Zach Cruz left Florida after the 2018 massacre. Now the men who gave him a home in Virginia are accused of stealing his inheritance.
But when the Parkland school shooter looked up, there was one person he did not see.
Zachary Cruz, 22, was the only close family member he had left. When Cruz went on a killing rampage at his former high school, it was Zach, then 17, who agonized over whether he could have done something to prevent it. When Cruz was arrested, it was Zach who went into the interrogation room to demand, “Why did you do this?” When Cruz started to sob, it was Zach who wrapped his older brother in his arms.
“I’m gonna come to your trial. I’ll come to everything,” Zach promised his brother, who he always calls Nik, a transcript of the 2018 conversation shows. “I swear on everything I love, I will come see you every chance I’m given. All right? No matter what happens.”
Four and a half years later, Zach hadn’t been to Florida in months. He rarely held online video visits with his brother. And despite being the most highly anticipated witness in the death penalty trial, Zach never came to testify.
“His brother loves him,” the shooter’s public defender had assured the jury during her closing statement.
The prosecutor objected. “Not in evidence,” he said.
To the defense team, Zach not taking the stand was a lost opportunity to show what the Cruz brothers had endured growing up. To the prosecutors, it was a missed chance to cross-examine the person who may have best understood the mental state of one of the nation’s deadliest school shooters.
But Zach’s absence was also noticeable to investigators far from Florida, who saw it as another sign of what they had suspected for more than a year: Zachary Cruz was in trouble.
On Oct. 5, one week before the verdict, police raided the house where Zach lives in Virginia. Zach was photographed sitting outside the house, surrounded by Augusta County sheriff’s deputies. But they weren’t there to arrest him. They said he was a victim of a crime.
The alleged perpetrators were Richard Moore and Mike Donovan, both 45, the Virginia entrepreneurs who offered to take Zach in shortly after the shooting. In depositions and previous interviews, Zach has called the couple his guardians, saying they gave him a home, a family and a place to do the one thing he loved, skateboarding.
But police and court records allege that Moore and Donovan, who were already being prosecuted by state and federal agencies for their business practices, stole the money Zach inherited from his late mother’s estate — more than $400,000 — to pay taxes, bills and car payments on their Ferrari.
During the raid of the couple’s home and business headquarters, police collected more than 90 phones, computers and other devices as potential evidence. Moore and Donovan were charged with obtaining money by false pretenses and exploiting someone who is mentally incapacitated. They were released from jail on $50,000 bonds.
The men have called the charges “bogus.” They contend Zach is being victimized not by them, but by the Augusta County Sheriff’s department, accusing its deputies of handcuffing and holding Zach at gunpoint during the raid.
“We love Zach, and we would never exploit him,” Donovan wrote in an email to The Washington Post, saying Zach has “always had 100% control over what happened to his money.”
The arrests of Moore and Donovan came more than a year after a Virginia social services agency began to question whether Zach, who had no other family looking out for him, was being taken advantage of.
Though Zach is an adult and Moore and Donovan have no legal guardianship over him, he has become entangled in the complex web that surrounds the couple — one involving dozens of lawsuits, a myriad of spinoff businesses, an FBI investigation and a contentious public battle with reality TV star Dog the Bounty Hunter.
On the day of the verdict in Florida, the jury delivered a decisive outcome for Nikolas Cruz: Instead of being executed, he will spend the rest of his life in prison.
But for Zach, the future is much less certain. He never finished high school and does not have a job. If convicted, the men who took him in could go to prison. Moore is facing even more prison time in separate cases involving perjury and tax fraud. And according to police records, Zach’s inheritance money is gone.
After a Post reporter spoke to Zach for this story in September, Zach’s phone number was changed. Additional attempts to interview him in person were unsuccessful.
Moore and Donovan, who are expected to plead not guilty to the charges against them, continue to post photos of Zach on social media. Following their initial appearance in the case, they shared a photo of their family standing outside the Augusta County courthouse.
