisible."

Moore says he saw someone from the mosh pit reach up and grab Abbott's guitar and start off with it. Cautela says one of his security crew stopped the kid and reclaimed the guitar and hid it under a blanket behind the bar. Moore then noticed some people had pulled Abbott off the stage and were attempting to give him CPR on the floor in the pit area. "There were two people on each side of him, and they had their hands stacked up on top of one another, pressing on his ribcage really hard. I thought if he wasn't already dead, they were going to crush his chest. I ran over there just trying to calm people down. They were all freaking out. Another guy was giving him mouth-to-mouth. He looked up and he's got blood from ear to ear."

"Then I saw the cops advancing from the front door," Moore says. "I got up and headed back to the bathroom. I had blood up to my elbows. That's when I heard the shot that I presume was the cop's shotgun killing the guy."

James Niggemeyer, 31, joined the Columbus police force five years ago after a three-year stint in the Army. He had just finished roll call to begin the third shift from his substation at Morse and Karl roads when the call came from the dispatcher-a live-fire situation inside the Alrosa. Niggemeyer was the first officer to pull into the club's lot; two other officers arrived right behind him. Seeing the crowd pouring out of the front entrance, Niggemeyer decided to drive around to the back. There, he was met by people yelling, "He's right in there!"

"He knows he's about to face the gunman when he enters," says Columbus police Sgt. Brent Mull. Mull says Gale had a hostage in a headlock when Niggemeyer entered the building-presumed to be John Brooks, Damageplan's drum technician, who was shot but released from Riverside two days later. "He was about to shoot his hostage, but the hostage was able to break free, giving Officer Niggemeyer the space to take the shot."

Niggemeyer had been assigned to carry the shift's pump-action Remington 12-gauge shotgun that night. The single blast of 9-pellet load of 00 buckshot at close range was deadly. "If there's imminent threat, you meet that threat head-on," Mull says. "That's what he did."

Niggemeyer's only previous on-duty use of a firearm was the humane destruction of a deer.

In the days that followed, the faded brown stucco Alrosa Villa sat dark and silent like a mausoleum, stark against the hubbub of media camped out across the street; winter-coated anchors sat bored inside satellite trucks, waiting for their 15-second sound bites using the club as a backdrop. A constant procession of mourners and gawkers passed by. An impromptu memorial collection of notes, CDs, flowers, beer bottles and even an occasional $10 bag of marijuana-known as a dime bag-accumulated on and around a sizable rock near the Alrosa entrance. Blue-Book-bargain cars pulled into and out of the empty lot as tattooed rockers added their tokens to the memorial-often to be approached by hungry reporters.

The scene was just as bad in Marysville-Nathan Gale's hometown. More satellite trucks lined its compact downtown streets. "It seemed like anybody who knew him in any way was willing to talk," says Chad Williamson, managing editor of the Marysville Journal-Tribune. Anybody, that is, except Gale's family.

Williamson was sitting at his desk when his phone rang. It had been six days since Gale had become Marysville's most infamous citizen. Williamson was shocked when the speaker at the other end of the line announced herself as Mary Clark, asking if he'd like to do the story everyone else wanted-an interview with the killer's mother. "She'd seen some of the columns I'd written, liked what I'd had to say," says Williamson. "And I knew her a little bit. I'd played darts with her a few times, long ago."

Williamson met Clark at her apartment at one o'clock that afternoon. She spoke frankly. She pulled out pictures. She grieved. She cried. "She's something else," says Williamson. "I told her point blank, 'If it was me, I wouldn't have talked to anyone.' She said, 'Something had to get out about my family.' "

"She has a grip on what her son did, the consequences of it and the reality of it," he says. "She called the man who shot her son a hero. I couldn't believe it. She also understands people's anger. Her son, too, connected so much with the music."

She told Williamson her son had a typical childhood, though she wouldn't identify Gale's father, or his two older brothers. He'd wrestled briefly at Benjamin Logan High School. But then he found drugs, and the joys of escape. He transferred to Marysville High School, although he took all his classes at the Ohio Hi-Point Joint Vocational School, graduating in 1998.

