Anton Lazzaro admitted to having sex and being generous with minor teen girls — arguing that he thought some were older — but denied having anyone recruited for his pleasure as he testified Tuesday in his own defense against federal sex trafficking charges.
The 32-year-old Minneapolis Republican operative, in custody since his August 2021 arrest, spent more than two hours on the witness stand after the government rested its case. He will resume testimony Wednesday, after which prosecutors can grill Lazzaro before the jury.
On Tuesday, Lazzaro explained his relationship with a co-defendant who has since testified against him as one that began with sex before evolving into a sibling-like dynamic where the then-college freshman would introduce him to other teens interested in his money or other luxury goods.
"There was never, ever an agreement to be my recruiter," Lazzaro told jurors. "That term was never used."
Lazzaro is on trial for conspiracy to commit sex trafficking of a minor and five counts of child sex trafficking linked to allegations that he paid girls aged 15 to 16 for sex in 2020. He was charged alongside former University of St. Thomas student Gisela Castro Medina, now 21, who since has pleaded guilty and testified that she recruited girls for Lazzaro.
Lazzaro on Tuesday confirmed that he met Castro Medina, then 18, and a 16-year-old friend now referred to by prosecutors as Victim A through the Seeking Arrangement dating site that aims to link younger women with wealthy older men.
He said that he had sex with the two and would give them money, but not in exchange for the sex. Lazzaro described meeting other alleged victims through Snapchat, suggesting that they found his account after Castro Medina would boast about his generosity and often tag him in her posts.
"I very quickly I guess got the reputation from people … that I was very liberal with the amount of money I would give," Lazzaro testified, conceding that he enjoyed Castro Medina "bragging about me."
Lazzaro was 29 and 30 at the time of the alleged conspiracy. He testified Tuesday that he met "three dozen" people through Castro Medina during that period, many of whom he said were "wanting as much as they can get."
"Did you suggest to them that sexual activity was expected?" asked Daniel Gerdts, an attorney for Lazzaro.
"No," he replied.
"Did you see them as payments for sexual activity?" Gerdts asked.
"Absolutely not," said Lazzaro.
Sporting close-cropped hair and wearing a suit and tie, Lazzaro spoke calmly and casually as he walked his attorney through his accounts of welcoming many younger people into his 19th floor Hotel Ivy condo amid the COVID-19 pandemic, often serving them alcohol and at one point letting some of the girls hold his AR-style rifle.
Lazzaro also explained how an infatuation with the Pillsbury Doughboy when he was 8 — plus the Vikings' 1998 15-1 season at the time — sparked a childhood dream to move from his native Los Angeles to Minnesota, where the flour company mascot originated.
Conceived via in vitro fertilization, Lazzaro grew up with his mother, an Italian literature professor at the University of Southern California, and an older brother who went on to become an attorney. He briefly studied business at Brigham Young University in Utah after wanting to leave California. But as college friends increasingly left, Lazzaro said he did not want to stay behind so he left college and moved in with a friend in Los Angeles.
He told jurors that he began to build his wealth during his freshman year in college by developing a method for targeted web advertising — which he said netted him "low-six-figure" sums that year. By his mid-20s, Lazzaro said he got into real estate and day trading and became active in politics. He said he bought his Hotel Ivy condo in 2018, a few years after finally moving to Minneapolis.
Lazzaro's current romantic partner, Kira Costal, testified in his defense earlier Tuesday. She said Castro Medina's boyfriend met her as she smoked marijuana under the Stone Arch Bridge in 2020 and suggested she meet Lazzaro via Snapchat. Castro Medina previously testified that the boyfriend was one of several male acquaintances that she tapped to help find girls for Lazzaro to pay for sex.
"He mentioned he was a sugar daddy type," Costal said she was told.
Costal said that she and Lazzaro bonded over a shared interest in the metaphysical and collecting crystals as they chatted in his home. As their relationship grew serious, she said, he helped pay for online learning so she could finish high school. Castro Medina helped tutor her, she said, and Lazzaro paid for that help.
Under cross-examination, Assistant U.S. Attorney Melinda Williams showed Costal a series of WhatsApp messages between Lazzaro, Castro Medina and the boyfriend who brokered her meeting with Lazzaro. One message appeared to show Lazzaro totaling up what he owed the boy, which included "another $1,000 when you introduced me to Kira."
Costal testified that Lazzaro has since deeded his $875,000 condo over to her, pays rent on her apartment, and bought her a $76,000 Tesla in December 2021. She agreed that her lifestyle is funded by her partner's credit cards.
Costal also acknowledged that despite an order from Chief U.S. District Judge Patrick Schiltz that witnesses not discuss the case with the parties involved, she and Lazzaro talk on the phone about how each day of trial went for him.
Williams read back a transcript of a jail call from Monday evening between the two in which Costal told Lazzaro: "You let me know what needs to get done and I will literally kill people to get it done."
"You said that?"
"Yes," she said, smiling.
Earlier Tuesday, Zeina Sleiman, a front desk manager at Hotel Ivy, laughed as she told one of Lazzaro's attorneys that she knew Lazzaro "had a type" — white, skinny girls who often would visit before he started dating Costal seriously.
Sleiman testified that staff at the hotel were trained to spot signs of sex trafficking but added that she never saw any of Lazzaro's many female guests appear to be scared.
On cross-examination, Assistant U.S. Attorney Laura Provinzino emphasized that sex trafficking victims could seem put-together, be seen laughing or giving a confident impression. Sleiman agreed with that assessment. After seeing a photo of three girls Lazzaro had visit him at his condo in 2020 — including an alleged victim who was 15 at the time — late one evening, Sleiman said she would have been concerned to see them at that hour. She also agreed that it would be worrying to know that any teen girls were paid for sex, served alcohol or allowed to hold firearms in Lazzaro's condo.
Before prosecutors wrapped up earlier Tuesday, FBI Special Agent Richard Waller, the lead investigator in the federal investigation of Lazzaro, told jurors how Lazzaro complied during the search in opening a safe in his office that required a biometric code.
Inside, agents found stacks of cash organized in $10,000 bundles and weapons including an AR-style rifle that teen girls held for photos on previous visits to see Lazzaro. In a side table next to Lazzaro's bed, Waller confirmed, agents found Plan B emergency contraceptive pills that alleged victims testified previously to being given by Lazzaro after they were paid for sex.