MARYSVILLE, Ohio – In a small town where people greet you by name at Maggie’s Restaurant and where the guy who runs the local pawn shop will do what he can with your wife’s wedding ring because he knows you need the cash for Christmas, Nathan Gale was a stranger in plain view.
His apartment at 111 1/2 E. Fifth St., half a block from the downtown shopping district’s single stoplight, put him right in the heart of this close-knit community of 16,000 residents. But even though he spent hours every day hanging out at the restaurant and tattoo parlor near his apartment, most of those who came into contact with Gale said they barely remember exchanging a word with the 25-year-old who opened fire at the Alrosa Villa in nearby Columbus Wednesday night, killing former Pantera guitarist “Dimebag” Darrell Abbott and three others before being gunned down by police.
The ex-Marine lived alone in the apartment above an abandoned storefront, a block away from M&M Pawn and Loan, a narrow, one-room shop whose walls are stacked high with audio and video equipment, DVDs, a dozen electric guitars and a row of shotguns. “I only remember him because he had those thick glasses and he used to come in here with some of the kids from the tattoo parlor,” said manager Darren Fry, 28.
Fry was quick to pull down a semiautomatic rifle from the wall and explain that Gale used to come in and handle the gun, which Gale said reminded him of a weapon he used while in the Marines. Though Gale never bought a gun from the shop, Fry said, the young man left a lasting impression. “He seemed a little disturbed,” Fry recalled as a nearby customer, whose fiancee once lived next door to Gale, shook his head silently in agreement. “He made me a bit uneasy. I wouldn’t want to sell him a gun anyway.”
Next door to M&M, at Lee Dog’s Locker Room Saloon & Grill, where Gale’s mother, Mary Clark, used to work, the impression was different. “He seemed like a really good guy,” said bartender Teresa Speakman. “He was just real quiet and he never bothered anybody.”
Two days after the shooting spree, it was hard to walk down Main Street without running into someone who either knew Gale or had run into him from time to time. Several shoppers said they remember his hulking, hooded figure walking quickly up and down Fifth Street several times a day, often dressed in the same outfit for days in a row.
Though Gale was never arrested for a violent offense, Marysville Police Chief Floyd K. Golden said his officers had contact with him a number of times. Gale was stopped twice for driving with a suspended license, most recently on November 17, when police spotted him acting suspiciously in his car. While stopped at a red light, Golden said, Gale failed to go when the light turned green, causing officers to pull him over and issue a citation.
“When you live in a small city or village, you run into the same people and problems pretty often,” Golden said. “But over the past seven to eight years there were no real serious problems with him. He was not the kind who drew a lot of attention.” Golden said Gale’s charges ranged from criminal trespass in 1997 for skateboarding at the local Kmart to a June 1999 charge for criminal trespass for repeatedly sleeping in a local park.
Most shocking for Golden, and for many in the town, was that one of their own would be involved in this kind of crime. “You have thefts, disorderly conduct… but this is a shock to the community.”
A woman who answered the door at the town’s Eagles lodge, which was in full swing mid-day Friday, confirmed that Mary Clark worked at the social club but would not say whether she was on duty. At Maggie’s, just two doors down from Gale’s apartment, the talk of the day Friday focused on the murders and the negative attention on the city. Still, several patrons went out of their way to say they planned to attend Gale’s funeral to support his grieving mother.
Waitress Cathy Bender said Gale used to stop by the restaurant three or four times a week to eat. “He was in here two weeks ago today, sitting at the bar, talking to my 3-year-old grandson and asking him about his Hot Wheels cars. He said, ‘Have you been a good little boy for Santa Claus?’ It made me think he was a kind person, but everyone who came into our tattoo parlor across the street knew him and thought he was a bit odd.”
Bender co-owns the Bear’s Den Tattoo Studio with her husband. The shop, across the street from Maggie’s, is where Gale spent hours each day in the months leading up to the rampage.
“I never saw him with anybody,” said Cathy Bender’s daughter, piercing artist Autumn Bender, 25. “He didn’t have direct conversations with anybody, and he would look down a lot to avoid looking at people.” Autumn Bender pierced Gale’s ear on November 26 and said he would come in several times a day, every day, and talk to himself or his imaginary dog. “His friends started to distance themselves from him over the years because of his talking to himself and how he changed,” she said.
Not long ago, Gale came in and spoke to Autumn Bender’s father, fellow ex-Marine “Bear” Bender, about wanting to get a tattoo of a Marine emblem; he quickly changed his mind, though. Autumn Bender said Gale gave the staff at the Bear’s Den “the creeps,” but as different as her assessment of the Alrosa Villa shooter was from her mother’s, her brother’s was even more striking.
The night of the concert, 23-year-old Lucas Bender and fellow tattoo artist Bo Toller were confronted by an unusually agitated Gale. “He came in around 6:30 the night of the show and he asked Bo if he could buy some tattoo equipment,” Lucas Bender said. “Bo explained that you had to be an artist and that we didn’t sell that equipment. He stared at Bo and just threw down the magazine he was looking at and said, ‘Bullsh-, man!’ I thought that was weird, because he was usually so quiet and eerie. He called Bo a liar and then he left.”
Lucas Bender described other odd behavior, such as when Gale would come in and stare at the security camera in the far corner of the store for minutes at a time. Mostly, though, the quiet young man made Bender uncomfortable, partly due to his size and difficulty to read.
“Just three or four days ago he came in here and was hanging out as usual and I told him this was not a hangout spot and he had to leave,” Lucas Bender said. “After he left, a bunch of my friends were hanging around and they started making fun of him, saying, ‘What’s wrong with that guy?’ But I didn’t make fun of him. I like to profile people behind their backs and most of the time I’m right,” he said, staring intently. “I said they should stay away from a guy like that. I said he’s like those Columbine kids, and you never know if he might mow somebody down some day.”
Thursday night, Lucas Bender ran into one of his friends who had been making fun of Gale a few days earlier. “He just stared at me and was kind of freaked.”