Zach’s arm was wrapped around Moore and Donovan. He was smiling. Two words were embroidered on his shirt: “Go away.”
‘They feel like parents’
Zach had known Moore and Donovan for less than two weeks when he agreed to move with them to Virginia. It was May 2018. He was orphaned, homeless and on probation.
His adoptive mother, who had raised him and his older brother since they were babies, had died unexpectedly of pneumonia in November 2017. Three months later, on Valentine’s Day, Nikolas Cruz opened fire inside Marjory Stoneman Douglas High, killing three staff members and 14 students — people Zach had known growing up.
After Zach was interviewed by detectives for hours, he hid out from news cameras for days. In March, he took his skateboard to the Stoneman Douglas campus, trying to grapple with what his brother had done there. He was arrested for trespassing.
Zach spent 10 days in jail, much of it on suicide watch, according to his public defender at the time. He was then placed on probation and sent back to the home of a former neighbor he had been living with since his mother’s death. By May, the neighbor had kicked him out and called police on him for driving a car without a license.
But this time when Zach was released from police custody, he was told there were three people who wanted to meet him: Moore, Donovan, and their adopted 14-year-old son. They took Zach to the penthouse of the oceanfront hotel where they were staying, bought him clothes from the hotel gift shop and told him they were there to help.
Soon, Zach was back in front of the judge overseeing his probation.
Two of the couple’s employees testified that they would be providing Zach with an apartment of his own, online schooling, weekly counseling and a $13 an hour job doing maintenance work.
“You need to just take this moment and appreciate what they are offering you,” the judge, Melinda Kirsch Brown, told Zach, granting him permission to move.
Donovan and Moore, whose records include convictions for grand larceny, forgery and fraudulent checks, did not take the stand. A recording of the hearing shows no one asking who they were or why they were getting involved. No one brought up the media coverage of the allegations against their multimillion dollar business, Nexus Services.
For the past seven years, advocacy groups and state attorneys general have accused Nexus of exploiting undocumented immigrants by bailing them out of detention, then requiring them to pay exorbitant fees to maintain their freedom. Lawsuits and investigations against the company have mounted from nearly a dozen states and federal agencies, including the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. In some cases, the lawsuits were dismissed or are still pending. In others, Nexus has been ordered to pay millions in damages.
Donovan and Moore maintain that they are not exploiting anyone. In Donovan’s book, “Not Free America: What Your Government Doesn’t Want You To Know,” he says the investigations are simply retaliation for “our unapologetic service to God’s flock.”
Donovan describes himself as the pastor of First Christian Church Universalist in Harrisonburg, Va. The church rarely meets in person, but its website advertises the podcast, book and businesses of “Rev. Mike.”
As Nexus made a name for itself, Donovan has consistently been the public face of the company, promoting a mix of social justice advocacy and anti-government tirades. Moore, whom Donovan said he married in 2016, deals with the company’s finances and tends to their side projects, including a store selling video games and Disney collectibles.
They are known for their generosity — providing their employees and friends with homes and vacations — and for their vindictiveness — filing lawsuits, launching social media attacks and admitting to hiring paid protesters to target those they perceive to be their enemies.
Nexus has been sued repeatedly by employees who say they were never paid and clients who say they were scammed. At the same time, the company has filed high-profile lawsuits of its own, typically in cases already in the news. It sued the Trump administration for separating families at the border and sued the police chief of Charlottesville for failing to prevent violence at the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally.
It has also spun off a multitude of other ventures. At various times, the company has run “Nexus Investigations & Security,” “Homes by Nexus,” “Nexus Health Inc.” and “Entertainment by Nexus.”
The connection to Zach led to more lawsuits, more spinoffs and more headlines. Within a year Zach moving to Virginia, Nexus lawyers filed two lawsuits against Broward County officials, saying Zach’s rights had been violated after he was detained for trespassing. With a news conference in front of local and national media in Washington, Nexus launched “We Isolate No-One,” an anti-bullying hotline. The number is now disconnected.
