DFW Music News

Taken For A Ride: A Charity Honoring Dimebag Darrell Abbott Begins to Rebuild

A bent stop sign with the pole still attached, cowboy hats, a sneaker, license plates, a rubber monkey, an empty Crown Royal bag, a longhorn skull with an image of KISS guitarist Ace Frehley tattooed on its forehead — reminders of a rock 'n’ roll life surround Rita Haney in the house she once shared with “Dimebag” Darrell Abbott.

Memories of the Pantera guitarist are etched in her skin. “Drink it or wear it,” one of Abbott’s favorite phrases, is inked on her left forearm along with black lightning bolts, the symbol for the black tooth grin. That’s the name, taken from the lyrics of a Megadeth song, of a cocktail Abbott invented — a double shot of Seagram 7, a double shot of Crown Royal and a splash of Coke. It captures a special memory for Haney, one of Abbott handing her a shot glass from stage.

“If I need to spend time with him, this home is my sanctuary,” Haney says.

The house still resonates with Abbott’s personality. Haney lives in Los Angeles now, but her older sister Brenda acts as caretaker, and she often gets the sense someone is watching her inside. “I’ll turn around and look, but there’s nothing,” she says. “I guess it’s just the spirit of him being in this house. I don’t know. I’m not real religious by any means, I promise you. But I just feel like he watches out for everybody. Still.”

Nearly 12 years after Nathan Gale shot Abbott and three other men to death in an Ohio nightclub, fans still mourn the guitar hero. Emotions surrounding his death run deep, though lately they’ve been running hot, too, in a bitter fight over money raised by Ride for Dime, the charity created in Abbott’s name after his murder.

Haney is back in the house in Dalworthington Gardens on a May afternoon to talk about her taking control of Ride for Dime and her plans to revamp it after the departure of its former president, Robert Eichelberger, who critics say mismanaged the charity so badly several Ride for Dime chapters across the country folded.

What started as a group motorcycle ride in Dallas and grew into a nationwide nonprofit has splintered under accusations that the primary person benefiting from the organization’s charity work is Eichelberger. Some former supporters call the charity “Ride for Rob” and say he abandoned its mission to honor the lives of Abbott, Jeff Thompson, Nathan Bray and Erin Halk, all shot down at the Alrosa Villa nightclub in Columbus in December 2004. A police officer shot and killed Gale, a mentally ill 25-year-old obsessed with Pantera who blamed Abbott for the band’s breakup.

Eichelberger resigned as president of the organization on May 9, posting on Facebook that he wanted “to make way for all the great things to come and to better support the memory of Dimebag Darrell Abbott.” His resignation came as a former friend of nearly a decade wrote on Facebook that he wouldn’t trust Eichelberger with the charity’s money. “I personally know that Rob Eichelberger has used donation gifts and money to purchase drugs (Meth, cocaine, weed),” he wrote on May 4.

Former volunteers and chapter organizers followed up with their own complaints. Group motorcycle rides, benefit concerts and charity auctions at the organization’s chapters are intended to raise money for Little Kids Rock, a nonprofit that supports music education in schools, but Little Kids Rock says it hasn’t received donations from Ride for Dime for five years. Eichelberger disputes that, but critics say his record keeping has been so poor they have no way to account for money flowing in and out of Ride for Dime.

After the Observer reported about Eichelberger’s departure in May, former volunteers, Ride for Dime chapter presidents and various bands reached out to give their accounts of Eichelberger’s playing what Haney calls “the Dime card.” Others called it “succumbing to the rock star lifestyle,” the consequence of Eichelberger having sole control over the charity’s money since he took over in 2008.
Eichelberger’s actions created a rift in DFW’s metal community, many of whom knew Abbott long before he started slinging a guitar with Pantera in 1982, and led Haney to take over as chair of the group’s board. She plans to hold this year’s Ride for Dime on what would have been Abbott’s 50th birthday on August 20 in hopes of unifying the “Pantera family.”

“With the new RFD coming in house, I hope to gain the trust of his fans and supporters who may have been swayed by all the past allegations,” she says. “This gathering is about having a great time with our musical community and trying to give some back in the name of someone we all admire.”
Those outside the metal scene might think the fights over Abbott’s legacy are overwrought, but that underestimates just how important he was and is to metal’s fans. Abbott wasn’t just a master of the electric guitar. He had a rock star’s electric personality combined with the down-to-earth friendliness of a good ol’ Texas boy.

