By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
-- Roy Wamstad in testimony during his mother's 1986 attempted murder trial, recounting an incident with his father, Dale Wamstad
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.
But Roy was desperate. He had a wife and a baby daughter at home. He pleaded with his father to give him back his job. "Stupid me, I wanted to see if he could help me out," Roy says. "I did it for my family, really, 'cause I knew better. He said, 'I don't know what I can do for you. You're not my son anymore. I don't want nothin' to do with you.'" Roy says his father pulled a $20 bill from his wallet, telling him this was all he could do for him, and let the bill fall to the floor.
"That was the last time I spoke to him," says Roy, now the father of two daughters. "And I'm having a good life now with him not in it."
"He came behind me. He pushed me, and I fell backwards on the bed. While I was down on the bed, he jumped up on the bed, and he kicked me in my face and hit my nose, and it was just like a sharp pain. I jumped up and the dresser was in front of the bed with the mirror, and I saw blood gushing out of my nose, and I said, 'Oh God,' and he said...'You bitch. Look what you made me do.'"
-- Lena Wamstad testifying during her 1986attempted murder trial
Lena Rumore, 56, bristles as she scans a full-page III Forks ad from the Dallas Business Journal. In the center of the ad, under the headline "A Great Steak & Seafood House," is a cozy family portrait of her ex-husband, Dale Wamstad; his wife, Colleen Keating; and their three children. "Do I believe he's changed his life around and he's a great family man?" scoffs the former Mrs. Wamstad, who now goes by her maiden name. "For his family's sake I hope so. But I find it hard to believe."
She tosses the III Forks ad atop one of the stacks of legal papers that litter the dining table in the home she shares with her third husband, Don. She moves to a scrapbook and flips through the pages filled with pictures and documents collected during her tempestuous 23-year marriage to Wamstad, a union that included a separation between 1979 and 1981, a divorce, and remarriage in time to launch the first Del Frisco's.
Her ex-husband sold Del Frisco's Double Eagle Steakhouse -- which included a Del Frisco's under construction in Fort Worth and the rights to the name elsewhere -- for $22.7 million in 1995 before building the gargantuan III Forks at the North Dallas Tollway and Keller Springs Road. The fact that he is relishing his riches under the guise of a family man is a sore point with Rumore.
Since her second divorce from the restaurateur in 1987, Rumore has sold cars, jewelry, and furniture to finance her legal skirmish with Wamstad, a fight waged to get an accurate picture of his assets, which Rumore says include her sweat and blood. Literally, if you believe the parade of witnesses who testified during her attempted murder trial. Rumore and her lawyers spent more than seven years trying to decode Wamstad's maze of corporations and partnerships. The brilliant puzzle, which Wamstad once admitted was set up solely for asset and tax protection, proved so confounding that in civil suit depositions he was able to deny having any ownership interest whatsoever in Del Frisco's Double Eagle Steak House. Rumore says that over the course of her legal struggles, Wamstad even pleaded impoverishment.
Exhausted, she reluctantly surrendered her fight in 1992, agreeing to a community-property settlement that put $45,000 into her pocket. That's why the millions he reaped when Wichita, Kansas-based Lone Star Steak & Saloon bought Del Frisco's just three years later hit her like an open-handed slap.
Less than two months after the deal closed with Lone Star in 1995, Rumore filed a lawsuit against Wamstad seeking to nullify their 1992 community-property settlement, alleging that Wamstad fraudulently concealed the true value and ownership of his assets. But Wamstad was able to derail her suit in February 1999, arguing that her consent to the 1992 agreement nullified any further claims. In April 1999, Rumore filed an appeal, and last month, a Louisiana appellate court reversed the lower court's ruling. The case is expected to go before a jury this summer.
Today, Rumore deals poker at The Grand Casino in Gulfport, Mississippi. "I work for tips while he's got all the money that I worked for too," she says. She pulls out a 1982 newspaper clipping that ran after their Del Frisco's restaurant in Gretna, Louisiana, had been open just 10 weeks. "We're too new, too humble, and too grateful for all this publicity," Wamstad says in the article.
According to Rumore and others who entered business with him, Wamstad shrewdly cultivated this diffident, folksy posture over the years -- spinning stories and adopting various characters. There was the affable Del Frisco, who later evolved into the fiercely independent and elusive Capt. Bob Cooper at III Forks.
"He's very smooth," says Lou Saba, who claims he lost his $150,000 life savings in seven months in 1987 after partnering with Wamstad in a Del Frisco's restaurant in Houston. "He overwhelms you with 'I'm a nice guy, an honest guy.' He bombards you with this big teddy bear image."
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.'"
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.
