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.

But Rumore and others who worked with him say he's anything but a teddy bear.

Rumore says she met Wamstad when she was 16 in Chalmette, Louisiana, while grocery shopping with her aunt, with whom she was staying for the summer. Wamstad, then 19, was a meat cutter at Winn-Dixie. "I really didn't pay attention to him," she says. "I had a lot of boys, a lot of bag boys who used to chase me around the store." Her aunt seemed more smitten with Wamstad than Rumore did, and invited him to call Rumore.

They dated several times, until Wamstad slapped her face after she danced with another guy at a party. "That should have been a big warning there," she recalls. "He slapped me in my face and said, 'Now get your tough uncles to do something about that.'"

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.

It was 18 months before Rumore agreed to see him again. He called her one day out of the blue. He seemed to have changed, and they got along well, Rumore says, so much so that they planned to marry. When she became pregnant, those plans were accelerated. They were married in August 1962. Rumore says they spent their wedding night in a house they had just bought for no money down. Rumore wanted to take a bath and was extremely bashful of anyone seeing her naked. Distressed that there was no lock on the bathroom door, she begged her new husband not to come in while she was bathing.

Several minutes later, Wamstad stormed into the bathroom with a rifle, aiming it at her. "'You can't keep me out of here, because if you try and keep me out of here I'll shoot you,'" she recalls him saying. "I thought he was kidding at first." Rumore says she wrapped a towel around her body and ran for the front door. Wamstad stopped her, telling her that if she left, he'd call her parents and tell them she was pregnant.

"I went in the bedroom and just cried and cried and cried," she says. "I wanted to go home. I wanted to go back." But she stayed. And stayed and stayed.

"Never abused her. I was scared to death of her. That's hard to believe, isn't it?...I've never abused that woman. We can sit here for two days and I'll say the same thing, judge. I've never physically abused that woman.

-- Dale Wamstad in testimony during his wife's 1986 attempted murder trial.

From the start, Wamstad proved a skillful salesman. He began going door-to-door, plying monthly meat purchases. Later, he sold life insurance. "He was the No. 1 salesman all the time," Rumore says. "He could charm the birds out of the trees." Over the ensuing years, he assembled a successful insurance agency. He invested his earnings in real estate and other businesses.

Rumore says he loved to eat out, and each visit involved a lengthy critique, detailing what the operation was doing wrong and how he would do it if he had a restaurant. He gave himself the opportunity. Among his first restaurant ventures was a venue called Sir Steak. Later he sank $10,000 in a place called Lil' Ray's Seafood restaurant. In 1977, he became general partner of a company that operated six Popeye's fried-chicken franchises.

As his success grew, Rumore says, he became more unpredictable. "He'd get upset over silly, silly things, and I really never knew what," she says. "I always tried to keep my mouth shut." Rumore says Wamstad would grab her neck and squeeze it until it bruised, spit on her in front of restaurant employees, or shove her against the wall in the restaurant kitchen and put a knife to her throat.

In April 1979, they separated. Rumore filed for a divorce, which became final in August 1980. But Rumore says he still wouldn't leave her alone. Once, he stopped by her house boasting he had thousands of dollars in his car trunk. He told her he had "commandeered" one of the Popeye's restaurants and collected the receipts for the weekend. "He said Jesus told him to do it," Rumore says. "He talked to Jesus and Jesus said, 'Just go fuck everybody.' And I said, 'Honey, you weren't talking to Jesus, because Jesus doesn't use that kind of language.'"

In 1980, Wamstad's real estate holdings turned sour, and he filed for personal bankruptcy. Strangely, that same year, he commissioned the construction of an $85,000 steel-hulled shrimp boat he dubbed "Nuthin' Fancy." He then left with two friends for South America. He had hoped to strike it rich by shrimping and selling his catch to Las Vegas casinos. In June 1980, Rumore received a picture of "Nuthin' Fancy" with Wamstad at the helm. "To the greatest woman in the world," he wrote on the photo. "I'll always love you."

He later sent Rumore a letter telling her he wasn't coming back. To raise money, Rumore sold furniture, jewelry, and other assets, generating some $25,000. Wamstad also wrote her that his destiny lay in the food business.

In spring 1981, Wamstad returned from South America because, he said, the shrimp boat broke apart. He sold what was left of it, returning to the States with 51 $100 bills shoved into his boot. Shortly after he returned, he contacted Rumore, asking for some of the proceeds from the sale of her assets. He was going to Louisville, Kentucky, he said, to open a restaurant. She met him at a McDonald's restaurant and passed him $5,000 in an envelope. "I thought that's what it would take to get rid of him," she says.

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