The Kryp+0 K!ng, by contrast, is slight, with short, orderly bangs that rest above beady, brown eyes. He’s outfitted with the gaudy brands — Louis luggage, Gucci belt — but they seem baggy on him, obligatory somehow. Posing for a photo with the bros by the private jet airstair, he looks like somebody’s nervous kid brother. He looks a little uncomfortable.
But on the afternoon of February 26, the Kryp+0 K!ng appears quite at ease, chatting idly with his attorney while waiting to be arraigned in federal court in downtown Phoenix. After all, these last few years — the parties, the planes, the money, the Kryp+0 K!ng identity — were an aberration in the life of 29-year-old John Michael Caruso. A mobster’s son who embraced the life of crime he was born into, Caruso has spent most of his adulthood in courtrooms and prisons.
Behind bars, according to law enforcement reports and Caruso’s own mitigation specialist, Caruso consorted with Mexican cartels and traded information about the Hells Angels and the Aryan Brotherhood — and somehow managed to make it out alive.
“He appears to believe that he is endowed with superior intelligence,” a 2014 psych evaluation of Caruso notes, “and indeed, details of his activities in jail where he engaged in a complex coordination of people and resources provided glimpses of a criminal mastermind at work.”
When he was released, the feds say, he applied those same skills in the free world. Caruso stands accused of perpetrating a cryptocurrency scheme so brazen that even today, months after his arrest, it is unclear whether the man who called himself Kryp+0 K!ng knew more than a Wikipedia entry’s worth of information about blockchain or Bitcoin. The con ensnared professional athletes, internet celebrities, and aspiring pop stars. It duped more than a few journalists. Millions of dollars are unaccounted for.
Little in the way of new information emerges at Caruso’s arraignment proceeding. His attorney enters a not-guilty plea, and the judge sets a tentative trial date. When the gavel hits the wood, Caruso turns, chains jangling around his waist and feet, and exits the courtroom like a guy who’s done it 1,000 times before.
It was May 2019, and Domine — a tatted-up former Marine with a wolflike grin — was telling an acquaintance about his newfound good fortune. Domine had just posted a photo from inside a massive Paradise Valley mansion, and the acquaintance had messaged asking who owned the place. Domine told him it belonged to the two owners of Zima Digital Assets — “Zach and Crypto King,” as he referred to them.
Domine was running “executive security detail” for Zima Digital Assets, he explained. The company was involved in “crypto currency but nothing like anyone else is doing or even capable of doing.” Unlike many cryptocurrency traders, who place long-term bets on the market, Zima Digital Assets’ approach was something more like high-frequency day trading, he said. He described Kryp+0 K!ng as a “literal genius” with “one of the highest IQs in the space.”
Domine had been personally investing with Zima for six months, he told the friend.
“The returns are so wild,” Domine said.
If Domine’s friend had wanted to learn more about this potential investment opportunity, he might have started by Googling the company’s website, which described Zima Digital Assets as a hedge fund that was “a trusted authority in digital assets and blockchain based investments.” There, he also would have found links to adulatory stories in the press about the company. He might have eventually found his way to a Business Insider item about Zima Digital Assets titled “Meet the Michael Jordan of Algorithmic Cryptocurrency Trading.”
“Co-Founder and CEO John Caruso, nicknamed ‘Kryp+0 K!ng,’ has been revered as one of the top cryptocurrency traders amongst high profile investors on Wall Street,” reads the article, which upon closer inspection is authored by a Singapore-based press release distribution service. “Some argue that he is the world’s greatest cryptocurrency trader of all time.”
Cigar Aficionado devoted 2,300 words to Kryp+0 K!ng, both online and in its October 2019 print issue.
“John Caruso is only 28, but he has made hundreds of millions of dollars trading Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies,” the subhead reads.
The author of the story, Michael Kaplan, spins a screenplay-thirsty yarn, trailing Caruso and his buddies as they travel in limos and on private jets to Vegas casinos and Michelin-starred New York restaurants. Caruso is presented as a steely genius, uninterested in the party life his Zima associates get to enjoy thanks to his talents. He’s just a down-to-earth dude who likes chicken fingers, sports cars, hanging out with his girlfriend, and trading crypto at his quiet home office in Scottsdale.
It is a shame that Cigar Aficionado — which did not respond to requests for comment — didn’t do a more rigorous background check on Caruso, because his actual past is almost as colorful as the fictional persona federal prosecutors say he peddled to both the magazine and the more than 100 individuals and corporations that eventually invested in Zima Digital Assets.
Caruso Sr.’s rap sheet, long as a CVS receipt, dates back to the 1970s and includes at least seven misdemeanors and nine known felony convictions, including for grand larceny, fraud, forgery, and weapons charges. He has served several prison terms.
Caruso’s attorneys declined to make father or son available for an interview with Phoenix New Times. But according to the 2015 mitigation report, which tells a sympathetic story of Caruso’s childhood (mitigation reports are submitted to the court by defendants who seek leniency in their sentencing), Caruso watched his father get arrested for the first time in 1998, when he was just 7 years old.
“This began Johnny’s exposure to running from law enforcement, living under assumed names, and early exposure to inappropriate thinking regarding law enforcement,” the report states.
The family — Caruso, his father, and his mother, Susan — appear to have spent much of the 2000s bouncing between Florida, Arizona, California, Nevada, sometimes together, sometimes apart.
In 2005, the Carusos fled Florida for California after Caruso Sr. was indicted for a fraud case. Arrested by U.S. Marshals six months later, Caruso Sr. served seven months in Florida, posted bond, and again fled the state, taking the family this time to Newport Beach, California.
Life as a gangster’s son “afforded Johnny anything he wanted and included taking older women on dates to the Scottsdale Princess and being around people primarily older than him and in lavish circles,” according to the mitigation report. He was with his father “constantly” beginning around age 14, and was “taught by those around him both directly and indirectly to exist and operate within criminal activity.” A Maricopa County Adult Probation Department report concurs, describing the Caruso father-son dynamic as a “peculiar relationship that can be described as training for the defendant to become a career criminal.”
After a 2009 arrest for attempting to defraud two different Scottsdale landlords (in one case, he provided a fictitious bank statement indicating his net worth was more than $35 million), Caruso Sr. was placed on GPS monitoring. Within a few months, he threw the device in the trash and absconded. A bench warrant was issued for his arrest, and Caruso was eventually hauled back in. The case crawled along in court, delayed by Caruso Sr.’s repeated filings for a change of attorney.
In Florida, in 2009, Caruso attempted to assist his father in carrying out an extortion scheme. Having learned sensitive financial information about a Naples man named John Swanson, Caruso Sr. began calling Swanson on the phone, demanding $200,000 from him and “threatening that if he did not pay him the money, he will have his hands and penis cut off,” court documents state. Seventeen years old at the time, Caruso flew down to Florida and, with an accomplice, planned to meet with Swanson and collect the extorted money.
Instead, Swanson alerted authorities, and when Caruso opened the hatchback of Swanson’s car expecting to find a bag of cash, he was arrested on the spot.
A few months later, Caruso was charged as an adult for the crime and was eventually convicted of a third-degree felony charge for conspiracy to commit extortion. He ended up serving two months and was let out on probation. In 2011, Caruso violated his probation when he was arrested in Arizona for falsifying loan documents, landing himself back behind bars, where he’d stay for the next six years.
But even in prison, Caruso couldn’t seem to stay out of trouble.
A probation violation report from 2012 notes that Caruso gained the trust of a fellow inmate who was desperate for legal representation, telling the man he had connections to a bail company that could help him bond out. On Caruso’s instructions, the inmate’s mother deposited $15,000 to a bank account affiliated with Caruso’s half-brother.
But the money didn’t go to help the inmate. It instead was used for Caruso’s legal expenses and to “buy influence and protection for [Caruso]” in jail. To accomplish the latter, money was deposited in the accounts of numerous members of a “criminal street gang,” according to the report. In a subsequent victim impact statement to the court, the inmate’s mother said the Caruso family made repeated threatening phone calls to her and that, once, “when the Caruso family was aware I would not be at my residence” due to a court hearing for her son, she arrived home to find her front door kicked in.
Caruso, the mother said, is “unconscionable, sinister, a pathetic excuse for a man.” She added: “The entire family is dangerous due to their ties to the Mexican Mafia.”
The Adult Probation Department of Maricopa County seems to agree. A report on Caruso Sr. states that the Carusos paid the Arizona Mexican Mafia for protection while father and son were incarcerated in the Fourth Avenue Jail and the Lower Buckeye Jail. A different Maricopa County report on Caruso states that “Scottsdale police provided concrete information that [Caruso] was engaged in the planning of a large drug shipment from Mexico to Arizona” in 2010.
But according to the 2015 mitigation report, Caruso was also assisting law enforcement, including the DEA and Department of Homeland Security with “information relating to drug and weapons trafficking and extensive money laundering with high-ranking individuals in the Sinaloa and Beltran Leyva organizations.” The report states that Caruso cooperated with the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office gang and drug task force that same year in regard to cartel activities in the Phoenix area.
Caruso’s cooperation, the report says, “made him a target with the Mexican mafia and Cartels, the Arian [sic] Brotherhood and the Hells Angels.”
Caruso was released from the Florida Department of Corrections in November 2017, after satisfying his sentence in Arizona for the falsified loan and returning to Florida to serve additional time for the probation violation on the old extortion charge. He had been in continuous custody since 2011.
Seven months later, Caruso purchased zimadigitalassets.com. He incorporated the company in July 2018. The Kryp+0 K!ng was ready to be born.
After signing a five-year, $77 million deal with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim in 2011, Wilson began buying dealerships in California. He purchased a Mazda dealership in 2012, then a McLaren dealership, then Porsche, Audi, and BMW dealerships in Fresno, where he and his family eventually settled after his playing days were over.
In 2018, John Michael Caruso paid Wilson a visit at one of his shops.
“I sold him a car,” Wilson tells New Times. “And over a period of a year and a half or so, he’d come in, and we’d talk, he’d spec out cars. He’d borrow a car, rent a car, buy a car.”
Wilson became acquainted with others involved in Caruso’s cryptocurrency startup, including Caruso’s partner, Zach Salter. They all went on a few trips together. In a photo on Salter’s now-private Instagram page, Wilson is pictured ready to board a private plane in New York along with Salter, Caruso, Domine, and others.
“At one point, I was looking at acquiring a dealership, and John wanted to go,” