Deadly serious

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."

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Holly Mullen