Deadly serious

Bounty-club founder rests on fame and fortune while waiting for someone to pull the trigger

Darrell Frank appears at the door of his apartment wearing a black baseball cap with a Dead Serious logo--a guitar and bleached cow's skull. His long, frizzy ponytail is pulled through the back. He ushers his guest past the living room's big-screen TV, past his wife's vast collection of stuffed and porcelain teddy bears, past the kitchen display of glass and ceramic beer mugs.

In the back bedroom, down a narrow hall, Frank, 36, pulls a stack of club memberships from a file cabinet and spreads them out on the floor. This used to be the bedroom for his two cats. It now serves as the office for Dead Serious, Inc., Frank's homespun bounty-hunting club--his solution to violent crime.

Sylvie Kauffmann, a reporter for the esteemed French newspaper Le Monde, is sitting, legs primly crossed and notebook open, on a chair before him. And Frank, thumbing through the stack of membership papers, is beaming. "I'm suddenly famous, and I can't believe it," he says. "I mean, I'll be at the Grandy's drive-through and the kid at the window will say 'You're that guy. On TV. You're the crime dude!'"

Le Monde's Kauffmann, sipping a glass of water, smiles politely and muses: "'Crime dude.' Hmmm. I don't think that will translate into French."

For Darrell Frank, this is the 14th of his 15 minutes of fame. A little more than a year ago, he started Dead Serious from this cramped west Fort Worth apartment. The club's rules are simple: pay 10 bucks to join. If you kill an intruder in your home--or someone intent on harming you, a family member, or your property--you get a $5,000 reward.

The Fort Worth Star-Telegram broke the story in February, sending Frank's novel scheme onto the newswires and triggering international coverage. Who could pass up this shoot-'em-up Texas tale?

Not the venerable German news magazine Der Spiegel, which ran a Dead Serious piece last summer. Not ABC's "Nightline," which called on leftie columnist Molly Ivins to pontificate about Frank's modern take on frontier justice.

Not Oprah or Phil. Not Howard Stern or Rush Limbaugh.
Suddenly, Frank was fielding phone calls and juggling interviews. He even thought briefly about hiring a P.R. firm to shop him around to television talk shows.

But by mid-June, no member had yet killed in self-defense, no bounty had been paid, and the publicity had died down. Frank and his wife, Vickie, expected little more from the media. Certainly not from "A Current Affair," which re-ran its piece on Dead Serious on June 14, and had some stiff network competition. "That damn Michael Jackson was on at the same time," says Frank, rolling his eyes in mock disgust, recalling Diane Sawyer's much-hyped interview with the pop singer on ABC. "I thought no one would call. They'd all be watching him."

But hundreds of new memberships that rolled in after the broadcast proved him wrong. And then the press calls started up again. A crew from Channel 7 in Sydney, Australia flew up in September. Tokyo Broadcasting filmed a piece on October 31.

Now the question remains: How can Frank sustain the notoriety? Easily, he guesses, if someone will just hurry up and kill. "If this much hell has broken loose just from the initial publicity, can you imagine what will happen when someone gets this money?" Frank says. "Every member that adds on, the odds go up. At some point someone's going to do it."

A handful of loosely written rules govern how the Franks intend to dole out the Dead Serious reward. On the one-page membership application, a hazy disclaimer reads: "Dead Serious Inc. is not responsible for any legal action that may be taken against you if you do not follow the law." That means, Frank says, that members must follow the deadly force statutes of their own states. And if they do indeed kill, they must be cleared of any criminal wrongdoing.

Police and prosecutors, not surprisingly, find the whole idea kooky at best. Tarrant County assistant district attorney Marvin Collins, who runs the office's civil division, fears the Franks may have left themselves open to a whopping civil lawsuit should a club member actually kill a thug and collect on the reward. Frank "may think being incorporated is supposed to protect him from personal civil liability," says Collins. "But there are a number of circumstances that allow others to pierce that veil of protection."

Charles Bradford, the Weatherford attorney who filed Frank's incorporation papers with the state, refuses to discuss his client's liability risk. And Frank is simply breezy on the topic. "What are they going to do? Take my cats? My apartment? They can't take my wife. Jesus Christ, it's getting harder to tell the lawyers from the criminals anymore."

Police and convicted felons are banned from the organization--which means that Frank can't join his own club. He served time in Illinois during the 1970s for assault and eight months in Texas state prison in 1979 for burglary. Other brushes with the law include a 1981 charge of possession of a prohibited weapon--a pipe bomb. The charge was dismissed. In 1984, a Tarrant County jury delivered a no-bill on a bigamy charge against Frank. And in 1989, a felony theft charge against him was dismissed.

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.

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