Haney met Abbott long before he dyed his “billy-goat” beard red, inked-up his body or grew his kinky brown hair long. They grew up in the same neighborhood in Dalworthington Gardens, a suburb of Arlington, and were children when they first met in ’70s. It wasn’t love at first sight — she pushed him off his bicycle — but things were friendlier when they bumped into each other a few years later. That was at Heavy Meadows, an event held in a cow pasture south of Fort Worth where bands like Warlock, Iron Cross and Eruption would jam. Abbott, who was quickly mastering the guitar, had formed Pantera with his brother Vinnie Paul Abbott, Donnie Hart, Terry Glaze and Tommy Bradford, and they played a couple of shows at Heavy Meadows, Big Wheel Skateland and wherever else they could set up and play.

“All of sudden Darrell could play ‘Eruption’ by Van Halen,” Glaze recalled in Official Truth 101 Proof, former bassist Rex Brown’s 2013 autobiography. “It was just flowing out of him, completely naturally, and around that time they were putting on some guitar shows in Dallas. So this little, skinny kid with a giant Afro goes to the first one, demolishes everybody and wins a Dean guitar. We were all there and he outdueled everyone, and then at the next competition, the winner won a Charvel strat and maybe a Randall half stack, and Darrell won that one, too. It wasn’t even close. After that he was not allowed to be in any more competitions, so he became a judge.”

Abbott’s talent would eventually win him introductions to his guitar heroes, among them Eddie Van Halen, whose picture with Abbott is kept in a broken guitar headstock on the bar in his and Haney’s former home. Haney and Abbott later hooked up after a Malice show in Dallas in ’85 and began dating. They bought the house in Dalworthington Gardens after Pantera — with Brown and vocalist Philip Anselmo replacing Hurt and Glaze — had established themselves on the metal charts with Cowboys from Hell (1990), Vulgar Display of Power (1992) and Far Beyond Driven (1994), which entered the metal charts at No. 1.

“The house” quickly became known throughout North Texas. Tiffany Moore, who’s been part of the “Pantera family” since she was 11, remembers young fans of Abbott’s dropping by to get an autograph only to find themselves partying with the guitarist for hours. “That’s how open he was, ‘Come on in,’ he’d say,” she says.

Abbott and Haney seemed to be enjoying a rock paradise, but Pantera entered its death throes when Anselmo overdosed on heroin and nearly died at a Dallas show in ’96, the same year Abbott and Haney purchased their home. The band would release two more albums — The Great Southern Trendkill and Reinventing the Steel — before tensions among band mates led to a meltdown. Anselmo quit answering the band’s calls, began touring with side project Superjoint Ritual in 2003 and battled drug addiction. Brown, who battled a drinking problem, broke the news to Abbott in a late-night drunken call. “Phil and I are just tired of you guys being such fucking assholes,” he wrote in his autobiography. “You think you’re being cool to people but you’re not.”

"He had true rock star charisma but never acted high and mighty and was always quick with a laugh and a joke.”

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Abbott started attending other local shows, which is how he met Dan McNew, who would later organize the Ride for Dime charity. McNew was co-managing the band ASKA, and Abbott would often join them onstage. “Dime was getting antsy because he wasn’t playing,” McNew says. George Call, lead vocalist/guitarist for ASKA, recalls Abbott attending most of their shows between 2002 and 2004. “He was always out having a good time, always had a guitar in hand and a drink for everybody,” Call says. “It was magical to behold him walking in the room, [as if] the molecules in the air changed by the way the room electrified. He had true rock star charisma but never acted high and mighty and was always quick with a laugh and a joke.”

Abbott and his brother were also auditioning singers for their new band Damageplan. They tapped former Diesel Machine and Halford guitarist Pat Lachman to sing and later picked up Bob Kakaha, aka “Bobzilla,” to play bass. They released their first and only album, New Found Power, in early 2004, then hit the road to support it.

The road led them to Columbus.

Shortly after 10:15 p.m. on December 8, the 38-year-old Abbott was moments into his set when a silent giant in a dark-colored hockey jersey and black baseball cap emerged from behind a wall of amplifiers. Gale crossed the stage, passing behind Lachman and Zilla, and drew a pistol. He grabbed Abbott in a headlock and fired three shots into the back of his head and another that struck his hand. Abbott fell forward, slumping over his lightning-bolt shaped guitar as feedback screeched and fans screamed.

Gale then killed 23-year-old Nathan Bray, who was attending the concert, club employee Erin Halk, 29, and Jeff “Mayhem” Thompson, 40, the band’s security guard. He took drum technician John “Kat” Brooks hostage, holding him in a headlock behind a speaker as he reloaded his gun and fired into the crowd. Columbus police officer James Niggemeyer came up behind Gale and killed him with a shot to the head from a 12-gauge shotgun.

