Little Joe Gustafson goes to court

Cops close in on alleged crime family

In September, the phone rang in the office of City Pages' editor-in-chief Kevin Hoffman. On the other end was an angry woman demanding a retraction.

She was upset about a cover story we ran in February. "Fallen Angel" told the secret history of the north side's most notorious crime family: the Gustafsons. The story recounted the criminal histories of Joseph "Big Joe" Gustafson, a bail bondsman and former Hell's Angel, and his son, Joseph "Little Joe" Gustafson.

The piece also described the alleged crimes of the Gustafsons' flunkies, who call themselves the Beat-Down Posse. The BDP once attacked a drug dealer, then left him in a bathtub in a pool of his own blood.

We said that the Gustafsons had once bailed out a man named Hector Fonseco and then lost money when Hector skipped town. Looking for Hector became an excuse for the BDP to terrorize and shake down local Latino families.

The woman on the phone said we got it all wrong. She said she didn't know her husband Little Joe to be a violent man.

"Your sources are a bunch of meth mouths," Little Joe's wife complained. "Those aren't reliable sources."

Indeed, there have been complications in the case. After authorities raided Big Joe's steel-fortified house, the case against the Gustafsons ground to a sudden halt.

The Metro Gang Strike Force controversy was to blame. A corruption scandal within the elite ranks of Minnesota's law enforcement community splashed across newspaper front pages and threatened to taint active criminal cases.

A whistleblower in the Strike Force case is also the lead investigator on the Gustafson investigation. Sgt. Kelly O'Rourke complained to his supervisor, Lt. Jim Heimerl, and to Heimerl's supervisor, Minneapolis Police Capt. Otto Wagenpfeil, about the Strike Force's activities well before it became public knowledge.

Instead of addressing his concerns, his supervisors removed O'Rourke from the force and sent him back to the regular police department.

A year and a half later, when the scandal hit the press, O'Rourke's name was dragged through the mud. Someone told WCCO that O'Rourke had taken home an ice auger from the Strike Force's evidence room.

Both the Minneapolis internal affairs unit and the FBI cleared O'Rourke of any wrongdoing, according to his attorney, Patrick Burns, and the police sergeant filed a whistleblower lawsuit against the city.

In the meantime, the Gustafson case continued. Last October, Minneapolis cops, the FBI, and the IRS raided the Gustafson family's homes and took 38 guns. A federal grand jury began subpoenaing witnesses, and dozens testified.

The cops expected the Gustafsons to be charged by summer's end.

But summer came and went with no charges. Two stories circulate as to why.

One suggested that too many witnesses and too much information made the case unwieldy, and federal prosecutors didn't want to deal with it.

The other said that the feds dragged their feet because of O'Rourke's association with the Strike Force controversy.

Either way, while the feds stalled, some of the evidence timed out. Minneapolis cops conducted a wide-ranging probe: suspicious deaths, mortgage and insurance fraud related to arson, drugs and weapons trafficking, extortion, and aggravated assault. The arsons, an early part of the investigation, come with statutes of limitation. Investigators fear that it may be too late now to prosecute those crimes.

Meanwhile, the Gustafsons have claimed that Strike Force members discriminated against them and mistreated them. They threatened to file a lawsuit.

"I think they're kind of prejudiced against me because I'm an ex-Hell's Angel," Big Joe said earlier this year. "And my brother was convicted of a cop killing in St. Paul. I really do believe a lot of this shit's personal, or political. You know?"

Just weeks after Little Joe's angry wife called City Pages, her 35-year-old husband was scheduled to be in court on charges of domestic assault. He'd allegedly strangled her, and he faced a jury trial.

On Tuesday, October 5, Little Joe entered the courthouse in an olive checked shirt, his long hair flowing down his back. The authorities were waiting for him.

Little Joe had been set up. Just that morning, a judge signed the warrants for his arrest.

Hennepin County deputies cuffed him and took him to jail. His bail was set at $500,000.

Little Joe faces three felony charges: one count of making terroristic threats and two of illegal possession of a firearm. If convicted of all charges, he could face up to 35 years in prison. His first court appearance on the charges is scheduled for this week.

Two members of the BDP—33-year-old Robert Allen Engles and 38-year-old Troy Michael Neuberger—face felony counts for terroristic threats and second-degree assault.

The criminal complaints describe in detail the very situations City Pages reported in February, from the BDP's use of the name Hector right down to the skull fracture the dealer suffered the night they beat him to a pulp and left him bleeding in the bathtub.

The complaints also maintain that Little Joe has been selling stolen guns.

Little Joe didn't stay locked up long. Judge Gina Brandt lowered bail to $40,000 if he promised to stay away from guns. Big Joe—who lost his bail bond license this spring—sprung his kid.

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