Joe Gustafson lives above the law in north Minneapolis
Joe Gustafson sat there, handcuffed, in a recliner in his living room, as federal agents rifled through his personal things. They were tearing through the house, taking his guns. He showed them the serial numbers carved onto the sides, but it didn't matter. He was a prisoner in his home and he couldn't stop them.
They'd come in the morning, before sunrise, stealing into the sleepy Victory neighborhood in north Minneapolis where Gustafson ran his bail bonds business and raised his sons. They stormed past the house's steel-plated facade in riot gear, as if they expected a shoot-out, as if he were some big-time gangster waiting with pistol cocked. They tinkered with the security camera, the one he'd installed to watch the front door. They crawled all over his lawn in blue jackets, their backs blazed proud yellow: FBI and IRS.
Gustafson—a 54-year-old former Hell's Angel with a gray ponytail, an Angels tattoo on his chest, and motorcycle boots—was furious. The federal agents descended upon his house, the house of his daughter-in-law, and a third house where a friend of theirs lived, all for no good reason, he says. "To be honest with you, I'm kind of in the dark about it, you know? I believe it's unjust and uncalled for, you know what I mean?"
Gustafson says it's just like the raid several years ago, when the cops came to his house accusing his son of title fraud and tax evasion, or when they investigated him for dealing in stolen Harleys as part of a Hell's Angels chop shop. They couldn't pin him with anything then, he says, and they won't this time, either.
"I'm licensed as a bail bonds business, I do bounty-hunting work, all my guns are legal, I have a license to carry," he says. "Totally, this is some bullshit, you know what I mean?"
A federal grand jury is expected to hand down indictments of Gustafson, his son, and their underlings soon—possibly within weeks. Federal prosecutors are arguing that Gustafson and son are the masterminds of an organized crime ring specializing in arson, fraud, extortion, drugs, and kidnapping. Subpoenas are circulating, even if few people involved in the case are willing to talk publicly.
"I can confirm that we executed a search warrant at that location in support of an ongoing investigation," is all that E.K. Wilson, an FBI spokesman, would offer.
"We aren't really able to comment about an ongoing situation," says Janet Oakes, special agent and spokeswoman for the IRS.
But several Minneapolis police officers confirm that the case is now with federal prosecutors.
"He's been a figure on the North Side for probably 30 years, if not more," says Minneapolis Police Inspector Mike Martin, commander of the Fourth Precinct. "He's one of these guys that wasn't accepted within the biker culture and was therefore excommunicated from the Hell's Angels, and yet wants to still portray this image that he's affiliated with them, and use that to intimidate people."
JOSEPH ROBERT GUSTAFSON got his first serious criminal conviction, for felony aggravated assault, in 1979, when he was 23. A man named Donald Peterson was moving furniture for his ex-wife outside a home in north Minneapolis when Gustafson, accompanied by his older brother James, showed up carrying a heavy pipe.
The beating was so vicious that Peterson was left with a fractured skull and jaw and lost 14 teeth.
When police asked Gustafson about it, he told them he was under the influence of medication and didn't remember anything. Big brother James dummied up as well.
All the Gustafson boys got in trouble, but none more than Joe's younger brother Harold. Like Joe's, Harold's fists could deliver devastating blows. After one night of drinking in 1976, Harold beat a man so badly that he was left mentally incapacitated, unable to speak or feed himself. At 19, Harold was headed to prison for five years.
He'd been out of St. Cloud penitentiary for just over a year when, in October 1982, he put on a mask and stormed the basement pharmacy of a hospital in St. Paul. Harold and two other men tried to rob the cashier. When the security guard, an off-duty Oakdale cop, tried to intervene, someone shot him dead.
The family jumped to Harold's defense. They said that on the evening of the murder, Harold was at his parents' house, eating chili and giving the family tattoos.
The jury didn't buy it. In 1984, Harold got life in prison.
Around the same time, Joe got arrested on felony drug charges. He was sitting on his motorcycle, blocking traffic, jawing away at someone in a parked car near the intersection of 26th Street and Sheridan Avenue North, according to court records. When a Minneapolis cop told him to move along, Gustafson refused.
The officer asked for his name—Joe gave a fake one—and patted him down. Gustafson had six and one-quarter grams of cocaine attached to a beeper in the inner pocket of his black leather jacket.
But Joe had a plan. On March 1, 1985, he took a man named Andrew Carey Beggs for a drive in his pickup truck, according to court records. Gustafson steered past a 1972 Pontiac Ventura parked in a north Minneapolis alleyway, and dangled some keys. If Beggs claimed the blow, the car would be his, Gustafson promised.
