Anton Lazzaro is guilty of conspiring to recruit and pay 15- and 16-year-old girls for sex, a federal jury in Minneapolis decided Friday in a case prosecutors later called "the face of modern-day sex trafficking."
The jury returned guilty verdicts on all charges — conspiracy, plus five separate child sex trafficking counts associated with each victim — after roughly two hours of deliberation to cap a two-week trial in which both Lazzaro and his victims took the stand.
"Anton Lazzaro is a danger to every family with a daughter and to everyone who believes in common decency," Assistant U.S. Attorney Melinda Williams told reporters after the verdict.
Onlookers packed Chief U.S. District Judge Patrick Schiltz's courtroom for closing arguments Friday morning, and again to hear the verdict in the afternoon. Lazzaro sat still as the jury's unanimous guilty verdicts were read aloud, and later shook his head when the judge polled each juror to confirm their decisions.
The guilty verdict was the most dramatic chapter yet in a legal saga that started with the August 2021 arrest of the now-32-year-old wealthy GOP donor, as well as a former University of St. Thomas freshman who has since admitted to helping recruit teen girls for Lazzaro to pay for sex.
The jury will return to court Monday morning to determine what property the government can seize based on each conviction. Lazzaro has remained in federal custody since his arrest. Charges outlined a plot that spanned from May to December 2020, when the FBI raided Lazzaro's 19th floor Hotel Ivy condominium in downtown Minneapolis.
In the elevator leaving the courtroom Friday, Lazzaro's attorney, Daniel Gerdts, said only: "You can expect a lot of interesting issues on appeal."
In a statement Friday, Lazzaro spokesperson Stacy Bettison said Lazzaro was "extremely disappointed" with the verdict and "continues to believe he was selectively prosecuted for his political activities."
Schiltz rejected motions to dismiss the case on those grounds and forbade the defense from making that argument at trial. Lazzaro, through Bettison, blamed prosecutors for conflating "what is nothing more than arguably an act of prostitution with federal sex trafficking."
"He believes he has strong grounds for appeal, and he will vigorously seek reversal of his conviction," Bettison said. "Mr. Lazzaro trusts he will be vindicated."
Sentencing has not been scheduled. U.S. Attorney Andrew Luger told reporters Friday that prosecutors would seek a "strenuous" term of imprisonment for Lazzaro.
Before deciding the case, jurors listened Friday morning as Williams told the story of a man who "seemed like he had it all" — wealth, business success that fostered meetups with celebrities and politicians, a Ferrari, a luxury downtown condo.
But Lazzaro wanted more, she added.
"He wanted sex, and not just any sex," Williams told the jury. "He wanted sex with minor girls under the age of 18. And he had a plan to get it."
Gerdts countered in his final pitch to jurors that the government had failed to prove that his client was guilty of sex trafficking minors through a "salacious" prosecution.
"The prosecution clearly disapproves of Mr. Lazzaro's playboy lifestyle," Gerdts said. "And frankly, as the father of three daughters so do I. The opprobrium is well deserved, but that is not why we're here."
Prosecutors presented a case in which they described Lazzaro as enlisting a young woman he initially paid for sex to instead start recruiting other teen victims — preferably minors — for him who fit a desired profile: white, small, vulnerable or "broken," in his own alleged words.
Lazzaro's co-defendant, Gisela Castro Medina, 21, has pleaded guilty and testified against him last week. She is awaiting sentencing in August.
Lazzaro paid Castro Medina more than $54,000 during the conspiracy. Prosecutors allege it was first to pay for obtaining minor girls for his pleasure, and later for her silence once the FBI raided his home. Lazzaro acknowledged through testimony that he gave Castro Medina tens of thousands of dollars, but said it was simply generosity.
Williams said that once Lazzaro's minor victims stepped into his condominium, Lazzaro had a playbook or "breaking-in process." That involved money, presents and alcohol. Williams said Lazzaro would offer to listen to the girls' troubles.
"He called it an art," she said.
Lazzaro frequently shifted in his chair during Friday's closing arguments, occasionally shaking his head in disgust and muttering to himself and his attorneys throughout the prosecution's presentation. As Gerdts made his case, Lazzaro nodded along.
Each victim spoke during the trial, with their testimony at times tearful. Some described being introduced to Lazzaro on social media through Castro Medina or one of the male friends she said later helped her recruit. One victim, 15 at the time, was picked up from a slumber party with two friends. Another said she was paid to have group sex with Lazzaro alongside her older sister.
The prosecution — which also included Assistant U.S. Attorneys Laura Provinzino and Emily Polachek — reacted to Friday's guilty verdict by underscoring that not all forms of sex trafficking appear the same.
Provinzino credited the mother of one victim — who also testified — with helping break open the case. The mother first spoke with her daughter after detecting worrying behavioral changes and suspiciously large cash deposits to their shared banking account. The two later contacted the FBI. The Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension was already looking into reports from another victim's family and the two agencies combined their work, which eventually led to the charges.
Provinzino said prosecutors were "humbled by the courage of these young girls" and "inspired by their journeys to regain their power and voice" on the witness stand.
Multiple victims testified about recovering from or still enduring drug and alcohol addictions. One girl broke down as she described taking three showers a day in the aftermath of her encounter "because I never felt clean anymore."
"My innocence was stolen from me," she told jurors.
After Friday's verdict, Polachek used the case to point out that the advent of social media was responsible for changing how sex trafficking victims can be recruited and exploited. She described it as "imperative that we all, parents and law enforcement alike, do not let technology outpace our vigilance."
Prosecutors received a surprising break this week when an ex-business associate of Lazzaro offered up additional evidence — including photos and videos of victims sent to the man by Lazzaro — after following the case through the media from Texas.
Luger said Friday that such an 11th-hour development was the first he could recall in his nearly four-decade career as a prosecutor.
That evidence factored heavily in Williams' closing arguments. It included an image of Jeffrey Epstein — the financier who took his own life in 2019 after being charged with conspiring to sex traffic minors — that Lazzaro captioned "RIP my brother" in a messaging exchange on the anniversary of Epstein's death.
Williams circled back to that link in her remarks to reporters after Friday's verdict. Lazzaro, she said, was "Minnesota's Jeffrey Epstein."
"And now he's going to prison for a very long time."