Experts: Alleged victim testimony key in Lazzaro sex trafficking trial

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A former Republican donor and strategist from Minnesota is expected to stand trial this week on child sex trafficking and obstruction charges.

Anton “Tony” Lazzaro was indicted by a federal grand jury in the summer of 2021. He pleaded not guilty to the charges.

Prosecutors say over the course of eight months in 2020, Lazzaro recruited teenage girls to have sex with him in exchange for cash and other valuable items. Recently filed court documents reveal some of the alleged victims were as young as 15 years old at the time.

Lazzaro has argued he’s being targeted by the federal government because of his political beliefs. On Monday, Chief Judge Patrick J. Schiltz ruled Lazzaro is not allowed to refer to that argument during the trial. 

The trial is expected to take two weeks. The court will begin selecting a jury Tuesday morning. Opening statements could begin as early as Wednesday.

In the year and a half since his arrest, Lazzaro has tried multiple times to get the case thrown out. Last summer, he accused investigators of violating his constitutional rights by listening to his attorney-client calls, which an FBI agent denied.

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Prosecutors are expected to rely on the testimony from five alleged victims, according to a trial briefing document filed earlier this month. They say Lazzaro invited girls to his luxury penthouse apartment in downtown Minneapolis, gave them alcohol, and offered up stacks of cash in exchange for sex.

Erica MacDonald served as United States Attorney for the District of Minnesota from 2018 to 2021. As an assistant U.S. attorney in the early 2000s, MacDonald prosecuted human trafficking and sex trafficking cases.

She said having a jury hear from the alleged victims is crucial for the government’s case.

“You’re really looking at what corroboration is there,” MacDonald said in a recent interview. “Looking at the victims as they testify, listening to what they say about what happened, but also the little details. Describing the room. Describing the penthouse. Describing words that were used.”

MacDonald said the testimony of Lazzaro’s indicted co-conspirator is also important for prosecutors. Gisela Castro Medina, 20, pleaded guilty to sex trafficking and obstruction in December and is now cooperating with prosecutors.

“That’s key testimony,” MacDonald said.

Lazzaro’s arrest sent shockwaves through Minnesota’s political establishment. Campaign finance records show the 32-year-old donated thousands of dollars to GOP candidates, as well as to the Minnesota Republican Party. 

In the weeks following the indictment, politicians vowed to donate the campaign cash that came from Lazzaro. His ties to then-party chair Jennifer Carnahan contributed to calls for her resignation and ultimately led to her stepping down from the post.

“When the story first broke, lots of Republican candidates in the party wanted to try to figure out ways of being able to sort of disassociate themselves,” said David Schultz, professor of Political Science at Hamline University.