A judge ruled on Tuesday that prominent Minnesota GOP donor Anton "Tony" Lazzaro must remain in jail while facing charges of sex trafficking underage girls, rejecting the defense's plea to release him to his downtown Minneapolis condo.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Hildy Bowbeer said Lazzaro's "tremendous" financial resources and international connections made him too much of a flight risk and that keeping him in jail would make it less likely he would be able to contact his victims.
The 4 ½-hour detention hearing provided the first detailed account of the allegations against Lazzaro. Appearing in orange jail garb, Lazzaro did not speak, other than to declare his plea of not guilty on all 10 counts.
In a lengthy testimony, Minneapolis Police officer Brandon Brugger described a conspiracy in which Lazzaro, 30, paid underage girls — some as young as 15 — for sex in cash, and groomed them with presents such as a Prada purse, alcohol, vape pens and cellphones.
"He was the sex buyer," Brugger testified.
Gisela Castro Medina, a University of St. Thomas student who is charged as a co-conspirator, served as the "recruiter" for the young girls on Snapchat on Lazzaro's behalf, said Brugger. Lazzaro paid Medina, 19, in cash, travel and high-priced champagne, Brugger said. She worked for a property management company owned by Lazzaro. She also tutored Lazzaro's now-19-year-old girlfriend in high school algebra in exchange for partial tuition payment, Brugger said.
Prosecutors also read statements from several of the alleged victims and their families urging the judge to keep Lazzaro in jail, some describing suffering PTSD, depression and emotional trauma. "My daughter has been living in a prison of hell," wrote the father of one victim. "He not only destroyed my daughter, he destroyed my family."
A victim said she feared for her safety if Lazzaro were to be released. "He knows where I work and where my mom works."
Zachary Lee Newland, Lazzaro's attorney, dismissed the allegations as anonymous and without merit. "Anton Lazzaro did not commit any sex trafficking," Newland said.
Brugger, who works for a state task force on sex trafficking, started investigating Lazzaro after one of the victims and her family reported to police that she was being trafficked. Brugger learned the FBI was already investigating Lazzaro based on a separate tip, and the FBI and Bureau of Criminal Apprehension Task Force on human trafficking merged their investigations.
The charges allege Lazzaro trafficked six underage victims last year.
Lazzaro has contributed to dozens of Republican campaigns in recent years. His political ties have sparked outrage among state party members and played a significant role in GOP Chairwoman Jennifer Carnahan's ousting last week.
Brugger and prosecutors described Lazzaro as an eccentric young millionaire who posted photos on social media of himself drinking expensive champagne, flashing wads of cash and riding a mule shirtless. He traveled 10 times by private jet to international locations since 2017, including Ukraine, Amsterdam, Costa Rica and China, said Brugger. He owns a property management business and runs a porn channel called "OnlyTinyTeens."
When investigators searched his condo in the Ivy Residences in December, they found $300,000 in cash, two guns, 20 digital devices, foreign currency and bars of gold and other precious metals. He has "significant bitcoin holdings," according to prosecutors.
Earlier this month, an FBI SWAT team arrested Lazzaro. Lazzaro made comments to Brugger suggesting that he knew where he lived and other personal information about those who arrested him, and said the federal prosecutor "is going to regret this," according to Brugger's testimony. Lazzaro later told a friend he would "go after [the] badge" of an FBI agent, and he looked up open-source data on the magistrate judge's political donations, Brugger said.
Lazzaro tried to silence some of his victims, according to prosecutors. Medina showed up at one alleged victim's workplace and said Lazzaro was being investigated for child pornography. Law enforcement wouldn't find anything, and Lazzaro had money and a "team of lawyers," Medina told her, according to Brugger. She then offered the young girl alcohol and money in exchange for her silence.
Lazzaro offered to pay another alleged victim and her father to sign a nondisclosure agreement, but they rejected it, said Assistant U.S. Attorney Laura Provinzino. "Who asks a 16-year-old victim to sign an NDA?" she said.
Newland argued Lazzaro should be released on home monitoring, saying his client's 2,200-square-foot condo would be fitted with thumbprint locks and cameras providing a 24/7 feed to U.S. Probation and Pretrial Services.
Provinzino called this a "prison of privilege," and prosecutors questioned how this would stop Lazzaro from using the internet.
Yele-Mis Yang, a friend who manages Lazzaro's property management company, Property Nerds, described Lazzaro as "really down to earth" and "very vocal, obviously, about his political opinions." He said he'd trust Lazzaro with his life and with his young kids, both boys.
Newland denied that his client posed a flight risk, saying he knew about the investigation since last December and did not flee. "He steeled himself for the fight," Newland said. "Because he is innocent."
Andy Mannix • 612-673-4036