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Anton Lazzaro admits to sex with minor girls but denies he had a sex recruiter

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Anton Lazzaro admitted to having sex and being generous with minor teen girls — arguing that he thought some were older — but denied having anyone recruited for his pleasure as he testified Tuesday in his own defense against federal sex trafficking charges.

The 32-year-old Minneapolis Republican operative, in custody since his August 2021 arrest, spent more than two hours on the witness stand after the government rested its case. He will resume testimony Wednesday, after which prosecutors can grill Lazzaro before the jury.

On Tuesday, Lazzaro explained his relationship with a co-defendant who has since testified against him as one that began with sex before evolving into a sibling-like dynamic where the then-college freshman would introduce him to other teens interested in his money or other luxury goods.

“There was never, ever an agreement to be my recruiter,” Lazzaro told jurors. “That term was never used.”

Lazzaro is on trial for conspiracy to commit sex trafficking of a minor and five counts of child sex trafficking linked to allegations that he paid girls aged 15 to 16 for sex in 2020. He was charged alongside former University of St. Thomas student Gisela Castro Medina, now 21, who since has pleaded guilty and testified that she recruited girls for Lazzaro.

Lazzaro on Tuesday confirmed that he met Castro Medina, then 18, and a 16-year-old friend now referred to by prosecutors as Victim A through the Seeking Arrangement dating site that aims to link younger women with wealthy older men.

He said that he had sex with the two and would give them money, but not in exchange for the sex. Lazzaro described meeting other alleged victims through Snapchat, suggesting that they found his account after Castro Medina would boast about his generosity and often tag him in her posts.

“I very quickly I guess got the reputation from people … that I was very liberal with the amount of money I would give,” Lazzaro testified, conceding that he enjoyed Castro Medina “bragging about me.”

Lazzaro was 29 and 30 at the time of the alleged conspiracy. He testified Tuesday that he met “three dozen” people through Castro Medina during that period, many of whom he said were “wanting as much as they can get.”

“Did you suggest to them that sexual activity was expected?” asked Daniel Gerdts, an attorney for Lazzaro.

“No,” he replied.

“Did you see them as payments for sexual activity?” Gerdts asked.

“Absolutely not,” said Lazzaro.

Sporting close-cropped hair and wearing a suit and tie, Lazzaro spoke calmly and casually as he walked his attorney through his accounts of welcoming many younger people into his 19th floor Hotel Ivy condo amid the COVID-19 pandemic, often serving them alcohol and at one point letting some of the girls hold his AR-style rifle.

Lazzaro also explained how an infatuation with the Pillsbury Doughboy when he was 8 — plus the Vikings’ 1998 15-1 season at the time — sparked a childhood dream to move from his native Los Angeles to Minnesota, where the flour company mascot originated.

Conceived via in vitro fertilization, Lazzaro grew up with his mother, an Italian literature professor at the University of Southern California, and an older brother who went on to become an attorney. He briefly studied business at Brigham Young University in Utah after wanting to leave California. But as college friends increasingly left, Lazzaro said he did not want to stay behind so he left college and moved in with a friend in Los Angeles.

He told jurors that he began to build his wealth during his freshman year in college by developing a method for targeted web advertising — which he said netted him “low-six-figure” sums that year. By his mid-20s, Lazzaro said he got into real estate and day trading and became active in politics. He said he bought his Hotel Ivy condo in 2018, a few years after finally moving to Minneapolis.

Lazzaro’s current romantic partner, Kira Costal, testified in his defense earlier Tuesday. She said Castro Medina’s boyfriend met her as she smoked marijuana under the Stone Arch Bridge in 2020 and suggested she meet Lazzaro via Snapchat. Castro Medina previously testified that the boyfriend was one of several male acquaintances that she tapped to help find girls for Lazzaro to pay for sex.

“He mentioned he was a sugar daddy type,” Costal said she was told.