Beggs and Joe met to go over the story, along with Gustafson's girlfriend, Colleen Livingston, and his mother, Patricia. One of the women took notes to help Beggs remember the story. A few days later, Beggs and Joe met with Gustafson's attorney so that Beggs could practice some more.
The day before Gustafson's trial was to begin, Beggs told his story to the Minneapolis police in the lawyer's office. Beggs said he'd been drinking that night with Gustafson and had won the cocaine in a pool game. He'd slipped it into his jacket pocket, then loaned the jacket to Gustafson to wear.
The next day, however, Beggs had a change of heart: He confessed that Gustafson had bribed him. Beggs gave the police the title and keys to the Ventura as proof. He also recorded a damning conversation on tape.
"You're supposed to just say ya just won the shit, ya know what I mean?" Gustafson asks Beggs, according to the criminal complaint.
A jury convicted Joe of bribery and of conspiracy to commit perjury, both felonies, but not of the drug charges. Twenty-five years later, Gustafson cites the case as an example of how the law has continually screwed him over.
"It wasn't my coat," he says. "When I went to prison, it was for conspiracy to commit perjury and bribery—pertaining to a case I beat in a jury trial! Does that make any sense to you?"
JOE GUSTAFSON BECAME a father young, eight days before his 19th birthday, when his 18-year-old girlfriend, Colleen Livingston, had a son, Joseph Duane. Six and a half years later, Colleen gave birth to a second boy, John Albert.
When his kids were small, Joe was riding with the Hell's Angels. Before he killed the cop, Harold had introduced Joe to Paul "Rooster" Seydel, the vice president of the Minnesota chapter of the Hell's Angels.
Joe got his patch faster than any Angel in Minnesota club history—some claim he paved the way by donating about $40,000 to the club, which Joe vehemently denies. Either way, Hell's Angels membership was a point of pride for the family. Like their daddy, the young Gustafson boys wore their hair biker-style, flowing down their backs.
"John-o, when he was eight or nine, had hair past his butt," says Chris Caine, who grew up around the block from Gustafson's parents' house. "When they were kids, John-o was like, 'Oh, my dad's a Hell's Angel.'"
At some point, Gustafson got kicked out of the club. There are many stories circulating about what happened, but Gustafson won't discuss it.
"Anyhow, it just wasn't the way it was supposed to be," he says. "I should have transferred to another state is what I should have did. Because—you know what I mean—I'd probably still be in it then, you know?" In 1988, when his boys were 13 and 6, Gustafson was convicted of domestic assault. He beat Colleen, and on at least one occasion broke her fingers. Eventually, Colleen left him.
So he raised his boys alone, and they followed in his steel-toed bootsteps.
John-o's criminal history is short. He was cited at 19 for having pot in his car, and at 20 for slashing tires and knifing an enemy's shoulder at a party. His only criminal conviction was a misdemeanor, driving with a suspended license.
The older son, Joe Jr., racked up the more serious record, collecting felonies for car theft, assault, and property damage.
In 1993, Gustafson and Joe Jr. paid a visit to a house on Aldrich Avenue North, according to court records: They were looking for vengeance for a murdered friend.
"You guys got guns, we'll come back with guns," said Little Joe, inviting a shoot-out.
As father and son turned to leave, one of their enemies reached out and grabbed Big Joe. Quickly, Little Joe pulled out a knife and stabbed the assailant in the neck.
Big Joe says that court records don't tell the whole story—specifically that the men had stumbled into an ambush with a bunch of Crips who'd been picking on Little Joe. "They gutted me from my rib cage to my belly button," he says. "Lucky we got out alive."
Little Joe got a plea bargain that lowered a felony assault charge to a misdemeanor.
He was supposed to stay away from weapons and work or go back to school. But as the years passed, his violence only escalated.
In one episode outside of Gabby's Bar in northeast Minneapolis, 22-year-old Little Joe shouted racial slurs at two black men and threatened them with a knife. Then he jumped into a stolen car and gunned it, hitting four people, including his girlfriend, Mindy Heinkel. She needed surgery—a steel rod in her right femur and a steel plate in her left.
Big Joe says that Little Joe was acting in self-defense.
"There were four or five black guys assaulting my kid. He was by himself with his girlfriend," Big Joe says. "The shit was on. You know, when you get a bunch of drunk black guys in there in the first place, that should have been some kind of self-defense."
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.)
Densinger's new property also went up in flames. It, too, was ruled arson, aided by an accelerant. Total damage: $100,000.
