Man of Steel

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

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.

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?"

Karin Cole lives across the street from Gustafson. "The old people are very intimidated," she says. "I like the neighborhood, I like my neighbors. I would hate to leave because of one house." But she's concerned that the metal screens are bringing down property values in the neighborhood. Ultimately, she says, "I just would want him to take down the sheets of iron and have the house back to a normal house."

Nell Bean, a building-inspection supervisor with the City of Minneapolis, says that, provided Gustafson meets standards for lighting and ventilation, and has operable egress windows in sleeping rooms (steps he has agreed to take), he's in compliance with city code. "He has a permit. He indicated to me he's going to make cutouts in the steel where the windows are," says Bean. "So then it's a nonissue for us. There's no code that specifically says you can't put steel plates in front of your house."

Indeed, there's a building permit taped to Gustafson's front door. "It says siding, windows, and doors. That's what I'm replacing," he says. "I'm complying with the city ordinances."

Gustafson says that he never intended to "piss off anyone", and he's angry that none of his neighbors has inquired as to his welfare. "None of the neighbors seem to be concerned about me being shot at," says Gustafson. "Those bullets were coming into my house," he says. "Not out of my house. I almost got killed here."

"If the neighbors don't like it," he says, "there's not much I can do about it."

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