Vinnie Paul Abbott saw his younger brother’s murder. Wrapped in a blanket afterward, he took refuge in the club’s front room, clutching his brother’s guitar. He called Haney. It was four days after their anniversary.

Haney didn’t meet McNew until 2007, when he invited her to attend the third annual Ride for Dime. He’d been moved to hold the first ride when he attended a tribute concert in Chicago a few months after Abbott’s death. “I was looking down at the crowd as they chanted for Dimebag,” he says. “All the love they were showing made me think that something needed to happen back at home. If he’s getting love here, I can just imagine what it would be like from people in Dallas and Fort Worth.”

McNew discussed his idea to host a Ride for Dime event with other members of the “DamageClan,” a core group of 25 fans who knew the band personally. They decided to host a motorcycle run on August 20, 2005, and met at the Clubhouse, an all-nude Dallas bar co-founded by the Abbott brothers. Harley riders gathered in the parking lot and signed a Confederate flag decorated with a skull and crossbones and the words “R.I.P. Dimebag.” McNew told the crowd he didn’t request a police escort because he thought only a few people were going to show up.

Thirty-five bikers roared out of the parking lot, heading toward Abbott’s grave at the Moore Memorial Gardens Cemetery in Arlington where they threw flowers on the ground outside of the cemetery gates as they passed. First, they stopped at Campo Verde, Abbott’s favorite restaurant. There, one of the bikers picked up a bullhorn and announced he’d spoken with Vinnie Paul on the phone. “He apologizes that he can’t be here,” he said. “But every year on Dime’s birthday, Dime liked to go to Vegas, so that’s where he is because he knows goddamn good and well that’s where Dime is.”

McNew says other people heard about that first ride and wanted to do it again the next year. This time, he added a concert at Cowboys Dancehall in Arlington after the Sunday ride. Several local bands who knew Abbott volunteered to play for free. “It was more in honor of our friend, not just a tribute to Dimebag as the world knows him but to Darrell,” says Alapeno Ward, a singer for Black Summer Rain who met Abbott in ’89.

Along with the homegrown acts, metal bands from as far away as Ohio and Philadelphia drove hundreds of miles on their own dime to play. One of those out-of-state band members, “Philly” Joe Jones from Jekyll and Hyde, asked McNew if he could start hosting a Ride for Dime in Philadelphia.

"Heavy metal doesn’t get a lot of breaks, and I saw it as an opportunity for the scene.”

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“When we were done, I felt that it wasn’t enough,” Jones says. “I wanted to be more involved. I just wanted to be part of something that meant something to me. Heavy metal doesn’t get a lot of breaks, and I saw it as an opportunity for the scene.”

McNew decided to sell Ride for Dime T-shirts, he says, to raise money for Little Kids Rock because Abbott was all about helping young musicians. He ordered too many of them, though, and lost $6,000, which he paid himself. The next year, he sold enough T-shirts and tickets to give $10,000 to Little Kids Rock.

Jones’ Ride for Dime in Philadelphia was also a success, so McNew decided to incorporate Ride for Dime as a nonprofit organization in early 2008. He brought on board Brian White, an accountant; Eichelberger, a local music fan who attended the first ride; and David Manely, a member of the Pantera family who simply helped McNew whenever he needed it. McNew became president of the new charity and Eichelberger became the vice president.

Haney enjoyed what Abbott’s North Texas fans had put together and decided to return the next year for the ride and become more involved. It would be a memorable year that would lay the foundation for the Ride’s problems when McNew was ousted from the organization he founded. Eichelberger, McNew says, told him that Haney wanted him to step down so he could take over as national president.

Haney denies that. “I was told Dan stepped down for health reasons,” she says.

“It was an odd feeling when you create something, then lose control from it,” McNew says. “It’s like getting divorced and the kid goes to live with the mother. It took a few years, but I got used to the situation.”
Eichelberger moved the Ride for Dime concert from Cowboys in Arlington to the Loft, an upstairs club at the Palladium in Dallas. Unlike Cowboys, the Loft wasn’t air conditioned. It was hot and small. The event was packed, but everyone was miserable. “It was still somewhat low-key,” McNew says, but in 2009, it blew up and all the rock stars showed up. Ace Frehley from KISS, some of the guys from Machine Head and Soil, Aaron Lewis from Staind, Corey Taylor from Slipknot and Dime’s brother Vinnie Paul. They moved the event downstairs from the Loft to the Palladium itself.