Costal said that she and Lazzaro bonded over a shared interest in the metaphysical and collecting crystals as they chatted in his home. As their relationship grew serious, she said, he helped pay for online learning so she could finish high school. Castro Medina helped tutor her, she said, and Lazzaro paid for that help.

Under cross-examination, Assistant U.S. Attorney Melinda Williams showed Costal a series of WhatsApp messages between Lazzaro, Castro Medina and the boyfriend who brokered her meeting with Lazzaro. One message appeared to show Lazzaro totaling up what he owed the boy, which included “another $1,000 when you introduced me to Kira.”

Costal testified that Lazzaro has since deeded his $875,000 condo over to her, pays rent on her apartment, and bought her a $76,000 Tesla in December 2021. She agreed that her lifestyle is funded by her partner’s credit cards.

Costal also acknowledged that despite an order from Chief U.S. District Judge Patrick Schiltz that witnesses not discuss the case with the parties involved, she and Lazzaro talk on the phone about how each day of trial went for him.

Williams read back a transcript of a jail call from Monday evening between the two in which Costal told Lazzaro: “You let me know what needs to get done and I will literally kill people to get it done.”

“You said that?”

“Yes,” she said, smiling.

Earlier Tuesday, Zeina Sleiman, a front desk manager at Hotel Ivy, laughed as she told one of Lazzaro’s attorneys that she knew Lazzaro “had a type” — white, skinny girls who often would visit before he started dating Costal seriously.

Sleiman testified that staff at the hotel were trained to spot signs of sex trafficking but added that she never saw any of Lazzaro’s many female guests appear to be scared.

On cross-examination, Assistant U.S. Attorney Laura Provinzino emphasized that sex trafficking victims could seem put-together, be seen laughing or giving a confident impression. Sleiman agreed with that assessment. After seeing a photo of three girls Lazzaro had visit him at his condo in 2020 — including an alleged victim who was 15 at the time — late one evening, Sleiman said she would have been concerned to see them at that hour. She also agreed that it would be worrying to know that any teen girls were paid for sex, served alcohol or allowed to hold firearms in Lazzaro’s condo.

Before prosecutors wrapped up earlier Tuesday, FBI Special Agent Richard Waller, the lead investigator in the federal investigation of Lazzaro, told jurors how Lazzaro complied during the search in opening a safe in his office that required a biometric code.

Inside, agents found stacks of cash organized in $10,000 bundles and weapons including an AR-style rifle that teen girls held for photos on previous visits to see Lazzaro. In a side table next to Lazzaro’s bed, Waller confirmed, agents found Plan B emergency contraceptive pills that alleged victims testified previously to being given by Lazzaro after they were paid for sex.



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Trump, GOP weaponize Minnesota Freedom Fund in attacks on Kamala Harris

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What began as a small charitable nonprofit founded by a University of Minnesota business school student has again become ammunition for attacks against Kamala Harris’s record on crime.

A day after Joe Biden bowed out from the presidential race, as Donald Trump’s campaign recalibrated its attacks on Harris as the Democrat frontrunner, Minnesota Trump Campaign Chair and U.S. Rep. Tom Emmer posted on X that Harris once supported “a bail fund for Minnesota criminals who should have stayed behind bars. One convict she sprung from prison killed a man after Kamala helped release him.”

Fox News followed with a headline saying the “Kamala Harris-backed” organization has “put murderers, rapists back on streets.”

And on Tuesday, Trump’s official war room account posted a photo of Harris to X alongside a mugshot of Jaleel Stallings, a Minneapolis man the account describes as being “charged with the attempted murder of two police officers” in 2020.

“[Harris] raised money to bail Stallings out of jail,” read the caption. “Kamala Harris is radically liberal and dangerously incompetent.”

The post fails to mention Stallings was found not guilty by a jury — or that one of the arresting officers was convicted of assault for beating him up.