When Zach gave interviews about his new life, as he did with The Washington Post in 2019, he was monitored at all times by Nexus employees, who recorded his interactions with a reporter.
“If I didn’t meet Mike and Richard, I don’t know what would have happened,” Zach said at the time. “They feel like parents to me. … If I left, I wouldn’t find that anywhere else.”
He’d grown up in a house where his mother unplugged his Xbox to save on electricity. In Donovan and Moore’s 4,700 square-foot home in Fishersville, Va., he had his own bedroom and a room just for gaming, with a massive TV and multiple systems to play with their son Sam.
Instead of the maintenance job and high school classes that had been described to his probation judge, Zach joined Donovan and Moore on business trips, sleeping late in luxury hotel rooms. He posed for family photos, celebrated Christmas, and every time he cracked his skateboard trying out a new trick, he was able to buy a new one. The couple called him “our son.”
Zach expressed a desire for a quiet life out of the spotlight. But Donovan and Moore continued to seek it.
In 2021, they began promoting an online streaming platform called “TV Unleashed.” Its centerpiece was “Dog Unleashed,” a new reality show about Dog the Bounty Hunter, Duane Chapman, who had started spending time in Virginia after his wife died in 2019.
Another show involved one of Chapman’s daughters. It featured her, Sam and a group of young activists who associated themselves with Black Lives Matter, protesting outside the headquarters of the Augusta County Sheriff — the same sheriff who had previously investigated Donovan and Moore, and who the couple has been publicly battling with for years through lawsuits and on social media.
The protest show also went to Illinois to picket outside the home of the president of RLI Insurance — the same insurance company that won a $5.7 million lawsuit against Nexus for unpaid bonds. (After losing an appeal, Nexus has yet to pay all it owes.)
Then came advertisements for shows called “Parkland: My Side of the Story” and “Being Zachary Cruz.” One preview showed Zach skateboarding as Donovan gave an impassioned voice-over about him. The show’s logo featured Zach encircled by pictures of the couple.
“There’s no secrets in our household,” Moore is filmed saying in another preview. “A lot of people would say it’s dysfunctional, it’s strange, but so are all the people who live in our house.”
The venture never seemed to fully launch. The website for TV Unleashed remains “under construction.”
Meanwhile, the couple was becoming more involved in a matter that would soon be on TVs everywhere: Nikolas Cruz’s death penalty sentencing trial.
Records of jail calls show that after moving to Virginia, Zach almost never held video visits with his brother without Donovan or Moore present. Eventually, Moore started visiting alone. By 2022, the two were talking almost every day.
Moore sent thousands of dollars to the shooter’s commissary and bought him dress clothes to wear to court. He showed up to watch jury selection with a security guard by his side and gave an interview to the local news. He announced on Facebook that he was going to be called as a witness in the case.
“I never truly understood what it truly meant to hate the sin and love the sinner until now,” Moore wrote.
In almost every call, records show, Cruz wanted to know where Zach was. When, he asked, could he talk to his brother?
‘Where is your money?’
The caller said his name was Zachary Cruz. He was inquiring about the money he was entitled to receive from his mother’s life insurance policy.
“Do you know how they mail out the payment?” the caller asked the insurance company representative, according to police records. He asked that the check be overnighted to him via Fedex.
Two checks were mailed out the next day, Aug. 7, 2019, police records show. One was for $207.17. The other was for $426,553.30.
Police say the caller was not Zach. An FBI investigation, which was later described by the Augusta County Sheriff’s Department in search warrant affidavits, concluded the caller was Timothy Shipe, a vice president at Nexus. Shipe, who was later arrested alongside Donovan and Moore, had been the one to tell a Florida judge in 2018 that he would be personally responsible for providing Zach with a maintenance job.
