His thick forearms crossed, Joseph Robert "Big Joe" Gustafson watched from behind a Plexiglas window as his attorney described him as a family man and business owner, a father and grandfather who has lived in Minnesota his entire life.

It was a far cry from what Minneapolis authorities allege of the longtime bail bondsman and ex-Hell's Angel: A ruthless gang leader who stopped at virtually nothing to get what he wanted, even if that meant terrorizing gang members and trying to kill one of them.

Gustafson, described by police as the head of the north Minneapolis gang known as "Beat Down Posse,'' appeared in court Thursday to answer to seven felony charges. They included racketeering, arson and attempted first-degree murder spanning years in north Minneapolis in connection with the gang's activities. Authorities say much of the activity was run under the front of his own now-defunct business, Gustafson's Bail Bonds.

Gustafson looked on stonefaced as his attorney, Barry Voss, tried to dispel the image of a Minnesota mafioso in hopes of reducing Gustafson's $1 million bail.

"Visibility in this case has been raised to portray him as some kind of 'godfather,'" Voss said during an impassioned argument before Hennepin County District Judge Mark Wernick. "This case will fall apart on the shambles it's built on."

A 13-page criminal complaint describes gang members as fearful of Gustafson, 55.

Six months ago, authorities charged his son, Joseph Duane "Little Joe" Gustafson Jr., 36, and his right-hand man and bodyguard, Troy Neuberger, 38, with 14 felonies, including racketeering, extortion, assault, robbery, kidnapping and weapons and drug trafficking. Neuberger has since cooperated with investigators, the latest complaint said.

The complaints against father and son rely largely on interviews with dozens of witnesses, many of them former Beat Down Posse members. The documents allege that the group for years robbed and extorted drug dealers, and graduated from street thuggery to mortgage schemes, fraudulently getting loans on houses that mysteriously burned to the ground while they cashed in on the insurance proceeds.

They allegedly used the bail bond business as a front for "Hector missions," in which members broke into homes of suspected drug dealers, pretending to be searching for a bail jumper named "Hector." Once inside, they beat and robbed the dealers, charges say.

The complaint against Gustafson Sr. details how he ruled with an iron fist, enforcing members' loyalty.

It alleges that he plotted to kill one member he suspected was working as a "snitch" for the FBI. A plan to shoot him inside the bail bond business fell through when the supposed killer, another member of the gang, ran into a woman working on a computer there.

It describes how another who disagreed with the Gustafsons was repeatedly beaten, although another member of the gang paid the Gustafsons thousands of dollars to ensure he wasn't hurt worse. Without the payment, he told police, his friend "might end up in one of their houses or something."

"One of their burned houses?" an investigator asked.


Attorney: Witnesses shaky

Voss said the complaint is based on statements from numerous ex-gang members, most of whom agreed to cooperate with police because they're also in trouble. He said Gustafson Sr. has no serious criminal charges since 1984.

"I'm extremely troubled by what they've done," Voss said. "I can guarantee when this case goes to trial, these witnesses' backgrounds will be explored."

The complaint was filed June 24. For 10 days the Minneapolis Police Department's Fugitive Task Force searched for Gustafson. He turned himself in late Wednesday.

At the bail hearing, Assistant Hennepin County Attorney Amber Hawkins argued that Gustafson, as a bail bondsman, knows to appear in court and should not have his bail reduced. Investigators received evidence in jail calls between father and son in which they discussed witness tampering, she said.

Wernick kept Gustafson's bail at $1 million.

Outside the hearing, Gustafson's brother, Bruce Gustafson, seethed, and not only for his brother's fate.

Bruce Gustafson said he was beaten by police who raided his Princeton home last Friday in search of his brother. They broke down the door, he said, and handcuffed family members. He would have let them in, he said, even though his brother wasn't there.

He said constant police pressure ran his brother's bail bond business into the ground. He said charges against his brother are false. He called it fallout from those against Joseph Jr.

"Little Joe is Little Joe, but Big Joe is a whole different person," he said. "I don't know what my nephew does, but I know damn good and well what my brother does."

Abby Simons • 612-673-4921