Anton Lazzaro's defense against federal child sex trafficking charges continued Wednesday, marked by contentious exchanges with the prosecution and warnings from the judge over remarks made before jurors.
Lazzaro, 32, struck an at-times defiant and incredulous tone while under questioning. He admitted to having sex with numerous teens under 18, said he gave them cash and other goods, but denied that the two were related.
"You viewed these girls as objects and … you would purchase them with stacks of cash?" Assistant U.S. Attorney Melinda Williams asked, as she displayed an image of a shirtless Lazzaro holding stacks of $100 bills that he sent to two girls.
"I would not pay them," Lazzaro answered. "I gave them gifts that they asked for."
"To be clear, the thing you gave them money for was sex," Williams said.
"I already answered no," Lazzaro said.
The back-and-forth between Lazzaro and Williams at one point prompted the court reporter to interrupt proceedings and urge the parties to slow down.
Lazzaro, once a fast-rising figure in Minnesota Republican politics, has been in custody since his August 2021 arrest. He's standing trial on one count of conspiracy to commit sex trafficking of a minor and five counts associated with separate alleged teen victims aged 15 or 16 in 2020.
Comfortable and confident in his delivery while walking his defense attorney through his perspective on Tuesday and part of Wednesday, Lazzaro wore a frustrated expression, shook his head and let out audible sighs at times during Wednesday's cross-examination.
The sixth day of trial began far later Wednesday, not picking up until after 2 p.m. because of an undisclosed issue with the jury that required resolution in the judge's chambers and overnight revelations from a Lazzaro associate who gave the government new evidence against his former friend.
That evidence included photos and videos sent to the ex-business associate by Lazzaro that depicted three girls wearing lingerie while dancing in one video and lined in a row facedown on his bed in another photo.
The images were referenced in testimony by one of the alleged victims and by Gisela Castro Medina, Lazzaro's 21-year-old co-defendant who since pleaded guilty and testified last week that she was paid tens of thousands of dollars to recruit underage "broken" girls for Lazzaro to pay for sex.
Chief U.S. District Judge Patrick Schiltz called a break in the afternoon amid Lazzaro's cross-examination and admonished Lazzaro for making a reference to being in jail while testifying. Schiltz ruled before trial that there could be no mention of his incarceration status.
Schiltz also forbade arguments about the 16-year-old age of consent in Minnesota — pointing out that the jury must decide only whether Lazzaro was guilty of sex trafficking girls under the age of 18. Schiltz told Lazzaro on Wednesday that the defendant was purposefully trying to introduce forbidden arguments as he made repeated claims that one 15-year-old alleged victim lied about her age.
"You have been studying this case for 18 months obsessively," Schiltz told Lazzaro, who claimed he was unaware he could not refer to still being in jail.
During testimony Wednesday, Lazzaro again said that he developed a close friendship with Castro Medina, who was 18 at the time, and met dozens of younger people through her — including numerous minor girls with whom he had sex. But, he argued, there was no plot to have Castro Medina recruit girls for paid sex.
With the jury out of the room Wednesday, Williams explained that the government received a call Tuesday evening from a former Lazzaro business partner, Charles Bittman, who said he had additional information. Williams said the FBI extracted from Bittman's phone evidence of alleged WhatsApp messages and images sent to him from Lazzaro — including photos and videos of alleged victims.
Prosecutors have not until now had access to the photo of three girls lined up on Lazzaro's bed. They have said that the FBI has to date been unable to access his Blackberry phone.
Jurors also saw WhatsApp messaging exchanges between Lazzaro and Bittman that appeared to show Bittman arranging rideshare transportation for two girls in August 2020. Lazzaro said that he had difficulty arranging Uber and Lyft rides at times during the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
"The package is arriving," Bittman wrote Lazzaro at 11:18 that evening, adding about 20 minutes later: "Send pics of the girls!"
Lazzaro's response: "I will try haha. Breaking them in Charles. This is an art. Of the tart. They are lovely I must say."
Williams noted that the evening marked the one-year anniversary of Jeffrey Epstein's death by suicide while in custody on sex trafficking charges. She showed jurors additional messages from Lazzaro to Bittman that appeared to show a blurry image of Epstein with Lazzaro writing, "RIP my brother."
"In fact you were very pro-Jeffrey Epstein," Williams said.
"No, not at all, I was anti-the government," Lazzaro said.
Williams walked Lazzaro through messages sent to friends between a December 2020 FBI raid on his 19th floor Hotel Ivy condominium and his eventual 2021 arrest.
A month after the FBI searched Lazzaro's home, one friend wrote: "You still follow about 50 underage girls. And I'm being honest it makes me a bit uncomfortable. Sorry that I keep bringing it up."
Lazzaro testified that he had the friend send him a list of such accounts and removed them when she shared the names.
In a message Lazzaro sent to another friend in February 2021, he wrote, "I love how the DOJ thinks friends introducing you to girls is sex trafficking."
The friend's response: "Well … can you blame them lol. When your age bracket is 16-18. A lot of red flags are raised at that point."
And one month before his arrest, Lazzaro was asked by someone else, "how did you meet all these young people."
He responded "same girl," and confirmed Wednesday that he was referring to Castro Medina.
"She is quite, shall we say, influential," Lazzaro wrote in the message.
"That's how you met those underage girls?" Williams asked Wednesday.
"Yes," Lazzaro testified.
Schiltz told jurors that he would send them home once the defense rests its case on Thursday. Closing arguments will follow Friday, and Schiltz estimated that jurors would be sent out to deliberate around midday Friday.