As at other Ride for Dime events, T-shirts, guitars donated by Dean Guitars, and Dimebag memorabilia from Abbott’s friends were auctioned to raise money for Little Kids Rock.

That same year, the Ride’s Philadelphia chapter also held an event, and another chapter formed in Wisconsin to hold their own event, all to help raise money for Little Kids Rock.

Eichelberger didn’t file the nonprofit’s first tax form until November 2009, more than year after he assumed the presidency and the nonprofit came to life. On it, he claims that as chapter presidents McNew and Jones raised a total of $44,255 and spent $19,873 to cover expenses, but he showed no donations to Little Kids Rock.

McNew says the Ride had only grossed around $15,000 when he was in charge, not more than $44,000, and he donated $10,000 of it and left $5,000 in the account for the fourth installment of the Ride. “At this point I had already invested $11,000 out of my pocket, and passed on paying myself back in 2007,” he says. “Rob paid me back around $6,400 of it in 2008. I left the balance of $4,600 owed to me in RFD and I chalked it up as my investment in the ride.”

Eichelberger also listed McNew and Brian White as officers on the initial tax form, but White quit helping the organization not long after McNew’s exit shortly before the fourth Ride for Dime in August 2008.

Eichelberger continued to list McNew as an officer on both 2009 and 2010 tax forms but substituted White with Jones, the Philadelphia chapter president, who didn’t much appreciate Eichelberger designating him secretary of the charity without asking his permission first. The changes to the board happened without a vote by its members, who sources say never held regular meetings or kept minutes or voted on anything until Haney got involved early this year.

The 2009 and 2010 tax forms show the ride grossed $14,162 and $12,000 respectively, far less than what Eichelberger said two chapters had raised in 2008, although the 2009 Ride for Dime offered the supergroup of Frehley, Lewis, Taylor and Vinnie Paul. He claims the charity was in the red both years, despite selling merchandise and auctioning memorabilia and guitars. The 2009 tax form lists a $2,000 donation to Little Kids Rock and $500 to the Stevie Ray Vaughan memorial fund. No donations are shown on the 2010 form.

Little Kids Rock told the Observer in May that the organization has not received any donation since the $2,000 in 2009. Eichelberger did send $5,000 to Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America in 2013 and 2014, and $750 to RockMS in 2014 and 2015.

Ride for Dime still lists Little Kids Rock as one of several charities it supports on its website, but Haney says it’s because of past donations.

As the ride bled money, Eichelberger continued adding chapters each year: Chicago, Nashville and Minnesota in 2011, Florida in 2012 and London in 2013. He also added more days to the North Texas event, holding a concert with a full lineup in Fort Worth and in Dallas. Tickets for each day ranged between $20 and $25.

Other chapters were holding their own events, and Eichelberger would travel to each and pick up the money, yet he claimed the nonprofit was grossing less than $50,000 between 2011 and 2015, despite maintaining six chapters in the U.S. for several years before the bottom fell out and chapters began exiting.

“He took the cash box home,” Jones told the Observer in May. “Rob was the only one who actually sat there and counted the money. No accountability. He used his limitless Ride for Dime card to buy booze for everybody around until he couldn’t stand up anymore. I was the last chapter president to give up on [Ride for Dime]. My chapter always raised money.”

Jones wrote in his resignation letter: “You have told me year after year that we lose money. You have told me that RFD owes you thousands of dollars. Yet the public is under the impression that we do well and donate money to our charities each year. Once again, I am unsure what is truly going on with our finances. To me this is not being honest with people about where their money is going. And if we are losing money most years, we are doing something wrong. We should not be portraying that we are donating when in reality we are not.”
Haney stood onstage at the Gas Monkey Bar & Grill last summer, stressing the importance of why Ride for Dime had formed. Only 200 to 300 people had shown up to celebrate Abbott and the rest of Gale’s victims, and nearly half of them left after two popular local bands — Generator and Volume Dealer — finished their sets. She’d been told the people were heading over to another event honoring the local guitar legend, hosted by the “Pull Getters,” a group of Abbott’s close friends and fans. They’d formed in 2007 to support the local music scene and raise money for people in need.

The Pull Getters held their event at Rob’s Billiards. Many of Ride for Dime’s former volunteers were there, among them Nathan Bray's mother and McNew, who’d been attending Ride for Dime every year. “That should tell you something right there,” says Shannon “Shantera” Bolin, a former volunteer of Ride for Dime.

