By Jesse Marx
By Chris Parker
By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
Little Joe was convicted of four felonies and two gross misdemeanors in Hennepin County Court. In meting out the sentence, Judge Thor Anderson summed up Little Joe's lifestyle: "Your underlying problem is that you are a thug, you are full of anger, you are impulsive, and wherever you are, there's a fight."
IT WAS STILL dark on a frigid April morning in 2003 when the squad car arrived. Inside John-o's house, his stunned girlfriend was trembling. Michelob beer bottles were strewn about the room. John-o, 21, lay dead.
A single bullet was in John-o's head. His father was a mile and a half away, and got the call from a friend, not the police.
"I never even get a phone call," Big Joe says. "You know, every phone call a parent don't want to get? I didn't even get one of them."
Big Joe remains convinced that John was murdered. His evidence: John-o was right-handed, but he was shot on the left side of his head. The gun that killed him was tucked neatly into a quarter-inch space under the couch, as if it had been gingerly moved aside. John's blood was spread throughout the house: in the sink, in the hallway, in the bedroom closet, on the bedroom door jamb. And John had been robbed.
"These fucking cops," Big Joe says. "They don't even investigate."
"They're trying to push it off as a suicide. That's bogus," Big Joe says. "He had it going on for 22-year-old kid. You know what I mean? He had Cadillacs. He wouldn't have a reason to want to kill himself."
Big Joe hired a private investigator, who agreed that John had been murdered. The private eye turned his research over to the Minneapolis Police Department, but nothing came of it.
Stories still circulate about what really happened that night, and who killed John Gustafson, but one fact remains the same: When John died, his head was shorn clean—no ponytail.
AFTER HIS SON'S death, Joe Gustafson's hair turned white virtually overnight. He stayed inside his steel-plated home, rarely seen.
Little Joe talked about changing his life. He started working construction—but his business wasn't exactly on the up and up.
The family invested in property. Little Joe went to the real estate training academy of Russ Whitney—the late-night infomercial guru who "turned $1,000 in borrowed money into a personal wealth of $4.7 million—in only 18 months!"
Little Joe, apparently, aimed to do the same. By the time that John died, the Gustafsons owned land across the North Side.
"My son thought he was going to be in the business. He was going to be the housing guy, you know?" Big Joe says.
Among the acquisitions was 3302 Washington Ave. N., a square beige house facing I-94. Big Joe put up a "Gustafson's Bail Bonds" sign, lettered in Hell's Angels red and white. Half a block down, the Hell's Angels have their clubhouse.
Former associates say Big Joe put the sign up to tweak his old friends. Big Joe denies it: "It's nice to see your name in lights, and that's why I bought it," he says.
The family seems to have a knack for buying houses extremely cheap. Big Joe bought 2517 James Ave. N. for $39,396 from the El Forastero Motorcycle Club, a group friendly with the Hell's Angels. Between 1996 and 2001, the Gustafsons paid $10,000 for 2615 Newton Ave. N., $51,869 for 1418 Newton Ave. N., $55,000 for 3117 Girard Ave. N., $71,000 for 3500 Queen Ave. N., and $72,577 for 3214 Vincent Ave. N., according to property records.
Sometimes, the Gustafsons even got properties for free. A woman named Valerie Keesling handed over 738 31st Ave. N. to Big Joe through a quit claim deed. John Van Hall also signed his house over to Big Joe through a quit claim, property records show—no money exchanged. (Big Joe says they gave Van Hall a little cash.)
One day, bullets sailed through Big Joe's house at 4131 Thomas Ave. N. and lodged in his fancy stereo system. Afterward, Gustafson put four-by-eight-foot, 500-pound sheets of steel on the house's facade. That annoyed the neighbors, but Big Joe didn't seem to care.
"What I'm doing here is to secure myself, you know what I mean?" he said at the time. "I believe it's for my protection."
When Little Joe's housing empire wasn't going as well as a Russ Whitney seminar promised, Gustafson started to sell the properties.
Marie Alexander, a woman who served eviction papers for the Gustafsons, bought 2615 Newton for $169,000. According to property records, Little Joe had paid $10,000 for the same house a decade earlier.
Four months after Alexander bought it, 2615 Newton caught fire—twice in eight hours. The Minneapolis arson unit ruled the first fire arson, the second a re-kindle. Total damage: $50,000.
Other properties followed the same pattern.
The Gustafsons sold 3500 Queen Ave. N. to Joshua Ramos for $197,000. (They'd bought it for $71,000 four years earlier.) Four and a half months later, the house went up in flames. Minneapolis investigators ruled it arson, likely aided by an accelerant. Total damage: $150,000.
Around this time, Michael Densinger bought 3117 Girard Ave N. from Little Joe for $160,574. (Little Joe had gotten the house for a third of the price—$55,000—four years before.)