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.

"The truth is that Del was a perfectionist and a very demanding employer, but never did he lay a hand on anybody in the steakhouse at any time...As a floor person, I was more scared of his son and relatives than I was of him...The 'bull' is only brought to the point of rage after a witty and seductive matador has plunged several swords into the heart of the bull..."

-- excerpted from "A Final Reading From the Book of Revelations to the Gretnations"

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.

Jonna Fitzgerald, onetime Texas beauty queen and former "proprietor" of III Forks, says Dale Wamstad insisted on meeting her family in Tyler before he hired her in early 1998. He liked meeting families of people before putting them on board, he told her, to help size them up. Wamstad had a special role in mind for Fitzgerald in his 21,000-square-foot, $5 million-plus restaurant in North Dallas.

"He wanted Western entertainment with a Barbara Stanwyck-type person walking through the dining room greeting her guests," Fitzgerald says. He promised Fitzgerald a generous salary plus a percentage of gross revenues as a "proprietor." She accepted.

Together with "proprietor" Matt Antonovich, who adopted the name Matt Chisolm for his III Forks appearance, Wamstad created a little family to inhabit his grand steakhouse crowned with a 24-carat gold-leaf dome that stretches 55 feet into the air. He invented for himself the character Capt. Bob Cooper, a 257-year-old cross between a North Texas trading-post pioneer and the skyjacker who slipped away with a $200,000 ransom payment by parachuting from an airliner over Washington state in 1971. Capt. Cooper maintains his youth because he drank from the Fountain of Youth 200 years ago in East Texas, or so went the spin.

"He's an outlaw, someone who has never been caught," says a former III Forks server who spoke on condition of anonymity. "That's part of what Dale likes to tout, the fact that he has never been caught at the things he does in the restaurant business."

Fitzgerald says the whole thing started as a game. Fitzgerald and Antonovich, former chef and partner of Sipango restaurant, were supposed to be the niece and nephew of Bob Cooper and the actual owners of the restaurant. Capt. Cooper was to be an elusive figure who floated in and out of the restaurant. "He's a marvelous storyteller," she says. "We believed in the dream. We thought we were going to have a home for the next 30 years."

But six weeks after the restaurant opened in August 1998, Antonovich was gone. "I wasn't upset that he fired me," Antonovich says. "What I was upset about was the way he treated me after a whole year. He romances you and gets you in this circle of promising you things no one else promises, financial rewards and everything else. It's like you're in an abusive, cult-like relationship. And you can't get out."

Antonovich describes Wamstad as an explosive, infuriating contradiction: intense, profoundly angry, and ruthless on the one hand, gracious, caring, and brilliant on the other.

"Everyone walked on eggshells," Fitzgerald says. "The least little things would trigger a cosmic reaction, and he would just freak. He was like a tornado."

Former staffers say he would throw things, anything at his disposal -- cellular telephones, dishes, fax machines. This, coupled with incessant verbal abuse, drove Fitzgerald from the fold a few weeks after Antonovich was let go.

"He didn't understand what people give up for him, what my family gave up for him, and the sacrifices that myself and many others that have gone to work for him have done," Antonovich says. "And he throws them out on the street like they're a cat."

But these descriptions and scenarios bear no resemblance to the Dale Wamstad whom Chester Keating knows. Keating, who befriended Wamstad shortly after he was shot, was thrilled in 1987 when his daughter Colleen told him that Wamstad wanted to marry her.

To Keating, Wamstad is the quintessential family man. Solid. Dependable. Gracious. He tells how Wamstad and his daughter built the Dallas Del Frisco's empire from scratch. How they went down to the Del Frisco's restaurant on Lemmon Avenue and sanded and painted and cleaned the place by themselves, the two of them. He thinks Rumore, whom he knew casually when she was married to Wamstad, is pointlessly churning up old ground by needling his son-in-law with her lawsuits and appeals. "Fifteen years? Fifteen years ago?" he asks. "My goodness. Why someone would be pursuing all sorts of things after 15 years is beyond me. How many years do we have in a lifetime to start enjoying life?"

He says he has never seen anything in Wamstad's fiber that would cause him worry. Wamstad, he says, is a good family man. The man seated on the hearth in those III Forks ads, clasping hands with his wife, surrounded by their three children, this is the devoted husband and father Keating knows. "If I had thought for one moment that Dale was anything other than a fine man, I wouldn't have even allowed him into my home," Keating says. "He's treated my daughter like a queen. And as far as I'm concerned, there's not an abusive bone in that man's body."

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