Updated March 30, 9:25 a.m. | Posted March 29, 7:53 p.m.
A former friend of one-time Minnesota Republican Party operative and key donor Anton “Tony” Lazzaro gave the FBI text messages and other new evidence on the evening before prosecutors cross-examined Lazzaro in his federal sex trafficking trial.
Lazzaro, 32, is charged with engaging in commercial sex acts with five girls who were 15 and 16 years old at the time of the alleged offenses in 2020. Prosecutors allege that Lazzaro paid his co-defendant, Gisela Castro Medina, 21, around $50,000 to groom and recruit much younger sex partners for him.
Castro Medina pleaded guilty and testified against Lazzaro last week.
Lazzaro took the stand in his own defense Tuesday and Wednesday. Under questioning from his attorney Daniel Gerdts, Lazzaro admitted that he had sex with the teens, but he denied that the cash and gifts that he gave the girls were in exchange for sex.
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Because Lazzaro waived his Fifth Amendment right against self incrimination, Assistant U.S. Attorney Melinda Williams was allowed to cross examine him.
Prosecutors received some help late Tuesday, when Charles Bittman, a former friend and business associate of Lazzaro, provided the government with text messages, video and photos that jurors had not seen during the prior five days of testimony.
Williams confronted Lazzaro Wednesday with inconsistencies between his earlier testimony and texts that he exchanged with Bittman in 2020.
“On direct examination you said ‘there was never ever an agreement to be my recruiter,’” Williams said in reference to Castro Medina.
“I would not call her a recruiter,” Lazzaro responded. “She’s a friend who had a lot of attractive friends and she introduced me to many of them, it was a perk of being her friend.”
Williams then displayed a message from Lazzaro where he wrote “This girl is coming over but it’s almost 3 a.m. See why I use Gisela/recruiters/SA?,” a reference to SeekingArrangement, a “sugar daddy” website that connects typically wealthy men with younger partners.
A photo that Bittman sent the FBI that was mentioned in previous testimony but not shown until Wednesday shows three girls partially clothed and face down on Lazzaro’s bed. Lazzaro previously described the image as a selfie.
“Mr. Lazzaro, I’m not going to keep this up very long, but that ain’t a selfie,” Williams said.
“No, it’s not a selfie,” Lazzaro responded.
“You sent this to your friend to brag?” Williams asked.
“Yes,” Lazzaro answered.
Showing another photo, Williams asked, “You said this was not an exchange of sex for money, do you remember that testimony?
Lazzaro responded that he did, before Williams asked, “Is that cash in her underwear?”
“It may be, I can’t really tell,” Lazzaro said.
Williams also confronted Lazzaro with more new evidence, a separate text exchange with Bittman from August 10, 2020, the anniversary of sex offender and financier Jeffrey Epstein’s death by suicide in a New York jail while he was awaiting trial on federal sex trafficking charges.
Alongside a photo of Epstein, Lazzaro allegedly wrote “Poor Jeff” and “RIP my brother.”
Lazzaro denied knowing that the date was the anniversary of Epstein’s death, and said the “photo is extremely blurry, it could be my grandfather.”
Earlier Wednesday Judge Patrick Schiltz sent the jury out of the courtroom for several minutes, directed Lazzaro to stand at the lectern, and admonished him for his lengthy responses to Williams’ questions, including an instance where Lazzaro referred to being in jail.
In rulings before the trial, Schiltz prohibited any mention of Lazzaro’s pretrial detention and discussions of Minnesota’s age-of-consent law.
“There was absolutely no reason whatsoever for you to make that comment, and you know that I’ve ruled that topic off limits,” Schiltz said. “You’ve been studying this case for 18 months obsessively. You know very well what the limits are.”
The judge also directed Lazzaro not to mention that a 15-year-old alleged victim had lied to Lazzaro about her age.
“Let your lawyers do the lawyering,” Schiltz said. “If you continue to do this, I’m going to stop you and correct you in front of the jury, and it isn’t good for the defendant to have the judge correcting him in front of the jury.”
Wednesday’s testimony had been scheduled to start at 11 a.m., but it didn’t get underway until mid-afternoon. Schiltz said an “issue” with the jury arose Tuesday evening. Without providing details in court, the judge said each juror was questioned in his chambers with Lazzaro and the attorneys present, and that the issue was resolved.
Final testimony is scheduled for Thursday morning, and closing arguments are expected Friday.
Editor’s note: This story was updated on March 30, 2023 to clarify the description of a photo that prosecutors displayed in court on Wednesday.