Minnesota Now with Cathy Wurzer

Lazzaro trial update: Fourth day of sex trafficking case

A sketch of a pretrial hearing
In this courtroom sketch, Anton "Tony" Lazzaro (left) listens during a pretrial hearing in federal court on March 20.
Cedric Hohnstadt for MPR News

Testimony resumed Monday morning in the sex trafficking trial of Tony Lazzaro, a former political operative and top donor to the Minnesota Republican Party.

Lazzaro is charged with sex trafficking five minors, girls who were 15 and 16 years old. At the time the alleged offenses began in May of 2020 Lazzaro was 29 years old.

Prosecutors say he paid the girls cash for sex, and also gave them gifts including vape pens, and luxury goods. MPR News reporter Matt Sepic has been following the case and he joined MPR News host Cathy Wurzer.

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation. 

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Audio transcript

[MUSIC PLAYING] CATHY WURZER: Testimony has resumed this morning in the sex trafficking trial of Tony Lazzaro, a former political operative and top donor to the Minnesota Republican Party. NPR News reporter Matt Sepic has been following the case. He joins us right now with the latest. Appreciate your time here Matt. Thank you so much.

MATT SEPIC: Hi, Cathy.

CATHY WURZER: So this is the fourth day of testimony in the trial, is that right?

MATT SEPIC: Correct. Jury was seated last Tuesday and openings were Wednesday.

CATHY WURZER: So remind folks of the charges against Mr. Lazzaro.

MATT SEPIC: Well, he's charged with sex trafficking five minors, girls who were 15 and 16 years old. At the time the alleged offenses began in May of 2020, Lazzaro was 29. Prosecutors say he paid the girls cash for sex and also gave them gifts, including vape pens and luxury goods.

CATHY WURZER: So last week, we heard from two of his alleged victims and his alleged accomplice. All three were on the stand. What are we hearing from them?

MATT SEPIC: Yeah, the government's key witness spent the entire day on the stand on Thursday. That's Gisella Castro Medina, now 21 years old. And it's important to note, she was charged alongside Lazzaro and pleaded guilty back in December to charges of sex trafficking and obstruction. And in exchange for cooperating with the government, prosecutors promised to ask Judge Patrick Schultz for leniency when she's sentenced.

Castro Medina said that she and a then 16-year-old friend were bored at the start of the pandemic so they set up profiles on a so-called sugar daddy dating site that matches typically wealthy men with younger partners. Castro Medina said that she and her friend, who's described in court documents as Victim A, started exchanging messages with Lazzaro after he sent them $50 in exchange for photos of their faces. Castro Medina said Lazzaro sent an Uber to take them to his downtown Minneapolis apartment at the Hotel Ivy, where he served them champagne, paid them to take off their clothes, and later gave them cash for sex.

Castro Medina testified that during her second visit to Lazzaro's, he asked her to be his recruiter and find more girls for him on social media. Castro Medina said he wanted, quote, "broken girls" around age 16 who were thin, white, petite, no tattoos. Prosecutors say Lazzaro gave Castro Medina around $15,000 in all in exchange for being his recruiter.

And Cathy, we also heard now from most of the alleged victims. In fact, one just had taken the witness stand a few minutes ago when I stepped out to go back to the studio. Another identified in court documents as Victim C testified last week that she met Lazzaro after Castro Medina befriended her on social media and told her about this rich friend she should meet. The young woman, who was 15 years old at the time, now 18, described how in 2020 she and two 14-year-old friends sneaked away from a slumber party, got into an Uber that Lazzaro sent for them. And we heard similar testimony from other women who were 16 when Lazzaro allegedly paid them for sex.

CATHY WURZER: What is Lazzaro's defense saying about all this?

MATT SEPIC: Well, he was charged and arrested in August of 2021. He's been in jail ever since in pretrial detention. In filings, court documents, defense attorneys have argued that prosecutors were singling out Lazzaro because of his wealth and his conservative politics. They also said that four of the alleged victims had reached Minnesota's age of consent. But Judge Schultz is prohibiting the defense from making those arguments in front of the jury, in part because federal sex trafficking laws banned commercial sex with anyone under age 18.

Defense Attorney Thomas Beito pointed out that it was the idea of one alleged victim and not Gisela Castro Medina to seek out Lazzaro because the teen was short of cash and needed money for drugs. The defense has also tried to point out some inconsistencies between what the alleged victims told investigators in FBI interviews and what they said on the witness stand.

CATHY WURZER: So you mentioned that-- and thank you, by the way, for leaving court to talk with us. So one of the alleged victims has been on the stand so far this morning, is that right?

MATT SEPIC: Yeah. Well, the second one just took the stand. One went on early this morning. There was an FBI agent who just provided some foundational testimony about pulling evidence from one of Lazzaro's digital devices. But the fourth alleged victim is on the stand right now and I expect them to go on break here in a little bit. And I believe the fifth alleged victim will take the stand as well this afternoon.

CATHY WURZER: Will Lazzaro testify himself?

MATT SEPIC: Not sure yet. The defense has not said. But they did say last week that they might call Lazzaro's mother as a character witness.

CATHY WURZER: OK. So this is feeling like it might be kind of a short trial here. When do you expect the jury to get the-- when would they start the decision making?

MATT SEPIC: Well, I'm expecting the government to wrap up their main case in chief by tomorrow. Then defense will get to present its case. Now, depending on how long the defense takes, I would imagine, and I'm speculating here, that jurors could start their deliberations later this week after closing arguments.

CATHY WURZER: All right. Matt Sepic, thank you so much.

MATT SEPIC: You're welcome.

CATHY WURZER: That's reporter Matt Sepic. He's going to follow this trial all week. You can find his updates online at nprnews.org.

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