MINNEAPOLIS — The biggest question in the high-profile sex trafficking trial of former Republican strategist Anton Lazzaro was answered Tuesday afternoon as he took the stand to testify in his own defense.
Lazzaro's legal team revealed its decision to allow him to testify Tuesday after the government rested its case.
Describing his childhood and early life as "normal," Lazarro said he moved to Los Angeles for several years before coming to Minnesota. He testified that in 2015, he moved to South Dakota with a woman he met on the dating website Seeking Arrangement.
When the relationship dissolved, he said he moved to Minnesota.
He told the court he first rented an apartment in downtown Minneapolis before buying his condo at the Hotel Ivy.
Lazzaro said during the pandemic dating was nearly impossible, so he would invite friends and girls over to his condo for food and drinks as if it were a restaurant.
Lazzaro testified that Seeking Arrangement is no different than the dating site "Match.com" except it is tailored to rich people.
Lazzaro talked about meeting Gisela Castro Medina on the site. He talked with her on phone and says he was drawn to her. He said his relationship with her was "brother-sister-like." He disagrees with her "father-figure" characterization of him.
Lazzaro said the conversation or meeting with Castro Medina where he asked her to be his recruiter of girls never happened. "That never ever took place," Lazzaro testified.
Lazzaro admitted to "hooking up" with some of the alleged victims, but he described the allegations against him a lot differently than how the alleged victims testified.
"One thing I'm definitely guilty of is giving people under 21 alcohol. And I regret that a lot," Lazzaro said.
Lazzaro said he did not pay for sex. He just gave a lot of money and gifts to his friends and girls.
Lazzaro said he would not ordinarily invite all of these people over to party at his home but the pandemic made everything different.
"The thing unique about this situation was the pandemic," Lazzaro said.
When asked by Judge Patrick Schiltz if he wanted to testify earlier Tuesday afternoon, Lazzaro answered, "Do I have to tell you now?" before answering "Yes." Lazzaro's attorney made the standard motion for judgment of acquittal, which Judge Schiltz denied.
Earlier, the defense opened its case by calling Hotel Ivy office manager Zeina Sleiman. "Everyone knew he had a type. They were white, skinny girls," Sleiman told jurors while describing the teens that would come to visit Lazzaro. "I knew that’s his type. After that he started dating someone and I started seeing this happening less after he started dating this girl." She described the girls as "made up" and looking like models.
When prompted by the defense, Sleiman said the girls "looked confident" coming in, and added that none of them looked drunk. She said she did not see any red flags that would signal minors being sex trafficked.
During cross-examination prosecutor Laura Provinzino, who is considered an expert in the area of sex trafficking, pushed Sleiman on her level of training. "You know that sex trafficking victims can appear very confident... you know that from training, right?"
Provinzino wrapped up her questioning by asking Sleiman if she had any idea what went on in Lazzaro's condo.
"No," she answered.
Next up was 19-year-old Emily Munson, who grew up with Lazzaro's current girlfriend/fiancee Kira Costal. She told jurors she has spent significant time with the defendant on four occasions, describing him as "extremely generous."
Lazzaro's girlfriend soon took the stand herself, describing him as "my current partner. He is my boyfriend." Costal told the panel she was hanging out under the Stone Arch Bridge with a friend who gave her Lazzaro's Snapchat info, mentioning that he was a "sugar daddy" type. Costal said Lazzaro picked her up, they hung out... and starting talking about metaphysical things and bonding over crystals.
She told the courtroom said they more or less hung out starting in Sept. of 2020, getting more serious in March of 2021. "A true boyfriend/girlfriend dynamic," Costal explained. She says Lazzaro funded her schooling, took her shopping and bought lots of nice dinners. Costal was 18 years old, still in high school at the time. Besides paying for tutors so she could graduate on time, Costal testified that Lazzaro also paid Gisela Castro Medina - Lazzaro's co-defendant - to help with her schoolwork.
Costal went on to say despite Lazzaro being behind bars, their relationship has been "strengthened throughout this time." She then described Lazzaro as "kind" and "generous," and conceded that Lazarro continues to support her financially.
Before resting their case in the morning, prosecutors had called their final witness, FBI agent Richard Waller, who walked the jury panel through search warrants and digital forensics the FBI used to gather evidence in the alleged scheme to recruit young girls to have sex with Lazzaro for money. He told them about an account the defendant opened on a site called "Seeking Arrangement."
"I know I’m younger and better looking than 99% of guys on here but… Love using the site because of ease meeting girls 10 years younger than me," Lazzaro reportedly posted.
Waller went over and corroborated the testimony of the five alleged victims based on electronic communications. He also told jurors that search warrants in the case were done "by the book" and refuted accusations from Lazzaro that the warrants were executed in a pre-dawn raid.
The strongest building blocks for the prosecution's sex trafficking case came from those five alleged victims and Lazzaro's co-conspirator, Gisele Castro Medina, who testified that her relationship with the defendant began as a sex-for-money proposition before he asked her to start recruiting young girls for him.
"Over time I learned he wanted younger girls around 16 and up. I didn’t have a lot of friends much older than me so my age was the cap," Castro Medina testified.
"Sixteen to 18 was the cap?" prosecutor Melinda Williams asked.
"Yes. Preferably white. No tattoos. Very thin," she answered. "What he calls 'broken girls. Sluts. Whores. I was referring to myself as a slut, whore, broken girl," Castro Medina testified.
"Looking back, what do you think?" Williams asked.
"I think it's disgusting and I think it's horrible and I think it never should have happened," she answered.
While it was unclear who the defense team would call as witnesses besides Lazzaro, their strategy is not a mystery. During opening statements his defense team told the jury they will hear from witnesses who will testify the alleged victims were seen laughing and looked confident, not afraid before and after their encounters with Lazzaro. His attorneys also described Lazzaro as "socially awkward," and said he gave gifts to people so they would hang out with him during the pandemic.
"Some he had sex with, most of them he did not," said defense attorney Thomas Beito during opening statements last Wednesday, insisting that any sexual encounters were consensual.
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