Andrew Luger did something unusual Monday for a presidentially appointed U.S. attorney: He went into a courtroom to prosecute a case.

Luger gave the opening statement in his office’s case against 32-year-old Lee Andrew Paul, charged with three counts of forcibly prostituting three young females, including 12- and 16-year-old girls from Rochester.

The federal indictment alleges that Paul compelled an alleged female accomplice to send a message to the 12-year-old under the pretext of inviting her to a party.

Luger said that Paul and the alleged accomplice met with the girl and her 16-year-old friend at a Rochester restaurant, took them to a local motel where he gave them marijuana and alcohol, and then drove them to a Columbia Heights motel where he raped them and forced them to have sex with men for pay.

“What had started as a party became a nightmare,” Luger said in court.

Since his appointment as U.S. attorney, Luger often has said he wanted to return to the courtroom to keep his skills sharp. He began his career as an assistant U.S. attorney before becoming a litigator and partner in the Minneapolis firm of Greene Espel.

It wasn’t clear — and he wouldn’t say — why he chose this particular case to work on, but he has made human trafficking a signature cause.

Luger walked into the courtroom Monday toting a boxy old leather briefcase with a gaping tear in the seam and a long piece of string dangling from it. But he was anything but unraveled.

His opening was, as he himself always seems to be, commanding, prepared and brimming with confidence.

It’s uncommon but not unprecedented for U.S. attorneys to prepare and try cases themselves. As presidential appointees, their primary task is to set the direction and priorities for teams of career prosecutors in high-stakes cases from terrorism to white-collar crime, drug and gun trafficking.

‘You aren’t going to like him’

On the other side of the courtroom Monday was a man who rarely leaves it: Michael Colich, one of the state’s most effective and prolific defense attorneys.

Known for a calm and polite but dogged approach, Colich has won numerous acquittals over his career for clients facing the most gruesome accusations, including murder.

Of his client Paul, Colich told the jury, “You aren’t going to like him.”

In Luger’s telling of events, the 12-year-old girl had an extremely difficult home life; her father had recently committed suicide and she was drinking alcohol to cope.

“Where most would see a desperate girl in need of help, Lee Paul saw an opportunity,” Luger said, showing a photograph of the girl on courtroom screens.

The 16-year-old eventually called her parents and the police. That prompted Paul to flee to Alexandria, Minn., where a 19-year-old woman — the third alleged victim in the case — was soliciting paying customers for the 12-year-old.

Colich acknowledged the compelling nature of Luger’s argument. “So I’m sitting here thinking to myself: How do you remain impartial?” Colich said.

He told the jurors to “set aside” what Luger had told them because it isn’t evidence, just what government witnesses had told prosecutors. After hearing actual testimony, Colich said, jurors would know more about the facts than prosecutors do now.

He noted that the three alleged victims in the case had already provided hundreds of pages of statements to prosecutors that he said contained “hundreds of inconsistencies and hundreds of lies.”

The trial is expected to last through the week in U.S. District Judge Ann Montgomery’s courtroom in Minneapolis.

 

Twitter: @rochelleolson