Lazzaro co-defendant pleads guilty to sex trafficking, obstruction

A woman accused of seeking out and sexually grooming underage sex partners for Minnesota Republican political operative Tony Lazzaro pleaded guilty Monday to charges of sex trafficking and obstruction.

Lazzaro, 32, is accused of giving money and gifts to five girls in exchange for sex. In a Minneapolis federal courtroom, Gisela Castro Medina, 20, admitted using social media and her personal connections to find the girls.

A grand jury indicted Lazzaro and Medina in August of 2021, eight months after the FBI searched Lazzaro’s downtown Minneapolis luxury apartment. Investigators allege that throughout 2020, Lazzaro gave the girls, who were between the ages of 15 and 17, cash, vape pens and luxury items in exchange for sex. Lazzaro is also charged with attempting to traffic a sixth teenager. He pleaded not guilty to all 10 counts in the indictment. 

Lazzaro’s arrest sent tremors through the Minnesota Republican Party. He was a major donor to GOP candidates, managed Lacy Johnson’s unsuccessful 2020 bid to unseat Ilhan Omar, DFL-Minneapolis and was close to former party chair Jennifer Carnahan, who resigned last year under pressure. 

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FBI agents allegedly recovered cash, gold and other precious metals from Lazzaro’s home in the Hotel Ivy. 

Before entering her guilty pleas, Medina said she met Lazzaro through a “sugar daddy” website that pairs young women with older, wealthy men. In their first encounter, Medina said Lazzaro gave her alcohol and $600 to perform sex acts with a 16-year-old girl. Medina said after a second meeting, Lazzaro gave the teen an envelope of cash, which the victim split with Medina. 

As defense attorney Elizabeth Duel read through the facts outlined in a plea agreement, Medina confirmed that Lazzaro instructed her to seek out more girls and encrypt and automatically delete their text messages by using the apps Signal and WhatsApp. She said that she used Snapchat, Instagram and her connections from high school to find girls, and sent their photos to Lazzaro for his approval. 

According to the plea agreement, Lazzaro promised to pay Medina’s graduate school tuition and buy her a house.

In a court filing earlier Monday, Duel wrote that her client “has been sent money from an unknown source.” In court, Assistant U.S. Attorney Laura Provinzino said the amount was $20,000, but did not indicate who deposited it into Medina’s account.

Duel added that Medina, who “has done everything asked of her and more,” handed the money over to the government and informed investigators about it. 

In pleading guilty to obstruction, Medina admitted offering money to a 15-year-old girl in exchange for her silence following the FBI search but before the grand jury returned its indictment.

Medina is expected to testify against Lazzaro at his trial, which is scheduled to start March 20.

Even with her cooperation, Medina could still face between nearly 16 and 20 years prison under sentencing guidelines. In exchange for her guilty pleas, prosecutors agreed to drop five other counts, and to ask Judge Patrick Schiltz for leniency. The government is also asking that Medina be allowed to remain free pending her sentencing hearing, which Schiltz allowed. 

Lazzaro, whom prosecutors say presents a risk of fleeing if allowed to go free ahead of his trial, remains in the Sherburne County Jail, where he’s been held since his arrest.