Haney had been hearing the “trash-talking” about Eichelberger, and she knew his personal life was a mess, she says, because he’d asked her to step in and take over as chairman of the board that sources claim he failed to form. But she’d given him the benefit of the doubt because she says she saw no proof that he’d done anything wrong. She heard accusations he’d been keeping donated items like guitars and other memorabilia, but she says that doesn’t necessarily mean anything underhanded was going on. She says she had donated items to charity auctions herself only to withdraw them when the bids were too low, then offer them for another auction later.
But sources told the Observer they saw some donated items decorating his house and failed BBQ business.

Haney says she heard the claims about drug use, too, but doesn’t think much of them. This is a rock ’n’ roll charity, after all.

“Now I’m not saying he didn’t party, and he didn’t have a good time,” Haney says. “And yeah, he should have kept his personal stuff out, and probably shouldn’t have treated people shitty because then they wouldn’t have turned on him.

“But I also know that a majority of them, the things that they’re saying are because they were there participating,” she adds. “Do you know what I mean? It’s pretty hypocritical.”

His critics say they don’t object to the partying. They just thought in Eichelberger’s case he should have held off until after the events he was supposed to be overseeing were over. That’s part of the reason only three chapters still exist: Texas, Chicago and Nashville.

Eichelberger, though, had gone from a Joe Blow insurance adjuster to a somebody among the rock ’n’ roll community. Unlike McNew, who wanted to host a simple event for Abbott’s close friends and his fans, Eichelberger brought in the rock stars. His was the voice of Ride for Dime, and he appeared in press coverage as if he were a rock star himself. He took cruises, they say, and purchased expensive toys like a Hummer, a Harley, a Camaro and an in-ground swimming pool.

Eichelberger wouldn’t talk to the Observer for this story, but after news of his resignation broke in May, he denied wrongdoing. He says he received a $100,000 insurance check from his father and used it to make the purchases. His ex wife, he says, was also earning a good living when they were married, although he did have to cash in her 401k to help fund his EZ Dude BBQ business that he opened in 2014 and closed six months later.

Haney sits among her Pantera family at Campo Verde Mexican & American Cuisine restaurant not far from the house she once shared with Abbott. Her sisters and Abbott’s best friend, Bobby Tongs, once Pantera’s video and band assistant, join her.

Campo Verde looks a lot like Abbott’s house. Christmas lights dangle from the ceiling, a gold record of Pantera’s Reinventing the Steel album hangs on the wall, and a painted-glass statue of Abbott is on display. Restaurant owner James “Smiley” Williams was a friend of Abbott’s, Haney says. Whenever Abbott would wake up early in the morning, he’d call Smiley, who would invite him to the restaurant and cook for him.

“I know that having the piece of the Dime card can sometimes go to your head."

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“I’d wake up going, ‘Where is he?’” she says. “That’s the next place I would check once I called my sister who lived down the street.”

Haney wants to leave Eichelberger’s tenure behind and bring fans and friends back into the Ride for Dime fold. She asked McNew to serve on the Ride for Dime board, and he agreed. She plans to keep everything transparent and focused on honoring Dimebag Darrell and the rest of Gale’s victims’ lives.

She’s keeping this year’s Ride for Dime event to one day because she believes the ride had gotten too big. She wants to add an awards’ element to the show for the volunteers who dedicate their time. She’s gotten Monster Energy to sponsor this year’s version, and she plans to welcome some newcomers to the stage as well as some Texas favorites. The roster includes Whiskey Dick, Honky, Kyng, Prong, Corrosion of Conformity and a set from surprise guests.

“Darrell had many great and amazing musical friends, and several of them have graciously come together to help us celebrate his big Five ‘O’ this year,” she says.

As soon as word got out that Haney had taken over Ride for Dime, former chapter presidents and volunteers began reaching out, wanting to return. Jones announced on Facebook over the weekend that the Philadelphia chapter was returning to Ride for Dime now that Eichelberger was gone and Haney had taken over.

“Now I’m a firm believer in second chances,” Haney says. “Darrell was good at that.” She says she also feels that grace should be extended to Eichelberger, who she says didn’t do everything people are claiming.

“Look, I get that everybody fucks up,” she adds. “I know that having the piece of the Dime card can sometimes go to your head. And you don’t realize you’re abusing it, as far as feeling like you’ve got that power over people. But you just can’t do that. But everybody learns that lesson the hard way. And he’s so far learned it the hardest, I would say.”
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Christian McPhate is an award-winning journalist who specializes in investigative reporting. He covers crime, the environment, business, government and social justice. His work has appeared in several publications, including the Dallas Morning News, the Fort Worth Star Telegram, the Miami Herald, San Antonio Express News and The Washington Times.

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