“The allegations against me are all false and will be disposed of during trial,” Shipe said in a statement. “My only hope is that people will let Zach live his life post-Parkland trial.”
The checks, the search warrant affidavit said, were deposited into a joint checking account belonging to both Zach and Moore. The account had been opened after public defenders learned about the existence of a life insurance policy and disclosed in court how large the payout was expected to be. Police say the day after the inheritance made the news, Donovan called MetLife to ask about the money.
The half that belonged to the shooter would likely be tied up in the lawsuits filed by families of the victims. But Zach was entitled to more than $426,000. Overnight, he had gone from destitute and dependent to having the money to buy a house and a car, or to kick-start his dream of owning his own skate shop.
But four days after the checks were deposited, police records show, someone logged into the shared bank account from Moore and Donovan’s home address and withdrew $300,000. The next day, someone logged into the account from the Nexus Services headquarters, and removed another $100,000.
The first withdrawal, police allege, was used to pay the Internal Revenue Service.
It is unclear if Moore was already aware that he was under scrutiny for not paying payroll taxes. In 2021, he was charged with tax fraud by the Justice Department for allegedly failing to pay the IRS more than $1.5 million. He has pleaded not guilty.
Court filings show that in recent years, Nexus has suffered major drops in revenue, has been ordered to pay millions from lawsuits and class-action settlements and has endured what their lawyers described as “crippling, multimillion dollar expenses that were not anticipated.”
The $100,000 that remained from Zach’s money, the search warrant affidavit states, went to credit card bills and car payments linked to a BMW and a Ferrari.
By January 2021, someone had learned about the transactions. This person, whom law enforcement has not named, alerted Shenandoah Valley Social Services, which investigates allegations of abuse of children and vulnerable adults in the community.
According to a petition filed by the agency and obtained by The Post, the tipster reported that Zach was not aware that his money had been spent. The person claimed that Zach had mental health challenges, was not able to manage his own finances and also referred to him as “mentally retarded,” a term widely considered to be a slur toward people with developmental and learning disabilities. Moore and Donovan later expressed outrage about the offensive term and said Zach is completely competent.
Under Virginia law, when an Adult Protective Services unit receives a tip, it is required to begin an investigation within 24 hours, and to attempt to make face-to-face contact with the potential victim within seven days.
“The law places financial exploitation in the same category of concerns as physical abuse or neglect,” said Stephen Strosnider, an attorney for the agency who declined to comment on the specifics of Zach’s case.
But the petition states that when a social worker tried to visit Zach at Donovan and Moore’s home, she was stopped by one of the armed guards the couple pays to monitor their property. The social worker was not allowed into the house, the petition stated.
She left a letter explaining why she wanted to speak to Zach.
Strosnider said it is rare for Shenandoah social workers to be denied access to a potential victim of exploitation.
The agency took the matter to a judge, explaining in its petition that the social worker was coordinating with an FBI investigator. The judge granted the request, writing that there was good cause to interview Zach.
In response, Donovan and Moore filed a lawsuit against the social worker.
They claimed she was involved in a conspiracy against them, along with what they acknowledged was an unlikely group of co-defendants. They sued the FBI agent, whom they said had gone “rogue.” They sued one of their former employees, whom Moore has referred to as a “stalker,” alleging he was involved. They sued Chapman, a.k.a. Dog the Bounty Hunter, whom they accused of being the tipster.
The lawsuit, which garnered tabloid headlines, claimed Chapman was exacting revenge for their decision to cancel “Dog Unleashed.”
“Zachary Cruz is not the only person that Donovan and Moore have purportedly taken advantage of,” Chapman said in a statement. “My family has fallen prey in various ways to their scams as well.”
The suit also claimed Virginia was trying to place Zach into a conservatorship, “much like the one Brittany Spears has been forced to endure, where he would have no control over his life.” (The suit misspelled Spears’s first name, Britney.)