Instead, he pursued her, calling her and telling her how much he loved her. He told her that everything was going to be OK and that he needed her to come to Louisville. She wasn't there a week before he convinced her they were destined to again be man and wife. They were remarried in April 1981. Why did Rumore go back to the man she claims abused her and her son for years? "That's the question I can't answer," she says. "Temporary insanity. He conned me, and I guess I believed him."
A short time later, they opened the first Del Frisco's.
"He shot up the bathroom door in the restaurant. He would take target practice on it...One night we were there alone and everybody else had left and he got mad about something, he had a big black gun...and he pointed it at me, and I got hysterical and started screaming, and then he started shooting the door and I ran out."
-- Lena Wamstad, during her March 1985 grand jury testimony.
Rumore says that the first few months of her remarriage to Wamstad were better than they were at any time during their previous marriage. Roy, who was 18 at the time, concurs. "He seemed like a changed person," Roy says. "It was good. But then it all started happening. Slowly but surely, he started showing his old colors."
His personality shift seemed to parallel the unraveling of his grip on the Del Frisco's restaurant in Louisville. Wamstad was partnered in the operation with Glenn and Audrey Lapp, who operated a steakhouse in Denver called Aurora Summit. They wanted to open a similar venture in Louisville. Wamstad hooked up with the Lapps through his late brother David, a meat salesman. In addition to his investment of $5,000 he received from his wife, plus $7,000 more after he remarried Rumore, Wamstad came up with a name. He hit upon Del Frisco's because, according to Rumore, he liked the sound of it.
The Lapps inked a management contract with Wamstad and put him in charge of the Louisville location. The whole Wamstad family was employed there, with Rumore working the floor and Roy busing tables and cooking steaks in the kitchen. It was a resounding success. "The place was a little gold mine," Rumore says.
Though phenomenally successful, Audrey Lapp says, the restaurant wasn't paying the Lapps any return, and Wamstad refused to let them examine the books. So they traveled to Louisville and proposed a deal to co-manage the restaurant, splitting management duties between the partners. Wamstad balked and tossed out a counteroffer, which essentially proposed the Lapps leave him alone to operate the restaurant as he saw fit, or buy him out. The Lapps found a backer and came up with the cash. As part of the deal, the Lapps agreed to give Wamstad rights to the Del Frisco's name and concept outside of Indiana, Kentucky, and Ohio. "We allowed him to use the name just to get him out of here," says Audrey Lapp. "It cost us about $123,000 to get him out, and he was here just four months."
Wamstad seemed to have a knack for seducing people, getting them to partner with him, and then after a short while walking away with a windfall. No one knows this better than Jack Sands.
In early 1996, Sands, an ex-Marine and a Korean War veteran, decided to find an operator to transform the run-down New Orleans bar in a building he owned into a restaurant. Sands received a call from Wamstad. Wamstad offered to bring down some kitchen equipment from a restaurant he had just closed in Baton Rouge and install it in Sands' building. Sands says he was impressed with Wamstad and struck a deal with him whereby Sands would put up all of the capital to renovate and open the space and Wamstad would operate it. "His investment was his expertise," Sands says. "I had never been in the restaurant business, and I didn't know any better. I was trusting, and I made a mistake."
They signed an agreement giving Wamstad stock in the restaurant called Tavern on the Park.
Their relationship soon unraveled. Sands says Wamstad's equipment from Baton Rouge was junk, so Wamstad told Sands he would purchase and install equipment from a supplier in Mississippi. Six weeks after it opened, a truck pulled up to the restaurant and seized its kitchen equipment. Sands says he learned that Wamstad had purchased the gear on credit and never made payments. When confronted with the problem, Wamstad said he wanted to dissolve their agreement. "He says, 'I've had enough. You buy me out.' Next thing I know, he's in federal court with a suit."
Wamstad demanded that Sands pay him $250,000 for his stock in Tavern on the Park or risk a costly legal battle. In court records, Wamstad describes making a "substantial profit" from his short stint with Sands.
One of Wamstad's partners in a group that operated Popeye's franchises in Louisiana, Kentucky, Mississippi, and Indiana in the late 1970s shares similar stories. Wamstad was general partner, holding 50 percent interest in the company; a small group of limited partners held the other 50 percent. Operating as many as six restaurants, the business quickly soured, and within a year the partners were $1 million in debt. The group placed the company into bankruptcy, and as conditions worsened, Wamstad agreed to step down and let one of the limited partners see whether he could pull it out. But before the partner could take control, Wamstad "commandeered" one of the best-performing restaurants in the group over one Labor Day weekend and pocketed the receipts. (He eventually returned some $1,500, or about a third of what was normally generated on a busy weekend at this particular store.)