These political attacks—some misleading or false—stem from a Harris social media post four years ago. After George Floyd’s murder, the Vice President encouraged her followers to help arrested protestors by donating to the Minnesota Freedom Fund, a Minneapolis-based non-profit that pays criminal and immigration bonds for people in Twin Cities jails and detention facilities.

The Freedom Fund was started in fall 2016 by Simon Cecil, then a graduate student completing dual master’s degrees in business and public policy. In the beginning, Cecil had a meager $10,000, half from a University of Minnesota grant program and the rest from an ideas competition. Cecil paid bails capped at $1,000 in the early days—some as low as $50—for people accused of committing low-level crimes.

The fund has since ballooned into a multi-million-dollar organization, largely after a deluge of donations in 2020, and become perennial fodder for attacks on Harris and other Democrats.

Since its inception, the Freedom Fund has posted criminal bail for 2,537 people who were charged and awaiting trial in jail, and another 463 immigration bonds, according to data provided by organization as of May 2024. The bail fund’s staff describe its mission as a way to level the playing field in the system of cash bail in America, where impoverished people sit in jail when they are presumed innocent because they can’t pay nominal fees.

“That’s one of our core beliefs that motivates our work: everyone, regardless of wealth, is entitled to this presumption of innocence,” said Freedom Fund spokesperson Noble Frank.

Harris’s tweet from 2020 is the extent of her support for the organization, said Frank. “We’ve had no connection with her other than that.”

Some of the people bailed out by the Freedom Fund have gone on to commit violent crimes while on release, such as George Howard, who was convicted in a deadly road rage shooting after the organization helped secure his release.

Frank said these cases are rare, and critics mischaracterize the bail fund’s role in the system to link it to Harris. Contrary to Emmer’s tweet, the Freedom Fund does not—and could not—arrange the release of people who have been found guilty of a crime and are serving prison sentences. Bail is only available to people who are awaiting trial for pending charges, and who have been granted the opportunity for bail by a judge.

Emmer did not respond to a request for an interview about his remarks.

Frank said the organization now places limits on who it will bail out, such as not paying for the same person in a year period. Staff also evaluates court appearance history, criminal past and factors like mental illness or risk of losing employment and housing in determining whether to post a person’s bond.

Frank said about one-third of the people bailed out by the Freedom Fund have ultimately been exonerated. That includes Stallings.

In 2020, a jury exonerated Stallings after body-camera video showed Minneapolis officers firing projectiles at him without warning from an unmarked vehicle five days after Floyd’s murder. Stallings, who was standing in a parking lot, returned fire with a licensed gun in what he later described as an act of self defense. The officers brutally beat and arrested him.

Then-Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman said later that police “grossly misled” his office on the evidence. The city paid $1.5 million to settle a lawsuit with Stallings.

Bail in the United States dates back the nation’s founding, and so do bail funds.

The first was started by Declaration of Independence-signer Benjamin Rush, who helped people navigate the bail system so they didn’t have to linger in jail awaiting trial, said Kellen Funk, a legal historian who teaches a seminar on bail at Columbia Law School.

Throughout the 19th Century, charitable groups often raised money to pay bail for what they believed were unjust charges. Funk cited examples of abolitionists collecting funds to bail out an operator of the Underground Railroad in Maryland. After the Civil War, he said, a group raised $100,000 to bail out Confederate leader Jefferson Davis.

“This political trick has a long history,” said Funk. “But it’s always been the case that the law of bail is rather indifferent to the source.”

Back then, bail usually did not have money attached to it; in most cases, it was simply a pledge to return to court, said Funk. In the 20th Century, courts in the United States began using money more broadly as an incentive for people to appear. If they did return to court, the money was returned in full. This led to the rise of the commercial bondsman, a for-profit enterprise that charges a fee for posting cash bail.

As the criminal justice system has changed over the centuries, this is where bail reformers say it has gone very wrong. The Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution prohibits “excessive” bail. Yet 34 percent of Americans charged with crimes linger in jail pretrial for no other reason than they can’t afford to pay, according to a 2016 report by the Harvard Law School.

