COLUMBUS, Ohio -- It looked like something out of a macabre heavy-metal video: The lights dimmed in the smoke-filled nightclub, the rock band Damageplan launched into its first thunderous riffs, and then a man in a hooded sweatshirt ran the length of the stage and opened fire, shooting the lead guitarist at least five times in the head.
In just minutes, the gunman had killed three others with his silver pistol before being shot to death by a police officer.
The rampage Wednesday night stunned the heavy metal world and left police searching for answers about what set the gunman off.
The slain guitarist, "Dimebag" Darrell Abbott, 38, was a driving force behind the rock band Pantera, and police are looking into reports from witnesses that the gunman was a fan irate that the hugely influential group broke up.
Some of the 500 people packed into the club to see Abbott's new band initially thought that the gunman was an excited fan or that the shootings were part of the show.
"I figured it was another fan wanting to jump off the stage and crowd surf," said Brian Kozicki, the club's lighting designer. "I think he knew he wasn't going to get out and he was going to take down as many people as he could."
Police identified the gunman as Nathan Gale, 25, who listened to Pantera music to psyche himself up before football games and would often hang out at a tattoo parlor and make a pest of himself by talking to customers about music, the manager of the tattoo shop said.
"We may never know a motive for this, unless he left a note," Sgt. Brent Mull said.
A tattoo artist at the studio, Bo Toler, said Gale was there before the show and asked about having the studio order tattoo equipment for him. Toler told him no, and Gale got angry and started yelling.
"Last night was actually the first time I noticed his temper," Toler said. "After the argument we had he kind of walked out with an attitude. He didn't even say goodbye."
Also killed in the shootings were Erin Halk, 29, a club employee who loaded band equipment; fan Nathan Bray, 23; and Jeff Thompson, 40, who was affiliated with the band.
Two others were hospitalized. The nature of their injuries was not disclosed.
The guitarist's brother, Vinnie Paul Abbott, the drummer for Damageplan, was rushed to safety offstage and tearfully tried to learn his brother's fate from officers who couldn't even tell him which hospital he was taken to.
With his frenetic, ear-splitting guitar riffs, Dimebag Abbott created an aggressive sound for Pantera and attracted a cult following in the early 1990s. The band was nominated for Grammys in 1995 and 2001. The Abbott brothers left Pantera last year and released Damageplan's debut album, "New Found Power," in February.
"I'm absolutely beside myself with grief. I can't for the life of me understand why someone would do this," said heavy metal legend Ozzy Osbourne, who often toured with Pantera.
Lines were deep Wednesday night at the Alrosa Villa club -- a popular venue for heavy metal for 30 years -- to buy T-shirts for Damageplan.
As the lights dimmed, club security was trying to catch up to a man in a Columbus Blue Jackets hockey jersey over his sweatshirt, who some witness said was seen jumping the 8-foot wooden fence to enter the club. Others said he must have come from an open door behind the stage. The club has no metal detectors and employs unarmed security guards.
The tall, heavyset man eventually climbed onstage, as many Alrosa headbangers do.
"At first we thought it was a hoax, and then when he fired again we knew it was real," said Jeremy Spencer, 16.
Kozicki, the lighting director, brought up the house lights and ducked under his control table, where he called 911 on his cell phone. Several calls followed, with one male caller saying: "He's on stage right now. He's got a gun. ... He just shot again." Fans surged toward the doors in fear.
Kozicki peeked from his table to see the gunman holding a man in a headlock. Police said the gunman appeared ready to shoot the hostage, who managed to duck just enough for Officer James D. Niggemeyer to take aim and kill Gale with his shotgun.
All day Thursday, fans left flowers and containers of beer by a boulder at the parking lot entrance, including a six-pack of Heineken with a marijuana bud tucked into the cardboard case.
Gale has a minor police record in Marysville, near Columbus, including driving with a suspended license last month, said Police Chief Floyd Golden. He also was an offensive lineman for a semi-pro football team in Ohio.
At the Bears Den Tattoo Studio in Marysville, Gale made people feel uncomfortable by staring at them and forcing them into a conversation, manager Lucas Bender said.
"He comes in here and likes to hang out when he's not wanted," Bender said. "The most pointless conversations."
The shootings came on the 24th anniversary of perhaps the most well-known assassination of a rock star -- that of former Beatle John Lennon outside his New York City apartment in 1980.
Associated Press writers John Seewer in Toledo, Andy Resnik in Marysville, Anita Chang in Columbus, Chelsea Carter in New York and Lisa Falkenberg in Dallas contributed to this report.
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