"This guy's real shrewd," says his former Popeye's partner, who did not wish to be named. "The guy is bad news. He's a troubled man. I mean, why would a man just do people like he does?"
That's a question Lou Saba is still asking since losing $150,000 on a Del Frisco's restaurant in Houston over the course of seven months in 1987. A former self-employed petrochemical-industry professional, Saba says he hooked up with Wamstad after seeing an ad in The Wall Street Journal seeking Del Frisco's franchisees.
Saba says he was impressed when he first met Wamstad, and he agreed to a deal giving Wamstad 51 percent of the restaurant to Saba's 49 percent. "I really relied on him," Saba says. "I had confidence that I was dealing with an honest individual."
Saba was filled with doubts after they went to purchase equipment. Saba says he wrote a check for $35,000, or roughly half the cost of the restaurant equipment, with the understanding that Wamstad would make up the other half. Instead, Wamstad financed the purchase.
Saba was also under the impression that for his 51 percent stake, he was getting Wamstad's restaurant expertise. That's why he was dumbfounded when, on the restaurant's opening day, he says, Wamstad took off, leaving Saba to fend for himself. After going through his life savings, Saba finally reached the point where he could no longer put money into the place, and he turned in the keys and walked away. "It's like he takes you up in an airplane, jumps out with a parachute, and then leaves you in there to fly the plane on your own," Saba says.
Whatever his tactics, few deny that Wamstad is a bold, smart operator. His franchised Del Frisco's restaurants spread to New Orleans, Orlando, Austin, and Houston. In Dallas, Del Frisco's opened on Lemmon Avenue in 1985, spread to Addison in 1990, and after those venues were shuttered in 1993, to Spring Valley Road. A Fort Worth version was under construction when Lone Star stepped in with its fat offer.
"His food is very good. He's a very good restaurateur," says Ruth's Chris Steak House founder Ruth Fertel. Those are big words from Fertel. Wamstad sued Ruth's Chris for slander in 1994 after the restaurant's newsletter suggested that the Knife and Fork Club of America, which produced a Top 10 list of steakhouses, was really a front for Del Frisco's. Del Frisco's regularly appeared among the top three on the list. Wamstad admitted in a civil suit deposition that he paid the producer of the list, Thomas J. Horan, more than $60,000 between 1989 and 1994. The suit was later settled so that the sale to Lone Star could be consummated.
Fertel says Wamstad began pestering her as far back as 1981, when he opened Del Frisco's in Louisville, Kentucky. "I got an anonymous call and [the caller] said, 'Do you know where your son is?' He said my son was teaching him [Wamstad] how to cook the steaks and what to order and all the recipes." She says she later learned that Wamstad put one of his employees up to the stunt. "He's a very good operator," Fertel says. "I don't know why he has to run me down."
Wamstad refused to tell the Dallas Observer his side of his business dealings, but even those who have tangled with him marvel at his ability to slough off setbacks and come back bigger and more potent. Perhaps it's no coincidence that his greatest comeback followed a near-death experience.
"During an argument he had grabbed me by my throat, hit my head up against the wall. I was screaming and shaking and begging him to stop. He went and got the gun out of the bedroom drawer and he forced it into my hand and he said, 'Go ahead. If you've got the guts, go ahead and shoot me."
-- Lena Wamstad, in trial testimony, recounting an evening at home with her ex-husband
Shortly after severing ties with the Lapps, the Wamstads moved to Louisiana, where they opened a Del Frisco's in Gretna, just outside of New Orleans, in January 1982. It was an instant success. Wamstad boasted that they earned back their investment, which included a $10,000 infusion from Lena's mother, in as little as 10 weeks.
But in addition to being a place of high-rolling revenues, Del Frisco's was a stage for Wamstad's high drama: fights with Lena in the front of the house and spats with his son Roy in the kitchen. One of Wamstad's most notorious tricks was known as "four corners." If customers complained about food or service and were unimpressed with Wamstad's efforts to rectify the situation, he would grip the corners of the tablecloth and pull everything off the table, smashing dishes.
But the most dramatic event began on Valentine's Day 1985, when Wamstad fired his son Roy.
Around the same time, a part-time bartender, Colleen Keating, quit abruptly. Rumore says she believes this is the event that unglued Wamstad, and he blamed Rumore and her sister-in-law Theresa Rumore, who helped manage the restaurant, for running the young bartender off.
The following Saturday, Rumore visited her son, and after the meeting she feared he was slipping into a deep depression. So Rumore approached Wamstad, begging him to rehire Roy. "He seemed suicidal, he was so depressed," remembers Rumore. "When I told Dale this, he said, 'That son of a bitch ought to kill himself.' God, what a dog."