Gale had gotten himself into a few small scrapes with the law-a couple of trespassing charges for skateboarding, and a charge for stealing scales from work. But before things got out of hand, he'd decided to clean up his act by joining the Marine Corps. She was proud of him. In fact, she bought him a 9 mm Beretta handgun as a 2002 Christmas present after he completed his Marine Corps basic training. Ten months later, he was given a medical discharge from the Marines. "She said he was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic by the military and sent home with medication," says Williamson. Clark also said her son did not seek additional treatment after he got home.

"She doesn't ignore her role, both in buying the gun and perhaps her failure to recognize the extent of his mental illness," says Williamson. "But I don't believe she was a bad parent. She was just a helluva nice lady who found herself in the middle of a national story, struggling to explain something that couldn't be explained."

Clark brought Williamson a plate of cookies the day after the interview.

Gale's mother wasn't the only one searching for answers. In Columbus, Mitch Carpenter was hurting. He'd taken a week from his job at the Ohio Division of Wildlife and still it wasn't enough. "It was the first thing I'd think of every day. I'd wake up and question whether it had really happened or not, or whether I'd dreamed it," he says. "But it happened, at my bar-my home away from home-on my watch. It haunted me."

Carpenter knew his friends were hurting, too. He decided to do something about it. Two of his former high school classmates had married and started a counseling practice together. He called them. "About a week before Christmas, I organized a little group counseling session," says Carpenter. "I knew a lot of people would try to take this on the chin with their chests out, and this just isn't something you can deal with that way. I knew people would crash and burn around Christmas, so I thought it was important to try and do something. I know we're metal fans and we're supposed to be hard or whatever. But we're just as fragile as anyone."

Carpenter invited everyone who had worked at the Alrosa the night of the shootings. Twelve people, including Cautela, showed up. "It was good to see everybody," says Brian Kozicki, who works the lights at the Alrosa. "It was helpful. It was good to share our experiences, and get them out, and to find out that everyone else was feeling the same thing I was."

Cautela had an extra burden. His father, Albert, had suffered a stroke just days after the shootings at the club he'd founded, named after him and his wife, Rosa, who died in 1998. And now Al was slipping away as his son Rick wondered whether the club would ever reopen. Already, a number of big shows had been canceled, including a New Year's Eve reunion of the band Rosie-one of Columbus's most popular rock bands ever.

The grief was offset only by the support that was pouring in from fans all over the country. "For 31 years, Rick Cautela has been the Alrosa Villa," says WBZX nighttime jock Blazor. "There are lots of people in this town who used to go to the Alrosa, grew older, got married, had kids, and now their kids are going. And Rick is still talking shit on the microphone behind the bar and on stage. If you don't know it and you read these stories, you just think it's some cold place with four walls and it's so not that. It's named Al Rosa. It is personal. Rick's brother Johnny works the bar. His sister Diane works the door. Of all the places for something like this to happen-that place felt like family for everyone who worked there and everyone who went there."

Al Cautela died Jan. 8-exactly one month after the shootings, and just days after Rick had decided to reopen the club with a benefit concert for Nate Bray and Erin Halk. That reopening occurred Jan. 14-Rick Cautela's 59th birthday. The club was filled, and the spirit inside felt very warm. Officer Niggemeyer, who had not spoken publicly about the night of the shooting, even showed up at Cautela's invitation. He didn't speak, but when he was introduced the roar of support from the crowd was overwhelming.

Still, Cautela says, it was "bittersweet." Three nights after the reopening, he was at home. And the tears began pouring out. "It just hit me that my dad was dead," he says. "I'd put it aside. I had to. My brain had been going from one negative thing to another for a month. But it caught up to me. It's changed me spiritually. It's changed me emotionally. It's affected us all-everyone who was here on that horrible night, and everyone who knew one of those brave kids who died. It's not like starting over. It will never be the same for me again."

Eric Lyttle is a senior writer for Columbus Monthly.