Several more of the Gustafsons' properties burned, including 2527 James Ave. N., 1418 Newton Ave. N., and 738 31st Ave. N. Total damage for six arsons: $745,000.
Gustafson says his renters are to blame for the blaze at 2517 James, and for another at a house on Aldrich.
"They were tenants from hell and they were renting the places and what they actually were was crackheads," he says. "Some of the crackhead people that they ripped off went back and started both of my houses on fire, on Aldrich and on James down there. You know what I mean?"
MEANWHILE, LITTLE JOE ran around town intimidating people. In March 2005, 30-year-old Little Joe went on a drunken rampage with a claw hammer.
He pulled into the back parking lot of Standup Franks in north Minneapolis, according to police records, wearing his red "Gustafson's Bail Bonds" jacket, gold rings gleaming from seven of his fingers. He jumped from the car, screaming at a man named Ravindra Persaud.
Little Joe pulled out a hammer and smashed in the windows of Persaud's van.
Persaud threatened to call the police.
"I'm going to kill you," Little Joe said, swinging his hammer at Persaud.
Persaud jumped back. Little Joe swung again.
"You motherfuckers don't know who you're messing with," Little Joe raged. "I'm Joey Gustafson!"
Then he drove off, gunning for Persaud, who had to leap aside to avoid being hit.
Little Joe continued his rampage at the Star Bar in Columbia Heights later that night, where he smashed in the windows of five cars. For this, Little Joe was convicted of felony property damage and sentenced to 17 months in jail and five years of probation. But charges were never pressed for the incident at Standup Franks because, according to a police report, Persaud wouldn't cooperate.
Despite his temper, Little Joe managed to surround himself with friends—or, more accurately, people who thought they were his friends.
The people who bought houses from the Gustafsons before they burned down—Marie Alexander, Joshua Ramos, Michael Densinger—were more like groupies. They called themselves the BDP: the Beat-Down Posse.
"People go to Joe that can't go to the cops," says a former member of the BDP who requested anonymity for fear of being attacked by his former cohorts. "They go to Joe for protection, or to even the score. That's what the feds can't understand—how he stays in business."
About 15 people were part of the BDP, each with a specialty. Troy Neuberger was Little Joe's bodyguard and in charge of all the finances. Neuberger lived with Michael Densinger, whose criminal records include forgery and theft, in the bail bond house—Big Joe rented it out rather than work there. The BDP used the bond house as a shooting gallery.
The BDP stole product and cash from drug dealers. One night, they were having a party in a house on 32nd and Grand when a dealer stopped by. The BDP took his money and drugs. They beat him and left him in a bathtub, in a pool of his own blood. The kid was beaten so badly that a few BDP wondered if he'd died.
Afterward, Little Joe started threatening the witnesses, one former BDP says. Little Joe would show up in the middle of the night and threaten to kill anyone who talked—and their families.
Big Joe once bailed out a man named Hector Fonseco on a $12,000 bond. When Fonseco skipped town and went back to Mexico, Big Joe lost money. That became an excuse to rob Mexican families, and to bust down the doors of drug dealers, a former BDP member says.
"He used the excuse of looking for that dude, Hector Fonseco—he used that to the hilt. He used that forever," says the source. "He used that as an excuse to kick people's doors in, to beat people up, to take people's money."
Big Joe says it was no excuse—they were simply looking for Hector. They went to drug houses, he says, because those were the kind of leads they got.
"We can go legally kick in the door, and look for Hector. And that's what we did. We weren't there to take anything from anybody—all we had to do is take Hector."
LITTLE JOE IS inside a Hennepin County Jail cell now, on charges of domestic strangulation—his wife called the cops a few weeks back. Big Joe says the charge is bogus: "She's already recanting her story, you know what I mean?"
Meanwhile, a secret grand jury is hearing witness after witness tell tales of the Gustafsons' legacy of brutality. Father and son are likely to face charges that, if upheld, could lock them both up for the rest of their lives.
Big Joe is unrepentant. He says he has done nothing wrong and has nothing to fear.
"I think they're kind of prejudiced against me because I'm an ex-Hell's Angel. 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?
"The only goddamn problem is I'm probably guilty of fucking being too good to my kids," he says. "I left home when I was like 13. These kids—I give and give and give to them. The 35-year-old, I still pay for his cell phone and goddang car insurance and stuff. That's about it. I love my kids too much. That's the only thing I'll be goddamn guilty of.
"You know what, I don't feel ashamed of anything I've done in my life. You know what I mean? If I did it all over again, I'd do it the same damn way. You know?"
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