The following Monday, the day before Mardi Gras, Wamstad flew into a rage. He fired the whole day staff and said the restaurant would no longer be open for lunch.
The next day, Fat Tuesday, Wamstad left on a business trip to Kentucky. Rumore spent the day at the racetrack with her sister-in-law. When she got home at 11 that evening, Wamstad was home. He demanded that his wife get her sister-in-law on the phone and get the staff back into the restaurant. They were reopening for lunch.
That evening and the next morning, Lena and her sister-in-law made phone calls in a futile attempt to staff the restaurant. Lena suggested that they get Roy to work the kitchen. Wamstad didn't protest.
When Wamstad came in Ash Wednesday morning and Theresa Rumore told him she was having trouble finding staff, he exploded in a rage, cursing and throwing dishes. Then he stormed out.
Lena Rumore arrived minutes later, tossing her purse on the sofa in the restaurant's lounge. She discovered that the only people who showed were Roy, Theresa, and a busboy. Lena decided not to open the restaurant. She scrawled a sign that said "closed for lunch" and posted it by the front door. Then she went into the restroom.
The purse on the sofa held the .25-caliber semiautomatic pistol her husband had given her two years earlier to protect herself when she closed the restaurant at night alone. As Rumore exited the restroom, she heard a loud slam. Wamstad had burst through the front door. He demanded that Theresa open the front door and he pushed a briefcase in her face. Lena told him to stop. "Then he screamed, 'You fucking bitch, what do you think you're doing closing and putting that sign out there?'" Lena says. "And he hurled the briefcase at me, and I mean with force."
She pleaded with Wamstad to let her explain what had happened, but he came at her again. She reached into her purse and pulled out the gun.
"He kinda laughed, 'You fucking bitch. You better use it on me, because if you don't use it, I'm going to kill you with it,'" Rumore recalls. "He started coming close, like he was going to take it from me. So I fired."
Rumore fired four shots before the gun jammed. One bullet missed. Another went into Wamstad's jaw, while a pair of slugs entered his back. He moaned. She screamed and dialed 911.
The police didn't arrest Rumore. Wamstad spent 10 days in intensive care. When he got out in early March 1985, he filed for a legal separation. Two weeks later, a grand jury was impaneled, and after hearing testimony, it declined to indict Rumore. But the following September, Wamstad complained to the district attorney that he was not allowed to tell his full story during his original grand jury appearance. Another grand jury was impaneled and indicted Rumore on a charge of attempted second-degree murder.
At the trial in the summer of 1986, Wamstad claimed that he was ambushed, that Lena and Theresa plotted the whole thing, prepping the scene by locking the restaurant and sending everybody home. "She knew she was going to provoke me, and she shot me like an animal," Wamstad said.
Shortly after the shooting, a letter was distributed to Del Frisco's customers titled "A Final Reading From the Book of Revelations to the Gretnations" by "Jebidiah The Elder." In it, the character Jebidiah, who claims to be an ex-Del Frisco's employee, denies Wamstad ever abused or threatened anyone in the restaurant. The letter then describes a conspiracy by Wamstad's accusers to loot and gain control of the restaurant. It was typed on the back of an April 1985 polygraph test purportedly given to Dale Wamstad, who was asked whether he had threatened or provoked his wife that Ash Wednesday and whether he had ever abused his wife. The document shows that Wamstad denied ever doing so. It suggests his answers were truthful.
On July 16, 1986, Lena Rumore was found innocent. The judge ruled that she had acted in self-defense. The following March, Lena and Dale Wamstad divorced.
In a March 1987 separation judgment, Jefferson Parish District Judge Hubert Vondenstein found Rumore at fault for the breakdown of the marriage. The judge also found that, based on discrepancies in Rumore's testimony as well as "her overall lack of credibility," Rumore assaulted Wamstad without acting in self-defense.
"Even assuming Mr. Wamstad threatened to kill his wife immediately before she fired the shots, and accepting Mr. Wamstad's past history of bullying Mrs. Wamstad, which included mental and physical assaults, this Court cannot find, as a matter of law, that Mrs. Wamstad acted in self-defense," Vondenstein wrote. The judge went on to say that any past acts of cruelty committed by Wamstad were either condoned by Rumore or were not directly responsible for the breakdown of the marriage.
Seven months later, Dale Wamstad filed a $2.6 million damage suit against his ex-wife. Rumore countered with a $5 million suit. Both were eventually dropped.
Wamstad later moved to Dallas and married former bartender Colleen Keating. "It's just great to be alive," says Wamstad in the only comment he made for this article. "I have a wife and three lovely children."
"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"
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."