By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
A check of state and Tarrant County records shows that Frank has had no trouble with the law since 1989, and he hates being reminded of his criminal past. Slumping forward with hands sunk in his jean pockets, Frank says, "When reporters ask me about it, I am so ashamed. At first I just hung my head down low. It hurt my feelings. But I got over it."
Frank says he understands why the press has dissected his background, but still refuses to open his group's financial records for review. Dead Serious is set up as a for-profit organization, which means its books are private.
If the current claimed membership figure of 5,100 is correct, Dead Serious has taken in an impressive $51,000. The Franks insist the money--or at least virtually all of it--is in a NationsBank account in Fort Worth. (Frank says he withdraws money only for newsletter costs, postage, and to pay long-distance phone bills, but won't say how much he's spent.) "I swear the money is safe. I'd rather die than for someone to prove me a liar," he says.
Vickie, a voluminous 33-year-old woman in a black Dead Serious T-shirt and shorts, rallies to her husband's defense. "I've known him since I was 12," she says. They grew up in Fort Worth's Diamond Hill neighborhood, which now teems with Hispanic gangs. "We broke up for a while, and he went away to prison. When he came back out, he had a choice--either a life of crime or settle down with me and have a home."
So they have a home--a small, ground-floor apartment near the border of Fort Worth and White Settlement. The Franks married 10 years ago.
By day, Frank helps build vans for the handicapped at a Fort Worth business. Vickie works in the accounting department of Fort Worth's Ridglea Country Club. She keeps th e files for Dead Serious--and manages her husband's press schedule as well. An entire wall in the office is plastered with white sheets of paper listing his interviews for the last nine months. A half-hour with Howard Stern. A session with Swedish public broadcasting. Interviews with The New York Times, Miami Herald, and Chicago Tribune.
On the busiest days in February, Vickie blocked out two-hour chunks on the schedule for Frank, with black marker scrawled "SLEEP." "Oh my God, I had to take seven weeks off work just to keep up with it," Frank says. But he isn't griping about the result of all this free publicity--the memberships and the supportive telephone messages. In fact, he keeps a cassette tape of his favorite phone messages. Tops on the list: A male caller from Sterling, Virginia tells Frank he is "incredibly cool. And I hope they stay off your ass."
Dead Serious members come from 46 states, Canada, the Virgin Islands, and Australia. A 29-year-old plumbing contractor from northern California notes on his application that should he get the $5,000, he'll donate it to the Humboldt County sheriff's crime prevention program. A county coroner from Georgia has joined. Retired long-haul truck driver Walter Scott, of Phoenix, is now president of the Arizona Dead Serious chapter.
All of this--the jump in membership, the fan mail--is the product of a pack of reporters starved for a real-life Rambo story. Don't think Frank isn't grateful. But all the exposure has turned him into something of a media critic.
"Do you know those people from Der Spiegel have never even heard of 'Hogan's Heroes?'" he notes.
And don't even bring up the television talk shows. "They stacked the audience against me," he complains. "They bait the audience and hold up applause signs and tell them when to cheer and boo.
"I was so embarrassed because I thought they cared about the concept. I asked them, 'Are you serious about fighting crime? Because I'm very busy and I don't want you to waste my time.' They lied."
Then there was The Independent, widely considered one of London's most credible newspapers. "Oh, that English guy," Frank moans. "He made things up. He said we'd been married for four years when we told him 10. I called him up and said, 'Man, why did you do that?' And his only reaction was, 'What do you want? You got a column and a half in the bloody Independent!'"
Frank suddenly suggests that everyone move from the office to the living room, where he pops a tape of his TV appearances into the VCR. He narrates the lead into each clip, like a Jay Leno guest who's pumping his latest movie. "A lot of the media has just been waiting around with their tongues hanging out, waiting for something stupid to happen," he says, shaking his head. "But I don't believe it'll happen--that someone will just go out and kill someone unjustifiably."
The "Current Affair" piece wraps with a close-up of Frank, who has been walking down the street of one of Fort Worth's seedier neighborhoods and ranting about rising crime rates. The reporter's baritone voice admonishes, "Don't mess with Darrell Frank."
To which Frank wrinkles his nose and frowns. "I wish they wouldn't say stuff like that," he says. "It's like I'm a bad guy or something.