Family man

Dallas restaurateur Dale Wamstad portrays himself as humble entrepreneur and devoted father. The family he abandoned in New Orleans has a bone to pick with that.

"He called me a little asshole, a crybaby, and I backed up, and he picked up a table in front of me and moved it and pinned me against the wall and said I was a motherfucker, and I ran, and he hit me in the back of the head with a slab of beef."

-- Roy Wamstad in testimony during his mother's 1986 attempted murder trial, recounting an incident with his father, Dale Wamstad


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Dale Wamstad and then-wife Lena share a happy moment at a Louisiana racetrack -- three days before she shot him.
Dale Wamstad and then-wife Lena share a happy moment at a Louisiana racetrack -- three days before she shot him.

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Roy Wamstad insists he doesn't smoke, but here he sits on a brisk January afternoon on the back porch of his mother's house in Diamondhead, Mississippi, firing off Marlboro Ultra Lights as if he's nursing a five-pack-a-day habit.

Wamstad isn't supposed to smoke. The 37-year-old son of restaurant mogul Dale Wamstad, who built the massive, multimillion-dollar III Forks Steak House in North Dallas, just concluded a regime of chemotherapy after a bout of testicular cancer. "They said another two months and I would have been dead," Roy says, sighing through a puff of smoke. The side effects of the therapy include numbness in the hands and feet, which makes his job at Treasure Bay Casino in Biloxi, Mississippi, where he's on his feet for hours working blackjack, roulette, and crap games, a struggle.

Wamstad's hands tremble relentlessly. The Marlboro box shimmies as he lifts it to pluck another smoke. "I apologize I'm not better," he mumbles. "Thinking about him just makes me shake." Wamstad pauses. "It was rough. It's hard to talk about it, it really is. Last night, I couldn't sleep at all. I've been trying to put all this shit out of my mind for years. I still have nightmares about that son of a bitch."

Roy Wamstad looks like hell. His skin is ashen, his trousers rumpled, his hair disheveled. At one point while recounting his life with his now estranged father, he excuses himself and goes into the kitchen to get a paper towel to dry his eyes. He returns and mows through his memories. "I just remember a lot of screaming," he says. "He's a screamer and a hitter. He used to hit my mom all the time. I seen him throw plates of food in her face, just ridiculous stuff."

Yet with Wamstad, his father's tactics seemed more psychological than physical, excepting the occasional furious kick. Burned into Wamstad's mind are his father's little scenes, episodes that struck without warning. He recounts times as a boy when he was awakened at night by the shrieks his father spewed at his mother. The scene would conclude with his father bursting into Roy's room and tearing him from his bed. "He'd scream, 'Me and your mother's gonna get a divorce. You want us to get a divorce? It's going to be all your fault.'"

He jumps to another scene in a car barreling down the highway, his parents quarreling. With his mother in near hysterics, his father would suddenly punch the accelerator and swerve off the road. Then he'd scream, "I'm going to kill us all." Sometimes, in the heat of an argument with his wife, the elder Wamstad would pull out a gun and press the barrel to his head, bellowing, "I'm blowin' my brains out; I'm blowin' my brains out." Afterward, as if creating some sort of sick joke, he'd cover himself in ketchup and yell, "See what you made me do?"

Dale Wamstad, who refused to be interviewed for this article, both in media interviews and under oath in court has steadfastly denied ever abusing any member of his family. Yet he later disowned his firstborn son, according to Roy and his mother. Maybe it shouldn't have surprised Roy. After all, Dale Wamstad, a.k.a. Del Frisco, left a trail of bitter business partners along his route to restaurant riches, partners who say he seduced them and convinced them of his expertise before swiftly walking away with thousands of dollars.

Those same associates and family members describe Dale Wamstad as a shrewd businessman and natural-born salesman, a survivor who rose from modest beginnings as a meat cutter to a position high atop Dallas' cutthroat restaurant market. In a city where a sizzling prime steak is the dining king, Dale Wamstad is a crown prince, the builder of an opulent, glitter-domed temple to red meat, a humble family man, and a flamboyant, volatile entrepreneur. Which characterization best describes Wamstad is likely to be a question facing a Louisiana court in the months ahead as his former wife attempts to lay claim to a share of Wamstad's fortune.

Roy has heard the stories of his father's past business dealings and laughs about them today. Still, he is stunned by the episode that led him to sever ties with his father. It happened shortly after his mother pumped three .25-caliber slugs into Dale Wamstad's imposing 6-foot-2-inch, 240-pound bulk in the dining room of Del Frisco's restaurant in Gretna, Louisiana. After Wamstad recovered from his wounds, he came back to the restaurant, which his wife had been running in his absence, and threw everybody out, including Roy. He was livid at his son for telling police he and his mother had been subjected to a history of physical and emotional abuse.

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