Darryl and Vicky run a little society in Texas. Kill a criminal, they pay $5,000. They're deadly serious, says Daniel Jeffreys

'I was scared for my life. It was him or me'
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"This is not for the faint-hearted," says Darryl Frank. "This is not for those who still have faith in the criminal justice system." Darryl is relaxing with his wife, Vicky, at their modest home in a lower middle-class section of Fort Worth, Texas. Darryl is the founder of Dead Serious Inc, America's latest answer to rising crime.

"The idea is simple," says Darryl, grabbing my arm buddy-style for the fifth time in five minutes. "If you are a member, Dead Serious will pay you $5,000 if you kill someone in accordance with the law. That is whilst they are in the process of committing a crime against you, your family or your property."

The money will not be forthcoming if the criminal survives. "If you just wound somebody, that same criminal could sue you," says Vicky. "He could come back and kill you or commit other crimes which would cost the taxpayer money."

Vicky is prepared to avoid mistakes. She carries a 9mm pistol in her handbag. It is loaded with Federal Hi-Shot ammunition, which can punch a grapefruit-sized hole in a man's chest. "If some son of a bitch is trying to rape me, I'm not gonna lie back and be the little lady. I'm gonna blow his goddamn head off."

Darryl is 35, Vicky is 33. They have been married for four years and live in a small apartment. They have no children yet, just a couple of cats. Darryl is a technician at a company that builds mini-vans for the handicapped; Vicky is a receptionist. They take home about $30,000 a year before tax. The friends gathered at their Friday committee meeting have similar types of jobs.

The Franks live in a two-acre apartment complex called the Bennington. The landlord has just built a fence around it after a spate of burglaries, and some residents feel besieged by crime. That is one reason why Darryl and Vicky have turned their spare bedroom into the headquarters of Dead Serious. Computers and fax machines jostle for space alongside photos of cats and friends. Next door, their bedroom has a huge oak four-poster with a 27in television slung from the crossbeam. "We were just an ordinary couple," says Vicky, "until we got pissed off."

Across the United States there are thousands of Darryl Franks leaning on pick-up trucks, drinking cheap beer and talking tough about crime. Darryl says he will soon have "millions" of members, in every state of the union. Already there are almost 5,000 members and chapters in four states, though the group is not a year old.

Members pay $10 a year. For that, they are registered for a $5,000 payout should their big day arrive. To make sure they shoot straight, they are given free handgun training. They also get two Dead Serious stickers, one for their car and one for the home. "These send a clear message to the criminal," says Darryl. "Mess with my car or house and I'm going pop you."

In the next room, a friend turns up the volume on the stereo. It's a country and western song with a pleasant tune. "I'm warning you Jack, I'm gonna shoot back/You better just let me be." Vicky giggles. "This is our theme song, listen." It swells into a chorus. "I'm serious, dead serious/You'll be laid out at my feet./I'm serious, dead serious/And you're gonna be dead meat." The song is nicely sung with a professional mix. Darryl swells with pride. "A member sent us that, wrote it himself. He said he wanted to give something more than his $10 fee."

Tabloid television programmes love Darryl and his chums. Last week, A Current Affair on Fox TV gave them a whole seven minutes. In the last 24 hours, they've had more than 700 requests for membership details.

Oddly, if Darryl guns down an assailant all he could gain is further notoriety. He is a convicted felon, and that disqualifies him from membership of Dead Serious. In 1977, he spent nine months in prison for burglary. "It's possible if something like Dead Serious had been in effect 15 years ago Darryl would be dead right now," says Vicky. "He was in his teens when this happened, but if he were to break into a member's house today he could easily get killed."

The phone rings as Vicky stuffs more envelopes with membership forms; it has been ringing once every few seconds for the past two hours. Darryl leaps for the receiver and puts it on speakerphone. It is a police officer from Arizona. Darryl explains that he is not allowed to join, something about a conflict of interest. "I know that," says the policeman, a sergeant. "I want to join up all the members of my family, is that OK?" Darryl gives his assent. "I just admire what your group is doing," says the sergeant. "Our hands are tied. I love the way you say the criminal must be killed. We are told only to aim for the legs and arms. That's crap. At mid-range, aim for the chest. Close-up, go for the head." Darryl is ecstatic. "Yeah man, we're tired of being afraid, we are going to take back the streets."

Darryl claims that officers on the street back his cause. He says he has visited every local police station and found support in all. But prosecutors are less enthusiastic. "If I had to shoot somebody in self-defence and it turned out to be a close call, I'd probably be glad I had not joined Dead Serious," says John Holmes, a Texas district attorney. "Grand juries might cite the added incentive of a financial reward as a reason to indict someone for murder."

According to the Fort Worth police department, Darryl and his group may soon become irrelevant. "Crime figures are way down," says the deputy police chief Sam Hill. "Crime fell by 23 per cent in 1993 and by 24 per cent in 1994. So far this year the figures are down by another 11 per cent."

But the patrol officer Sergeant McGuirk gives those numbers a different spin. As we ride in his squad car, he lays out the familiar geography of America's big cities. "The west of the city is white and affluent. The north is black and poor. The east is Hispanic and poor. The south is mixed race and struggling."

The police radio comes to life. "Alliance base, Hap Worsham has signed on." McGuirk smiles. "Worsham is a Citizen on Patrol. It's a new programme, they've become our eyes and ears."

Citizens on Patrol - Cops - travel in marked cars and patrol neighbourhoods at night. They are volunteers, and mostly pensioners. "They want to give something back," says McGuirk. "Plus, they love the police radios and the official badges."

The Cops programme has had some success in reducing crime in the west of the city, but again the figures need interpretation. "Most crime is an act of opportunity," says McGuirk. "If there are lot of eyes watching, the criminals won't strike. They will move somewhere else." From the affluent to the less so; from the west to the south. Where Darryl Frank lives.

"Most victims of crime are poor people," says Scott Blue, the firearms instructor for Dead Serious. "I want my family armed and I want them to shoot straight and I want the criminal to know that. Hopefully, our members will display their bumper stickers and criminals will figure we're gun- happy lunatics and go somewhere else."

District attorneys may be wary of Dead Serious, but Texas politicians can smell a good populist movement and they are edging closer. The group urges its members to get on the electoral roll: these crime fighters have guns and votes. The impact has been immediate. Texas has just passed a law that allows anybody with a gun permit to carry a concealed weapon. That's how Vicky gets to pack heat in her purse, but that's just the start.

Under existing Texan law, a citizen must first try to retreat from a criminal before using deadly force. The Texas legislature is considering a Bill to remove that condition, even though local legislators acknowledge that indictments are hardly ever returned against citizens who kill intruders.

"If Texas passes that law after permitting concealed weapons, the state will have its own vigilantes' charter," says Carl Senna, a law professor at the University of Massachusetts. "Legislation like this only encourages people to take violent action when they could be in error."

That is exactly what happened to the Japanese exchange student killed in Louisiana two years ago. He got lost at night and knocked on a stranger's door for directions. When nobody answered, he began to leave. The homeowner appeared and shouted, "Freeze". The student was unfamiliar with the English idiom - minutes later he was dead. The killer was not charged. Louisiana was the second state to open a local branch of Dead Serious.

"Nothing's perfect," says Darryl Frank. "But far more innocent people die because they don't open fire."

He remains convinced of the efficacy of Dead Serious. "We have a new member in Iowa. She was being pestered by her husband. They were separated, but he liked to beat her up on Friday nights. She called the police lots of times, they did nothing. So she hears about us. In Iowa, they have the same deadly force law as Texas. You can use a weapon to defend yourself, your family or your property. After she joins, we sent a copy of her Dead Serious membership form to the husband, along with a copy of the Iowa penal code. He doesn't come by any more. It's a legal way of saying, 'Come near me again and I'll blow your head off'."

The Dead Serious theme song is back on the stereo, its tune carried fast on the hot Texan air. "So if you fool with me, or my family/You'll be the victim instead./This ain't no bluff, ain't just talkin' tough/You'll be laying there dead."

"Nobody has tried to claim $5,000 yet," says Darryl. "But they will, and when they do, our membership list will go ballistic. Everybody who cares anything for their family is gonna want one of our stickers." Billy Williams is the kind of guy Darryl Frank likes. Early last Sunday morning, in the New York borough of Queens, Billy was working the night shift at his local gas station. Just after 5am, two men came into the station store and started to pick out ma gazines. "I thought they looked bad," says Billy, who is just 20. "So I made sure I moved a little closer to the cash register, for some kind of cover." That was when 36-year-old Anthony Hayward made his move, along with his as yet unidentified partner. "The big guy suddenly pulled out a crowbar and hit me upside the head," says Williams. "I staggered, and I could see the other guy coming at me, they wer e shoutin' about money. I was scared for my life." Williams reached for a shotgun, purchased six months ago after a previous robbery. "I just grabbed and shot. It was almost one movement. I'm not even sure I was aiming. The big guy, he just went down. I saw immediately he'd been hit bad in the chest. The other guy took off and ran." Almost two days after the incident, Williams says he still feels shaken. "I never wanted to kill a guy. But it was him or me. My reaching for the gun was just an instinct. I thought they would kill me, for sure. Why not? I could identify them, the whole works." After realising the other attacker had fled, Williams called the police. "I went and stood outside in the air, I didn't want to be in there with the dead guy. I had to wait for the police to come. They know the gas station, some of them knew me. They wer e pretty good to me when they arrived. From the start, they reassured me that it looked a clear case of self-defence. They kept asking if I was okay while I waited for the ambulance to get my head fixed." Williams will not be charged in the shooting. "Under New York State law, it's permissible to use deadly force in self-defence," says Detective Sergeant William Carbone of the 113th precinct. That is despite the fact that the shotgun was a sawn-off model and Williams has no permit for the weapon. "That's not real important as the gun was kept at a place of business," says Carbone. "In this case, the absence of permit would only rank as a misdemeanour." When Darryl Frank heard about Williams, he was pleased. "Good for him. That's all these people understand. They'd cut your throat as you kneel at prayer, given half a chance. I would have loved to have paid him the $5,000." But Williams was not a member of Dead Serious, which Darryl says is a pity. "A New York case, the publicity would have been amazing. But I'm sorry for the dead guy, too. If Williams or his boss had been members, they could have displayed one of our stickers. Then maybe the criminals would have known what was waiting for them. That's our message for the criminals - it's time for you to go home."