The young woman who admitted to helping sex traffic teen girls for Anton Lazzaro was sentenced to three years in federal prison Tuesday after a wrenching hearing where those who spoke before the judge were at a loss for what decision he should render.
Gisela Castro Medina, now 21, pleaded guilty last year to conspiracy to commit sex trafficking and obstructing the investigation. She testified against Lazzaro, a former Minnesota GOP operative and donor, during a March trial in which a federal jury found him guilty. Lazzaro, 32, was sentenced to 21 years in prison last month.
Prosecutors had argued that Castro Medina "played a crucial and despicable role" in trafficking 15- and 16-year-old girls for Lazzaro, who in turn gave her $80,000 in cash and other benefits for recruiting the girls to visit Lazzaro's Hotel Ivy condominium in Minneapolis for commercial sex in 2020.
But they also acknowledged her extensive help in the government's case against Lazzaro, which included more than a day of testifying about her role in the conspiracy. Castro Medina met Lazzaro just after she turned 18 and while she was still in high school. He paid her for sex and, prosecutors said, raped her when she was so intoxicated that she was barely conscious. She came to revere him and rely on him, and Lazzaro soon asked her to start recruiting additional girls on social media to have sex with him for money.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Melinda Williams called Castro Medina "as good a cooperator as I've ever encountered" and said she helped the government under "really extraordinary pressure." She highlighted the path to sobriety that followed her arrest and furthering education as contrasts to Lazzaro, in whom the prosecution saw no redeeming qualities and viewed as an "unrepentant, dangerous predator."
Prosecutors sought a seven-year prison sentence, while Castro Medina's lawyers asked for her to be sentenced to time served.
"I'm not sure what I would do if I were you, your honor," Williams said before Chief U.S. District Patrick Schiltz announced his judgment.
Schiltz said that by giving Castro Medina a lesser sentence than the potential for decades or even life that the guidelines contemplated, he did not mean to diminish the seriousness of the crimes.
"She helped him at every step of the way," Schiltz said, later adding: "None of these victims would now be suffering that harm but for Castro Medina. Their suffering is on her hands as well as on Mr. Lazzaro."
But Schiltz said that Lazzaro "recognized a broken girl when he saw one" and skillfully groomed Castro Medina to recruit for him, just as he groomed his other victims.
The judge noted that Lazzaro, or someone acting on his behalf, tried to buy Castro Medina's silence through anonymous cash gifts of thousands of dollars before her eventual December 2022 guilty plea. But Castro Medina disclosed the payments, and that money was later deposited into an account that will be used to pay victims restitution.
Castro Medina requested that she be imprisoned in Texas. Schiltz agreed to allow her to self-surrender to begin her sentence next month.
Castro Medina has been free under supervision since her August 2021 arrest and indictment while a freshman at St. Thomas University. A row of supporters sat across the aisle in the courtroom gallery for Tuesday's hearing, which spanned more than an hour.
Through tearful remarks to the court, Castro Medina apologized to the victims — which included her former best friend — and thanked law enforcement for their intervention.
"Had it not been for their intervention I don't think I would be here right now," she said before being sentenced. "I was so deeply invested in my relationship with Anton that I saw no way out. I hated myself and my choices and actions when I was with Anton."
Castro Medina said she now wanted to become an advocate for sex trafficking victims and to pursue a law degree one day if given the chance.
But the parents of her former friend, identified in this case as Victim A, pleaded with Schiltz on Tuesday to deliver a harsh penalty and expressed doubts that Castro Medina has reformed. The girl's father argued that Castro Medina was smart, manipulative and would repeat this behavior if allowed to go free.
Taking turns speaking, they described their daughter as idolizing Castro Medina and being manipulated and controlled by her. Their daughter received a life sentence by her former friend's hand, they said.
"You used her and she became your puppet," the mother said, repeatedly describing Castro Medina's behavior as "greed, power and control."
"Your soul is as dark as your eyes, and I despise you," she said.