Through it all, Zach shared little with the outside world besides videos of himself at the skate park.
Lawyer Mario Williams was hired by Donovan and Moore to represent both Nexus and Zach. As social services investigated, Williams took Zach aside and asked him if he was comfortable with Donovan and Moore managing his money. Williams said in an interview that he believed Zach was competent to make his own financial decisions. But he had no idea, he said, that the inheritance was already gone.
“Zach did not care at all what they did with the money,” Williams said. “He said the words, ‘I trust them, and they can do what they want.’ ”
In September 2021, Zach was called to testify about the matter in front of a federal grand jury. An excerpt of his testimony included in police records shows he told the prosecutor Moore had given him a lot of money over the years. But when asked if he ever gave permission for Moore and Donovan to use his money to pay the IRS, Zach answered no.
“If the Department of Justice has Zach saying no, I never gave them permission to use the money for that specific thing … that could be a real problem for them,” Williams said.
Though Moore and Donovan were not charged at the time, the scrutiny of the inheritance money did not go away. In April 2022, Florida prosecutors held a video-conference deposition with Zach in preparation for the Parkland sentencing trial. He was required to answer their questions if he was going to testify on his brother’s behalf
The attorneys repeatedly asked Donovan to leave the room. He refused.
“Where is your money?” prosecutor Jeff Marcus asked, referencing the inheritance.
“It’s, like away. Like, I still have, like, money that’s supposed to be coming,” Zach said.
“So do you have the money or is it still supposed to be coming? It’s now over four years later,” Marcus said. “Is it fair to say you have no idea where any money is that you may have inherited?”
Before Zach could say more, his new attorney, who was also representing Moore, interrupted. She wouldn’t allow him to answer questions about the money. She wouldn’t allow him to answer questions about his life in Virginia, or “TV Unleashed,” or Moore and Donovan’s felony records.
When Moore was deposed, the attorney, Amina Matheny-Willard, objected to similar questions.
“Are you making money off of Zach Cruz’s notoriety of being Nikolas Cruz’s brother?” Marcus asked.
Prosecutors took the issue to the judge, arguing that under Florida law, witnesses are required to answer relevant questions during depositions. The judge agreed, issuing an order commanding Moore and Zach to meet with the attorneys again and this time, “answer all questions asked of them.”
It never happened. On Sept. 14, a “statement from Zachary Cruz” was sent to the media announcing Zach would no longer voluntarily testify in the case.
“Broward prosecutors partnered with a racist Virginia Sheriff and a corrupt prosecutor to attempt to arrest me, search my home, and subject me to a conservatorship,” the statement read.
It was filled with accusations of witness tampering and a warning to Broward County officials. When his brother’s case was over, Zach’s statement promised, he’d be filing a lawsuit.
On a sunny afternoon two weeks before the police raid on his house and three weeks before the verdict in his brother’s case, Zach was in the place he’d always rather be: a local skate park.
Approached by The Washington Post reporter who’d interviewed him extensively in 2019, he said he did not know that she had been trying to reach him for months through Donovan and Moore.
There was a lot he wanted to say, he explained. He knew about the statement that had been put out, which he said he gave input on, but Donovan wrote.
“I’m not good with speeches or nothing like that,” Zach said.
He was on his way to buy another new skateboard, after an off-balance landing had left a jagged crack between his wheels. He’d been spending nearly all of his time here, perfecting his tricks, one aspect of his life that was his to control. But lately, he said, even skating had been hard to concentrate on. Sometimes he just sat in his car, watching his brother’s trial unfold. He read the news coverage. He thought about what people say to him when they learn who his brother is.
“As many times as your brother shot those people, that’s how many times he deserves to get shot,” he said a friend at the skate park had told him.
Everyone seemed to be paying attention again, reliving the horrific thing his brother had done. But for the past 4½ years, Zach had never stopped reliving it.
