Calling a gang leader's role in a violent crime ring unlike anything seen before in Minnesota, a judge Thursday sentenced still-defiant Joseph "Big Joe" Gustafson of the "Beat Down Posse" to 15 years in prison.

As he did before and after a jury found him guilty in January, the longtime north Minneapolis bail bondsman repeatedly maintained his innocence. In a speech peppered with obscenities, he claimed he was persecuted by law enforcement, his past, and lying witnesses looking for a sweetheart deal.

"I'm being convicted because my name is Joe Gustafson. I used to be wild and raise hell. So what? I'm 56 years old now," the former Hell's Angel said before Judge Kerry Meyer sentenced him to the maximum term for racketeering: 15 years in prison.

Minneapolis City Council President Barbara Johnson and Police Chief Tim Dolan sat in the front row during the hearing, a sign of the significance of the case to north Minneapolis.

Johnson, whose ward is in north Minneapolis, said that constituents have complained to her about Gustafson in the 15 years she's served on the council.

"I just wanted to see justice served," she said afterward. Dolan called the prosecution "one of the major cases of the last 30 years for the Minneapolis Police Department."

Gustafson was indicted on six felony counts, including attempted murder and arson, as the alleged leader of the brutal North Side gang that robbed, intimidated and assaulted drug dealers and others. Prosecutors alleged that he was the "CEO" of the gang, issuing orders while running it under the front of his business, Gustafson Bail Bonds.

In January, a jury found him guilty of racketeering, arson and kidnapping, but he was cleared of attempted murder and conspiracy to commit murder. His son, Joseph Duane "Little Joe" Gustafson Jr., 37, is to stand trial next week on similar charges.

"Big Joe" Gustafson's attorney, Barry Voss, asked Meyer to throw out the verdicts and grant his client a new trial. He claimed that Gustafson was being tried on reputation alone, and cited the witnesses who admitted on the stand that they were testifying in hopes of avoiding prosecution for their activities related to the gang. Among them was Troy Neuberger, who was indicted along with Joseph Gustafson Jr. for the same violent crimes last year. He has not yet entered a plea.

"You are about to sentence a man who is not guilty," said Voss, who vigorously cross-examined each of the witnesses in Gustafson's trial. "This courtroom has reeked of his reputation, used by different people for different reasons."

Senior Assistant Hennepin County Attorney William Richardson countered that Gustafson, despite his plainspokenness, is in fact, an "elite criminal."

"He may not look like it, he may not act like it, but he has run with great precision this crime family that has terrorized north Minneapolis."

Meyer agreed. The range of crimes, from arson and kidnapping to vicious assaults, made the Beat Down Posse far different from other crime rings such as those specializing in mortgage fraud or drug dealing, she said.

In addition to the 15 years, Meyer also sentenced Gustafson to more than 12 years for first-degree arson, second-degree assault and kidnapping. That sentence will run concurrently with the racketeering sentence. With good behavior, Gustafson will be eligible for parole in 2022. He will be 66 years old.

Abby Simons • 612-673-4921