Police officer, club owner, victim's brother recall Ohio nightclub shooting a decade later

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COLUMBUS, Ohio — One lost a brother.

One lost his career.

One nearly lost his business.

Ten years after their lives were changed forever by a deadly shooting rampage at Alrosa Villa, the three men have become friends through the trauma they experienced.

"We went through hell together," Andy Halk said. "You develop a bond."

Halk's brother, Erin, was one of four people who died on Dec. 8, 2004, when a deranged gunman stormed the stage of the North Side nightclub, shooting fabled guitar player "Dimebag" Darrell Abbott and anyone who tried to intervene.

James Niggemeyer was the Columbus police officer who ended the carnage by killing the gunman with a shotgun blast. Niggemeyer, hailed as a hero who saved countless lives, is no longer a police officer, largely because of the emotional toll of that night.

Rick Cautela, the club's owner, was worried that Alrosa Villa would never reopen and spent what he calls "a fortune" defending himself against a lawsuit filed by Abbott's family. He still puts on concerts at the club, but not as often as he did before the tragedy.

The three men, who didn't know one another before that night, refer to themselves not just as friends but as family. Halk and Niggemeyer are in the same fantasy football league and played together in an adult baseball league. Both occasionally attend concerts at Alrosa Villa to support and reconnect with Cautela.

The friendships are among the reasons that Halk focuses on the positive when he speaks about the events that occurred 10 years ago today at the nightclub on Sinclair Road.

"Tragic things happened there, but even better things took place as a result," he said.

The anniversary should be remembered, all three men said, for the heroism of those who risked or gave their lives in an effort to stop gunman Nathan Gale, a 25-year-old man from Marysville in Union County who had a history of mental illness.

Erin Halk, 29, was working security for the club and guarding the back door when Gale strode onto the stage with a 9?mm handgun and began shooting during the opening song by featured act Damageplan. About 400 heavy-metal fans were in the audience.

Abbott, Gale's first target, was shot in the head three times. Witnesses said Erin Halk charged Gale as he reloaded. Gale shot him six times.

The others who died were Nathan Bray, a 23-year-old audience member from Grove City who was shot in the chest after jumping onto the stage, and Jeff "Mayhem" Thompson, a 40-year-old Damageplan security worker from Texas who was shot three times when he rushed to protect Abbott.

Three others were wounded by gunfire, including John Brooks, a 30-year-old stage technician for the band who was shot three times and taken hostage.

Gale had Brooks in a headlock and was holding the gun to his head when Niggemeyer entered through the club's back door. The officer fired a single shot from about 20 feet away, striking Gale in the face. Investigators discovered later that Gale had 35 bullets left.

The tragedy could have been much worse if Niggemeyer hadn't been in his cruiser on Sinclair Road when the 911 calls came in, Cautela said. "Do you know how quick he came in here? Do you know how many more lives could have been taken that night? It was unbelievable."

Praise and awards poured in for Niggemeyer, who was pulled onstage by Cautela a month later when the club reopened.

"I said, 'I've got to get this guy onstage. People need to see him,'??" Cautela recalled. And the crowd "erupted," he said.

But all the good will didn't save Niggemeyer from suffering the effects of being at the center of the death and chaos. He remained on patrol for three years, but the city eventually decided, with the advice of doctors, that he shouldn't be a first responder. He was transferred to the robbery section as a detective.

"I was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and severe anxiety disorder," Niggemeyer said.

To him, it wasn't enough to know that the shooting was clearly justified and probably saved lives.

"I found out real quickly that you don't have any control over your brain," he said. "It's going to do what it's going to do.

"Cops are regular human beings. Things affect us the same way they affect everyday citizens. We relive it and have to deal with the aftermath."

Since 2011, Niggemeyer has had a nonpolice job with the city.

The shooting "changed my career path — not for the better, certainly," he said. "I'm happy to have been able to end the situation with no further tragedies after I arrived, but it certainly hasn't made my life any better."

Ten years later, at age 41, "I'm still in counseling."

Andy Halk was a student at Franciscan University of Steubenville in eastern Ohio when he heard the news of his brother's death. Afterward, he didn't seek counseling but turned instead to family members from whom he had begun distancing himself.

"Family, friends, life in Columbus wasn't important to me then," he said. "I went away to school, and I had no intention of going back. Next thing I know, I'm back in Columbus helping my family. I've been here ever since."

Without the tragedy, Halk said, he wouldn't have reconnected with relatives and wouldn't have met his girlfriend of five years.

"Going back here was the furthest thing from my mind," said Halk, 40, a sales rep for a plant-nutrient company. "It altered my plans forever."

Cautela said the Halk family was part of his inspiration for reopening Alrosa Villa. Erin Halk " died trying to save lives," Cautela said. "I'm indebted to him and his family forever."

In the days after the shootings, amid national coverage of the rampage and during a time when he was plagued by hateful emails and voice mails, Cautela figured the club would be among the casualties. Some bands vowed to never play there, and some promoters stopped returning his calls.

His decision to reopen was driven by the many fans of Alrosa Villa — the oldest continuously operating rock hall in the nation — who urged him not to let the actions of one man put an end to the music.

He also recalled a pivotal conversation with Halk's mother, Margaret Carvour, at her son's calling hours. "She said, 'I will pray for you every night for the rest of my life,'??" Cautela said. "That right there got me to open it back up."

Now in its 40th year, the club hosts four or five concerts a month and has branched out from rock to include other genres, including reggae and country.

A recovering alcoholic, Cautela credits 30 years in the 12-step program with helping him deal with the night that will always be associated with his club. "My heart's still broken for the Alrosa and for the people that died," he said.

Cautela, 69, has had no contact with the surviving members of Damageplan, which disbanded after the shooting.

The band's drummer, Vinnie Paul Abbott, sued the club over his brother's death. The lawsuit was settled out of court in 2007 for what was described at the time as a nominal amount.

Fighting the lawsuit cost "in the hundreds of thousands of dollars," Cautela said. "We went from doing damn good to being broke — and came back."

Through a publicist, Vinnie Paul Abbott declined to comment for this story.

Niggemeyer said the events of Dec. 8, 2004, are most significant for what ordinary people did before he and other officers arrived.

"When tragedy strikes, there are people in this world who will step up and try to stop it," he said. "There are people who will stand up in the face of death and give their life to try to save others.

"They did that with no police there, with no guns. Those are the true heroes to me."


Information from: The Columbus Dispatch, http://www.dispatch.com

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