He said he sometimes went weeks without sleeping. He broke his skateboards on purpose. One night in 2020, he broke a window and didn’t know why. He ended up hospitalized for his mental health, he said.
“I always think, what did that to me?” he said. “And I think it’s just thinking of my brother, every day.”
He knew that his brother wanted to talk to him more often. He knew the attorneys had wanted him to testify. He just didn’t know what he wanted to do.
“It sounds bad to say, but I don’t think that he deserves a chance, sometimes,” Zach said about his brother. “That’s the thing with me. Sometimes I just don’t know if I’m supporting the right side.”
All the while, he said, Moore and Donovan have been guiding him.
When asked what had happened to his inheritance money, he answered, “Really it’s like Richard is helping me with all of that. I’ve never even asked Richard about the stuff, the plans we’ve already made. We already talked about it but, I feel like I forgot already. That type of information doesn’t stick well with me. He can tell me, ‘Oh we are going to do this, this, this, this, and this.’ And I’ll barely remember like half of the list.”
He shifted his broken skateboard. He didn’t look like the four-year-old Post photograph that had been sent to the media along with his statement.
He now had a multiple face tattoos, including a green ribbon beneath his left eye, a symbol of mental health awareness. Tattooed across his knuckles were the words ‘LOST SOUL.’
Zach shared his phone number. He wanted to get going to the skate shop. But then he thought of something else he wanted to say.
“Another thing I can tell you is, that show — ‘Being Zach Cruz’ — nothing is happening with that. I’m not doing that,” he said.
“I don’t want to be on TV … especially because I don’t think things are fairly represented. I just feel like things feel scripted when there’s cameras and stuff,” he said.
He searched for the right words.
“I don’t know, it’s hard. I feel like there’s more to explain, but I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t want to make a scene, that’s really it. I’m gonna cut it at that. I don’t want to make a scene.”
He drove off. Then he texted Donovan.
‘Saving people like myself’
The jury’s verdict had been delivered, but the sentencing for Nikolas Cruz was not over. Under Florida law, the families and survivors were allowed to return to the courtroom a final time. One by one this week, they stepped up to a podium, looked the shooter in the eye and told him just how much he had taken from them. They spoke of the goodbyes they would never get to say and the feelings of safety they would never get back. They called him a remorseless monster. A domestic terrorist. Pure evil.
Their anguish was streamed live on YouTube.
As they spoke on Tuesday, attorneys in Virginia were working on a new lawsuit against Augusta County Sheriff Donald Smith, for the raid on Donovan and Moore’s home. Also named in the suit: the social worker who tried to check on Zach. (The sheriff’s department and the social services agency declined to comment.)
The lawsuit, filed in Zach’s name Wednesday, alleged misconduct, corruption and racism. It was accompanied by a 10-page “sworn affidavit of Zachary Paul Cruz.” It stated that Zach had been present when Shipe asked for his inheritance check to be overnighted to him.
“I told Mike I wanted to give the money to Nexus, and that I wanted to support a company that was saving people like myself,” the affidavit said. “Richard and Mike have NEVER taken any money from my account that I did not authorize.”
Zach, the sworn statement said, has received more than $460,000 from Moore and Donovan since he moved to Virginia for “trips, cars, skating and other expenses.”
“To be clear,” the affidavit from Zach concluded, “Richard and Mike have cared for me when no one else cared.”
In an email, Donovan said the decision to sue the sheriff was Zach’s. A Nexus attorney also forwarded a statement, attributed to Zach, which largely repeated the assertions in the lawsuit.
But when the attorney checked to see if Zach could do an interview Tuesday afternoon, she was told he was busy.
Another survivor was taking the stand in Florida, and Zach was watching.
Story editing by Lynda Robinson, photo editing by Mark Miller, copy editing by Thomas Heleba and Jordan Melendrez, design by Michael Domine. Researcher Alice Crites contributed to this report.