Still in high school, Gisela Castro Medina and her 16-year-old best friend were surprised when the older, wealthy man they met online in 2020 took an interest in them and their struggles.
Anton Lazzaro, or Tony to them, first wowed them by sending $50 for food in exchange for photos of their faces after they met on a "sugar daddy" dating website. He dazzled them when they visited his luxury Minneapolis condominium, served them champagne and let them unburden themselves about experiences with drug addiction and abusive relationships.
"It felt like I had someone who would listen to me for the first time," she told jurors Thursday on the second day of Lazzaro's federal child sex-trafficking trial in Minneapolis during testimony that spanned a full day.
Before long, she said, Lazzaro pulled out stacks of cash inside his 19th-floor Hotel Ivy condominium, first offering them money to remove their tops and later alternating between having sex with one of them while the other watched "The Lion King" in his living room.
Castro Medina, now 20, was arrested alongside Lazzaro in 2021 and has since pleaded guilty to conspiracy and obstruction charges. She is cooperating with prosecutors and is awaiting an Aug. 8 sentencing.
Lazzaro's trial on six counts — one for conspiracy and five counts of sex trafficking of a minor associated with girls who were aged 15 or 16 in 2020 — is expected to last at least into next week.
On Thursday, Medina told jurors how she was 18 when Lazzaro, now 32, started asking her to serve as his "recruiter" in helping find other young girls to pay for sex, preferably 16-year-olds. She testified that he told her he previously had others do this for him when he lived in California and likened it to "matchmaking."
"I was freaked out. This guy is crazy; this guy is really weird," Castro Medina said she recalled thinking at first.
However, Castro Medina testified that she came to trust Lazzaro so much that she idolized him as a father figure and answered his call to seek out the types of girls he wanted.
"He preferred what he called sluts, whores, broken girls," Castro Medina said. "At one point I was even referring to myself like a slut, a whore, a broken girl."
She described how, sitting with Lazzaro while eating takeout in his Cadillac near Lake Minnetonka one day, he "crafted up" the styles of messages he wanted her to send to prospective girls when she agreed to be his recruiter. She later testified that she had to explain to him a lot of the slang used by girls her age.
Jurors on Thursday saw images Castro Medina sent to girls she tried to recruit: Lazzaro in his underwear; Lazzaro posing with former President Donald Trump, rappers and Minnesota pro athletes.
Castro Medina also told jurors that she occasionally worked for Lazzaro's property management business, though she said she mostly showed up drunk and did little.
Castro Medina testified that she later tapped several male friends to help recruit girls for Lazzaro and would share some of the proceeds with them.
At the time, Castro Medina testified, she did not consider what she did to be wrong. Asked by Assistant U.S. Attorney Melinda Williams how she felt now, Castro Medina's perspective shifted dramatically.
"I think it was wrong, I think it was disgusting, I think it was horrible," Castro Medina said. "I think it should have never happened."
Williams asked if the defense's descriptions of Lazzaro as a socially awkward computer nerd rang true to her.
"No," Castro Medina said, adding that he seemed to have many friends who also idolized him.
"That he was lonely during COVID looking for friends?" Williams asked, also pulling from the defense's opening statement.
"No. … He was looking for sex," Castro Medina said.
Castro Medina testified how Victim A, her friend, eventually grew angry and wanted all of the money that Lazzaro would send along in an envelope for the girl to split with Castro Medina.
"She was angry over a lot of things but mainly, in her words, I was sex trafficking her, I was pimping her out," Castro Medina said.
"She was angry but was she also right?" Williams asked.
"She was right, yes," Castro Medina said.
Castro Medina said that she and Lazzaro only had sex twice before their relationship morphed into one where she idolized him. This was around when she agreed to recruit for him, she said.
"He became like my whole world," she said.
Castro Medina said she became deeply dependent on Lazzaro and felt isolated because of it. She said she developed addictions to alcohol and Adderall, as well as an eating disorder.
She craved Lazzaro's approval but said that when he did not get his way, he reacted "almost like a child" by throwing "a mini temper tantrum."
Castro Medina later testified that shortly before their arrests, Lazzaro described a meeting with the U.S. Attorney's Office in Minnesota that he said went poorly. In exchange for Castro Medina's silence, he offered to buy her a house and pay for her future grad school expenses.
She testified that he soon sent her $1,500 when she asked for money to buy margaritas while in Florida with one of the friends who helped her recruit girls. Castro Medina was arrested in Florida soon after.
Among the other benefits Castro Medina and prosecutors tallied on Thursday: Lazzaro gave her cash to buy a 2015 Mini Cooper S that is now in her name. He also gave her his credit card to use after the government seized her laptop and cellphone; Castro Medina said she used it to make about $10,000 in charges.
Prosecutors said Lazzaro compensated Castro Medina for her apartment rent. He bought her Christian Dior sneakers, an iPhone, MacBook Air, clothing, and money for trips across the country. Prosecutors say Lazzaro gave Castro Medina at least $50,000 in total cash and benefits.
Much of the defense's cross-examination of Castro Medina centered on the terms of her plea agreement and statements made to law enforcement when she was first questioned around December 2020.
Daniel Gerdts, an attorney representing Lazzaro, sought to clarify that Lazzaro had stated that he liked to "fix" broken girls. But Castro Medina later said that meant Lazzaro was "grooming them. He was having sex with them. He was traumatizing them and giving them money."
Gerdts challenged whether Castro Medina was joking when she and one of the girls mused over whether she was a "pimp." At one point, jurors saw a Snapchat video of Castro Medina dropping $100 bills onto a champagne bottle while the 50 Cent song "P.I.M.P." played in the background.
She described herself as confused at the time, but "looking back I feel as though I definitely pimped her out. I sex-trafficked her."
Gerdts soon followed up by asking: "You didn't pressure anybody, you didn't push anybody, you didn't have control over any of these people, did you?"
"No, but I did influence them," Castro Medina responded.
The trial will resume Friday at 9 a.m.