A couple of days after he'd won the biggest case of his career against Tom Petters, and the largest fraud case in state history, I met Joe Dixon, assistant U.S. attorney, for coffee and asked him how he was doing.

"Off the record?"

There are lawyers who play their cards close to the vest, and there is Dixon, who wants a confidentiality agreement to tell you the time. He didn't want this story to be about him because, as he says, it was a team effort.

True, Dixon was just one of the all-star attorneys on both sides in the Petters case. But as the government's lead prosecutor in financial crimes, he had the opportunity to do something no other lawyer in America has had a chance to do: cross-examine the defendant in a billion-dollar Ponzi scheme. He didn't waste the opportunity.

Dixon methodically interrogated Petters into a series of contradictions and admissions as Petters became increasingly irritated. He lured Petters into blaming a coterie of others for the fraud before trying to get him to also blame a lowly assistant who delivered envelopes of cash. When Petters hesitated, Dixon snapped: "Who did it then, little elves?"

During one brutal inquiry, Dixon mentioned that Petters had gotten money from a relative. "In fact, you Ponzied your own father-in-law," he said. Petters looked away.

If you saw Dixon on the street, this kind of ferocity wouldn't be obvious. He's short and slight, always cordial and looks much younger than his age, 40. Discussing Dixon's persona recently, a judge pinched a reporter's cheek and said, "You just want to do this to him."

But those who have watched him in court offer these adjectives: diligent, focused, quick, unflappable, wicked smart, kind, aggressive without being grating or self-righteous. "A pint-sized Elliot Ness."

Dixon, who grew up in St. Louis Park, is the son and namesake of an attorney. He graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Columbia Law School. He's married and has two kids. No names or ages, please.

Hank Shea, a former assistant U.S. attorney who teaches at the University of St. Thomas (as does Dixon) said, "Nobody works harder than Joe. He's highly ethical and a strong advocate" against white-collar crime. "I think he proved to everybody that he could take any case that came in the door. "

Paul McCabe, supervisory special agent for the FBI, watched part of the case and lauded all three prosecutors for their ability to condense an amazing amount of detail into a story.

"We've seen Joe do this on every case, but the general public finally got to see what a great prosecutor he is," McCabe said.

Mike Colich, a defense attorney, said Dixon "has an instinctual feel for how the jury will react to certain things. He can take complex cases and reduce them to simple terms."

Dixon said the Petters case was the most difficult and complex case that he and attorneys John Marti and Tim Rank have ever tried. Dixon said he sometimes awoke at 3 a.m. to prepare.

"What made it difficult was the amount of time that the fraud ran, the breadth of information, the sophistication of the business language and the huge amount of evidence," Dixon said. "The big decision was what to keep in and what to leave out. It could have gone on six months."

Dixon said he began preparing his cross examination of Petters after the second day of the trial. He knew he had to chip away at Petter's charm and reputation for charity.

"One of their themes was that his conduct was for the purpose of helping others," Dixon said. "It was important to raise questions about his motives and personal wealth."

That need led to an exchange in which Dixon repeatedly insisted that Petters relished his reputation as a "corporate tycoon" and "captain of industry." Petters got so annoyed with the questions that he eventually gave a "whatever you say" answer.

When Dixon goaded Petters about buying himself a Bentley car for Christmas, Petters declared himself "not a Bentley guy."

Dixon quickly put the receipt on the overhead and Petters grumbled, "I guess that makes me a Bentley guy."

Days after the conviction, Dixon didn't want to talk about his performance, but he did want to talk about the message the trial sends.

"The community needs to know there are significant consequences if you do something like this. I hope people who see wrongdoing in their own company will do something about it."

jtevlin@startribune.com • 612-673-1702