Pantera member Dimebag Darrell, who was a key driving force behind the success of the band, is widely regarded as one of the ultimate metal guitarists but his story is drenched in tragedy. On December 8th, 2004, Darrell took to the stage in Columbus, Ohio with his recently formed band Damageplan and, within half an hour of him striking the first chord on his guitar, Dimebag would be shot dead by a deranged fan.
This assassination turned the metal world on its head as they lost one of their brightest talents at the cruelly young age of 38. His death, coincidentally, was exactly 24-years to the day after John Lennon’s assassination and, yet again on December 8th, the music community found itself mourning another great artist had been killed by a person who professed to be a fan. Pantera had suffered a messy split in 2003 and they found themselves engaged in a public spat, one which would lead to Dimebag becoming hated by a certain section of their fanbase – a factor which would inadvertently lead to his death.
Following the split, singer Phil Anselmo told Metal Hammer that “Dimebag deserves to be beaten severely”. In the fallout, Anselmo later claimed that had been misquoted and wasn’t meant to be taken in a serious fashion. Dimebag’s brother and Pantera drummer Vinnie Paul then got hold of the audio files of the interview from the publication and said that Anselmo hadn’t been misquoted at all. Pantera fans were then divided, unsure whether or not to side with Team Anselmo or Team Vinnie Paul/Dimebag, with the latter pairing going away to form their new band Damageplan.
Dimebag and Vinnie Paul were enjoying a period of creativity away from the toxic environment of Pantera, even though Damageplan’s shows were on a much smaller scale—but that didn’t matter to the brothers. Being away from Anselmo was the tonic that the group needed and, in February 2004, the group released their debut record New Found Power which they would spend the rest of the year touring. They tragically only had two more shows to play following Columbus on the run for the record but Damageplan would never step foot on stage again after the death of Dimebag.
Damageplan took to the stage at around 9:30pm and the set started swimmingly but, tragically, that didn’t last long. Around 30 minutes into the set, psychotic 25-year-old fan Nathan Gale arrived on stage and shot Dimebag dead. It is reported that in the moments before he pulled the trigger on the former Pantera guitarist, he viciously yelled: “You killed Pantera, you ruined my life. What about Phil [Anselmo]? He needs money to buy heroin.”
Dimebag was shot five times by Gale’s 9mm Beretta 92FS and was instantly killed. The group’s head of security, Jeffery ‘Mayhem’ Thompson, then tried to stop Gale by putting his body on the line in order to let the rest of the band escape but, unfortunately, he lost his life in the process. A fan named Nathan Bray tried to give CPR to Thompson and Darrell but was killed by Gale. Then the band’s roadie, Erin Halk, a former U.S. Marine, tried to stop Gale while he was reloading and was murdered by the killer.
Columbus Police arrived as quickly as they could and officer James Niggemeyer took to the side stage area and spotted Gale with a hostage who had a gun to their head. The officer only needed one shot to kill Gale and stop him from killing even more music fans who were in attendance on that fateful night.
His late brother, Vinnie Paul, later told Metal Hammer about his memories of that fateful night: “The last thing that really matters to me is the last thing we said to each other before we went on stage. We were warming up on the side of the stage like we always did and we were both really excited – we only had two shows left and we were gonna be going home for Christmas and to begin work on the second record.
“Our code word to let it all hang out and have a good time was ‘Van Halen’, man! And that’s the last two words we ever said to each other. I said, ‘Van Halen’ and he said ‘Van Halen’ and we high-fived each other and went on the deck to do our thing… and a minute-and-a-half later I’ll never see him again.”
This incident remains one of the darkest nights in the history of music and Gale’s heinous antics not only took four lives, it single-handedly changed the culture of metal gigs forever. Bands would no longer feel comfortable with fans joining them on stage, fearing that the events of this spine-chilling December night were tragically replicated. Darrell will be remembered as a metal great but, unfortunately, the horrifying circumstances around his death overshadow his immense career and remains an unavoidable truth.