“Many low-level offenders are being held simply because they cannot afford the money amount up front,” Funk said. “They’re presumed innocent. No evidence has come in. Very often the evidence is exonerating when it comes in, but people will even plead guilty for crimes they did not commit just to end their pretrial detention.”

Modern-era bail funds have emerged as a Band-Aid to close this gap, said Funk. Some municipalities, including New York City and the state of New Jersey, have dramatically curtailed the use of cash bail.

In recent years, lack of transparency around Minnesota’s bail system has fueled criticisms across the criminal spectrum.

The Trump campaign first attacked the Freedom Fund in 2020 for its role in bailing out people arrested after Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin killed Floyd, leading to Minnesota Republicans pushing a bill that would require more publicly available information as to who is posting the bond. Months later, when an anonymous benefactor paid Chauvin’s bail, hundreds marched down Minneapolis streets in protest of his release.

This week, MAGA Inc., a Trump super PAC, posted to X that a person arrested for rioting in 2020 was bailed out by the Freedom Fund and charged with murder. The Freedom Fund said they have no record of such a case.

Frank said the Freedom Fund has been inundated with unwanted attention as the attacks are revived on the national stage.

“The work that we do is unpopular,” Frank said, “especially during an election cycle.”



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Rapidan Dam Store to move to new location in downtown Mankato

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The Rapidan Dam Store, a restaurant southwest of Mankato that was demolished after flooding in June overran the nearby dam, may soon have a new home.

The Hruska family that has owned the store since 1972 is in the final stages of talks that would reopen the restaurant temporarily in a location in downtown Mankato, the family and a local realtor said.

The deal is finalized but still needs approvals from the city, said David Hruska, co-owner of the restaurant. The restaurant, known for its burgers and pies, would reopen on South Front Street, at the former location of the Wagon Wheel café.

“It’s close, but it’s got a couple steps to go before that’s done,” said Hruska, who owns the store along with his sister Jenny Barnes.

The Rapidan Dam Store was demolished in June by Blue Earth County officials as a safety measure following flooding on the Blue Earth River. The flooding, the second worst measured on the river, overran the nearby dam and swept away the Hruska family’s home, along with a playground, trees and other debris.

The family received approximately $40,000 for the building and still owns the land, which has shrunk due to the flood scouring away the bedrock near the river.

The final terms for the Rapidan Dam Store to move into the new location have been signed as of Tuesday afternoon, said Dain Fisher, a Mankato realtor and friend of the Hruskas who has been helping them relocate.

“It’s going to be exciting for the Dam Store to be in the heart of Mankato,” Fisher said Tuesday. The remaining steps involve approval by the city, he added.

A spokesman for Mankato city government confirmed the Hruska family is going through approval processes to move their business. The next steps are a planning commission meeting Wednesday and a city council meeting on Aug. 12, said Paul David, communications director for Mankato.

Use of the old Wagon Wheel location would be donated to the family for $1 for four months, said Kyle Smith of the Tailwind Group, which owns the building.

The family would have to pay their own expenses at the space, which has been vacant for several years, Smith said Tuesday.

The Wagon Wheel location will probably need a new floor and replacement ceiling tiles, as well as a professional cleaning, Hruska said.

The Rapidan Dam Store could reopen by the end of August at the earliest, Hruska said, adding that September is more likely.



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Pedestrian struck and killed by Metro Transit train in St. Paul

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A pedestrian was struck and killed by a Metro Transit Green Line light-rail train in St. Paul on Tuesday.

The incident occurred shortly after 3:30 p.m. near the intersection of University Avenue and Syndicate Street N., just east of Hamline Avenue, according to Nikki Muehlhausen, a spokesperson for the Metro Transit Police Department.

The pedestrian was pronounced dead at the scene, she said, and an investigation is underway.

No other information was available.

Buses were replacing trains between the Fairview Avenue and Western Avenue stations while the scene was being cleared, Muehlhausen said.



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