Duluth police take stand in federal case against Carlson

MINNEAPOLIS -- When three police officers testified for the prosecution in the Last Place on Earth drug trial on Wednesday, they spent more time fielding questions from defense attorneys than they did from prosecutors.

Jim Carlson
Jim Carlson, left, owner of Last Place on Earth, and his son on Joseph Gellerman, right, walk in downtown Minneapolis after court on Tuesday, Sept. 17, 2013. (AP Photo/The Star Tribune, Brian Peterson)

MINNEAPOLIS -- When three police officers testified for the prosecution in the Last Place on Earth drug trial on Wednesday, they spent more time fielding questions from defense attorneys than they did from prosecutors.

As the U.S. attorneys attempted to show that the downtown Duluth head shop regularly sold illegal synthetic drugs, the five-member defense team appeared to have them matched step-for-step.

Shop owner Jim Carlson, 56, is on trial in U.S. District Court in Minneapolis, charged with 55 federal offenses related to selling controlled substances and violating product labeling laws. His son, Joseph Gellerman, 35, and girlfriend, Lava Haugen, 32, both former shop employees, face four charges apiece.

Much of the day's testimony focused on several controlled purchases made at the shop by Hermantown police officer Jon Esterbrooks, a former member of the Lake Superior Drug and Gang Task Force.

Esterbrooks told the jury that he went undercover to purchase the controversial products at the store five times in 2011. The jury viewed several videos that were secretly filmed by Esterbrooks as he was in the store. Several of the videos depict Gellerman and other employees answering the officer's questions about products and offering recommendations.


Esterbrooks testified that he was asked to make the buys so the products could be tested for illegal compounds. Several of the products later tested positive when examined by Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension scientists, he said. On the same day as his final controlled buy, Sept. 21, 2011, officers later raided the shop and seized products, money and firearms.

The officer testified that on several occasions he asked if the products were legal, and employees ensured him that they were because any chemicals that had been outlawed had been replaced. He said he was also assured that the drugs would not be detected if he had to take a urine test for work.

Defense attorneys used those points to assert their claims that the defendants believed at all times that the products they were selling were fully legal. Attorneys have argued that the defendants openly sold the products and were never attempting to hide it.

Tigue pointed to a receipt that was placed into evidence, showing that Esterbrooks paid sales tax on his purchase.

"Have you ever met a drug dealer who charged sales tax?" Tigue asked.

"No," Esterbrooks responded.

The officer also testified that during one of his purchases, a news photographer was in the store taking pictures of Carlson.

"So Mr. Carlson had the news media there recording all of this illegal activity that you claim was taking place at the Last Place on Earth?" defense attorney Charles Hawkins asked Esterbrooks.


"Yes," he responded.

During the testimony of Esterbrooks and Duluth police Sgt. Andy Mickus, Tigue also brought into evidence lab reports that were included in every shipment of synthetics that the store received. The reports, conducted by laboratories certified by the Drug Enforcement Administration, contain a long list of controlled substances and indicate that those substances were not contained in the products.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Surya Saxena, however, questioned whether the products were ever really tested for every controlled substance.

"The reports indicate what the product does not contain, but have you ever found a lab report detailing the chemicals that a product does contain?" Saxena asked Mickus.

"No, I have not," Mickus responded.

To reach a guilty verdict, the prosecution must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendants knowingly conspired to sell analogues -- drugs substantially similar to controlled substances in chemical make-up and effects.

The defense has argued that Carlson and his employees went to great lengths to keep the store's inventory legal, and say that the DEA did not set clear standards for what constitutes an analogue.

Wednesday's testimony also included downtown Duluth community officer Nick Lepak, who testified about public nuisance issues he observed as the store increased its synthetics sales. James Cahill, an employee of neighboring business ShelDon, also testified about his deteriorating relationship with Carlson and the business over several years.


The prosecution will continue to call witnesses when the trial resumes Thursday.

Related Topics: CRIME
Tom Olsen has covered crime and courts for the Duluth News Tribune since 2013. He is a graduate of the University of Minnesota Duluth and a lifelong resident of the city. Readers can contact Olsen at 218-723-5333 or
What To Read Next
The system crashed earlier this month, grounding flights across the U.S.