Man of Steel

Residents can't believe the bail bondsman down the block in the quiet Victory neighborhood has the right to wrap his house with bullet-blocking sheet metal

Joe Gustafson was sitting in his living room watching TV in the early-morning hours of September 6, when the bullets began sailing past his head. He hit the ground so fast, he claims, that he got carpet burns on his hands. Later, he would recover more than 30 shell casings from a yard across the street from his house, located in the Victory neighborhood in the northwest corner of Minneapolis.

Gustafson, a bail bondsman who conducts his business out of the house, didn't call the police; he says he figured they would show up soon enough anyway. Eventually officers did arrive, according to a brief police report filed in connection with the matter.

Following the incident, Gustafson put four-by-eight-foot, 500-pound sheets of steel around his small, white house on the 4100 block of Thomas Avenue North. At first he leaned them up against the home. Then he primed them brown. Now they've been whitewashed and affixed to the front of the structure, completely covering the windows. Viewed from the front, the bungalow looks like a miniature fortress.

Ironclad defense: Joe Gustafson says he swathed his house in steel plates in an attempt to protect himself
Daniel Corrigan
Ironclad defense: Joe Gustafson says he swathed his house in steel plates in an attempt to protect himself

Gustafson says he has no idea who fired the shots or why. He put up the steel plates, he says, out of concern for his safety. "What I'm doing here is to secure myself, you know what I mean?" he says. "I believe it's for my protection."

Gustafson's neighbors, however, are unhappy about both the unconventional barriers and the lack of answers about the shooting. So far, two neighborhood meetings have been held to discuss the 44-year-old and his house. Gustafson has attended neither. He says he heard about the first meeting after the fact and never received the flyer noting the place and time. "Obviously, they missed my house," he says wryly.

At the second meeting, on November 9, about 20 residents gathered in the basement of the Church of St. Austin, less than a block from Gustafson's home. Representatives from the Minneapolis Police Department, the city's Inspection Division, and the City Attorney's Office were on hand to field questions from residents. Neighbors voiced concerns about the gunshots and wondered aloud about Gustafson's past run-ins with police and about his line of work. But they were clearly frustrated with the answers they received: that Gustafson is complying with city code, that there's no evidence that he's doing anything illegal, and that he has the same rights as any other homeowner. Some of the homeowners said they were uncomfortable with Gustafson's demeanor.

Gustafson, who wears his long graying hair in a ponytail and sports a goatee, says he didn't realize he was the topic of such intense discussion until he was contacted by City Pages for this story. Clad in black jeans, black cowboy boots, and a black sweatshirt on a recent afternoon, he says he's not exactly the block-party type, and the uproar over the metal sheath he has wrapped around his house won't change that. "I really don't care what they think, not in a good way or a bad way," he says. "I'm not moving."

Before establishing Gustafson's Bail Bonds about a year ago, Gustafson worked as a bounty hunter for a bail bond firm. According to MPD files, he has a police record dating back to 1974, including charges for using profanity in public; assault; and lurking with intent to commit burglary. Many of the charges were dismissed, and most of the cases are more than ten years old. In 1986 Gustafson served ten months in prison for conspiracy to commit perjury. Police records show that shots were fired into his home in 1997.

In February 1998 Gustafson's home was raided as part of a Hennepin County Sheriff's Department investigation into an alleged local ring dealing in stolen Harley-Davidson motorcycles and parts. He was cleared of any suspicion, however, according to Capt. Dan Dunlevy of the sheriff's office. Gustafson successfully sued for the return of five guns--all legally registered--that were seized in the raid, but he ended up pleading guilty to a gross misdemeanor for the negligent storage of firearms.

In the wake of the recent shooting, neighbors have continually questioned Gustafson's background, but Minneapolis Community Crime Prevention Specialist Shannon McDonough says that's "a nonissue." "He's been clean [in recent years]," says the civilian MPD employee, who has helped facilitate meetings on the controversy. "There have been no other police incidents out there."

The city is doing everything it legally can, McDonough adds, noting that neighbors haven't been satisfied with what has been done. "Everybody has rights, and you just can't throw people out of their houses, and we've explained that to them."

The MPD has been trying to help sort out the dispute. "We're working with the neighborhood and we're doing all that we can to correct the problem," McDonough says. The investigation into the middle-of-the-night shooting may never be resolved, he adds. "Nobody saw anything, and that makes it hard to investigate."

Fourth Ward Minneapolis City Council member Barb Johnson says that she has not talked to Gustafson herself, but she has talked to many people who live nearby. "Neighbors are quite concerned and offended by the looks of these accouterments in front of his home and actually somewhat fearful that ricochets could happen," says Johnson, asserting that a few shots from the September shooting landed in a neighboring home. "People are concerned about the fact that his house has to be fortified like this, [that] he feels like he's so threatened that he needs to do that. I think we want him to take the steel plates off his windows. I guess there's just a generalized concern about what would be the reason that someone would want to pepper his house with gunfire?"

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My Voice Nation Help

I don't understand why everyone is so concerned about the sheet metal. If he is having people shoot into his house, I think it is a great idea. He is just protecting himself. If his line of work causes that type of trouble, then he can take whatever precautions he should. I think the sheet metal surrounding the house is a good idea. 

Jen Kirk |