Crime, Law and Justice

Testimony begins in sex trafficking trial of GOP fundraiser, Anton Lazzaro

A sketch of a man in a courthouse
Lazzaro has pleaded not guilty to charges that he paid Victim C and four other minors for sex, in violation of federal sex trafficking statutes.
Courtesy of Cedric Hohnstadt

A young woman told a federal jury in Minneapolis on Wednesday that she had just turned 15 in mid-2020 when she first met Anton “Tony” Lazzaro.

The teen said she didn’t fit in at her exurban high school, though she met regularly with a group of friends from another school. She also said that Gisela Castro Medina, now 21, had befriended her on Instagram and Snapchat.

The woman, now 18 and identified in court documents as “Victim C,” testified that Castro Medina urged her to meet “a rich friend” who liked to have fun, and that in early August 2020, Lazzaro, now 32, sent an Uber driver to take her and three other girls, then ages 14 and 15, from a slumber party to his luxury apartment at the Hotel Ivy in downtown Minneapolis.

Attorneys and Judge Patrick Schiltz addressed the alleged victim by her first name in court, but MPR News is not naming her to protect her privacy.

The teen testified that she did not have sex with Lazzaro during that initial visit, but she did on two subsequent trips to his home. Each time, she said, she got drunk on hard liquor that Lazzaro served her, though Lazzaro didn’t drink himself. She said Lazzaro paid for the sex with hundred dollar bills and gave her Plan B emergency contraception before sending her home.

Lazzaro has pleaded not guilty to charges that he paid Victim C and four other minors for sex, in violation of federal sex trafficking statutes.

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

In her opening statement, Assistant U.S. Attorney Laura Provinzino said Lazzaro “recruited, bought and consumed 15 and 16-year-old girls for his own sexual satisfaction.” 

Provinzino said that Lazzaro laid the groundwork for the alleged crimes in May of 2020 when he met Castro Medina on SeekingArrangement — a website that caters to people seeking “sugar daddy” relationships, typically between wealthy men and younger women. 

Lazzaro then allegedly paid Castro Medina more than $50,000 to recruit younger teens on his behalf through social media. 

“The defendant is a predator,” Provinzino said. “And he wanted what he perceived as easy prey.” 

Provinzino said some of the girls accepted Lazzaro’s offers after visiting his apartment, but others got scared and left. The government has not alleged that Lazzaro used violence or force. 

Provinzino said a woman identified as Victim A, who was 16 in 2020, was the first teen to meet Lazzaro and went to his downtown Minneapolis apartment with Castro Medina. Provinzino said while one had sex with him, the other stayed in the living room watching a Disney movie. Lazzaro then ordered McDonalds Happy Meals for them and allegedly gave them cash.

After authorities arrested and charged Lazzaro in August 2021, defense attorneys alleged that the Justice Department targeted him for “selective and vindictive prosecution” because of his conservative political activism and his wealth.

Lazzaro was a major donor to state Republicans, including the late Congressman Jim Hagedorn, who was married to former party chair Jennifer Carnahan. Lazzaro and Carnahan had been friends since 2016 and hosted a podcast together, and Lazzaro backed her bid to lead the state party. 

When a federal grand jury indicted Lazzaro, Carnahan said the allegations shocked and disgusted her. Outrage among GOP activists led to allegations that Carnahan created a toxic work environment at party headquarters. She soon resigned as chair. Carnahan was never accused of being involved in Lazzaro’s alleged crimes.

In pretrial rulings, Schiltz prohibited defense attorneys from arguing that prosecutors are targeting Lazzaro because of his wealth and political activities. He’s also barring the defense from claiming that the sex was consensual because commercial sex acts with anyone under age 18 violate federal law. In a hearing Monday, Schiltz said any references to Minnesota’s age-of-consent law would confuse jurors.

In his opening statement, defense attorney Thomas Beito said alleged Victim A was short of cash at the start of the pandemic shutdown and sought out Lazzaro because she needed money to fund her addiction to a variety of drugs.

Beito said the teen set up SeekingArrangement profiles for herself and Castro Medina without Castro Medina’s prompting. 

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

Beito also said the teen tried to extort Lazzaro by threatening to contact police if he didn’t give her more money. Prosecutors said that she did go to police, and an attorney for Lazzaro sent her father a non-disclosure agreement along with an offer of $1,000 remain quiet. The teen refused to sign it.

“It’s not about whether you like Tony,” Beito said. “It’s not about whether you like his morals or values or how he lives his life. It’s whether he trafficked anyone. This isn’t sex trafficking. Those young ladies were there because they wanted to be.”

In December, Castro Medina pleaded guilty to charges of sex trafficking and obstruction and agreed to cooperate with authorities. Castro Medina is expected to testify against Lazzaro, as are the four other alleged victims.

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