At first, Damageplan's heavy-metal fans thought it was part of the show. A man in a hooded sweat shirt climbed onto the stage Wednesday night at the Alrosa Villa nightclub and...

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COLUMBUS, Ohio — At first, Damageplan’s heavy-metal fans thought it was part of the show.

A man in a hooded sweat shirt climbed onto the stage Wednesday night at the Alrosa Villa nightclub and fired at least five bullets into the head of shaggy-haired guitarist Darrell Abbott, better known as “Dimebag Darrell,” one of the fastest metal guitarists around, famous for his aggressive licks and hard-partying life.

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The gunman then fired into the crowd, killing three more people, and had someone else in a hammerlock before a police officer shot him to death. Police say they do not know what drove the gunman.

Abbott, 38, developed a cult following with his powerful riffs, his dynamic personality and legendary loyalty to his fans, who flocked to Abbott and his partners in the thrash-metal band Pantera, nominated for two Grammy awards. Police and fans now are trying to figure out what made the gunman, identified as Nathan Gale, 25, cut him down.

“The investigation is still relatively new,” police spokeswoman Sherry Mercurio said. “There’s a lot of misinformation floating around, especially on fan Web sites. We haven’t ascertained a motive or a relationship to the band.”

An early question from investigators: Is it significant that the gunman struck 24 years to the day after Mark David Chapman, a jilted fan, gunned down Beatles icon John Lennon outside his Manhattan apartment building?

Darrell Abbott: known as “Dimebag Darrell”

One fan said yesterday that Gale, an offensive lineman on a semipro football team, seemed to be an angry Pantera fan who blamed Abbott for the earlier band’s demise. Damageplan charted new territory while bringing along old material written by Abbott and his brother Vinnie Paul Abbott, but some Pantera partisans never got over the split.

“My friend heard him yelling, ‘Darrell, Darrell! You’re the reason Pantera broke up. You ruined my life,’ ” said Brian Windzigl, 22, a professional skateboarder. “I saw him pull out a gun and shoot him in the face. It was point blank.”

Windzigl figured the assassin for a “crazed Pantera fan.”

All day yesterday, fans left flowers and containers of beer beside a boulder at the parking-lot entrance to Alrosa Villa, including a six-pack of Heineken with a marijuana bud tucked inside.

About 200 people gathered for a vigil in the lot last night. At one point, a naked young man stood in the middle of the street, arms raised, cursing Gale. He was tackled and arrested by police.

The story pieced together from witnesses, passersby and police suggests that Damageplan had just begun its first set Wednesday night when Gale went to the stage, followed closely by a bouncer and another club employee.

Gale went to Abbott, started yelling and fired quickly. Abbott folded toward Gale, and a bouncer tried to pull the assailant off him as Gale continued shooting. Gale shot the bouncer and apparently fired into the crowd.

When police received the call at 10:18 p.m., Officer James Niggemeyer was patrolling the industrial, middle-class neighborhood where the Alrosa was a fixture. He raced to the club’s back door. When he reached the stage, he saw Gale holding someone in a choke hold. Niggemeyer, 31, shot Gale dead.

When the shooting started, as many as 500 fans streamed toward the exits, but police soon stopped them and took statements from 250 witnesses on buses brought in for the purpose.

Also killed in the shootings were Erin Halk, 29, a club employee who loaded band equipment; fan Nathan Bray, 23; and Jeff Thompson, 40, a bodyguard for the band.

Two others were hospitalized. The nature of their injuries was not disclosed.

Dimebag Darrell was born Darrell Lance Abbott in Dallas, the son of a country-western songwriter named Jerry Abbott. Darrell Abbott quickly moved toward hard rock and then heavy-metal music, entering local guitar competitions, shredding the night with lightning riffs. By the early 1980s, he formed Pantera with his brother, who changed his name to Vinnie Paul, and bassist Rex Smith.

The group was first influenced by the theatrical look of Motley Crue and the sound of Def Leppard and Judas Priest, but it soon gained prominence as one of the world’s most intense metal bands. With Terry Glaze, the band’s first frontman, they churned out three albums, starting with “Metal Magic” in 1983, before Glaze bowed out.

With Phil Anselmo, the band shifted from a pop-metal image to a more heavy-metal one, more like Metallica and Black Sabbath. The album considered definitive Pantera was “Vulgar Display of Power.” In 1994, “Far Beyond Driven” rose to No. 1 on the Billboard charts.

Pantera was nominated for Grammys for the best metal performance in 1995 for “I’m Broken” and, six years later, for “Revolution Is My Name,” before the band split. The two Dallas brothers, Darrell and Vinnie, formed Damageplan early last year, working on new tracks in Darrell’s home studio in Dallas. Their first album, “New Found Power,” came out in February.

Washington Post reporter Jose Antonio Vargas and researcher Karl Evanzz contributed to this report; details on the shootings and vigil by fans were reported by The Associated Press.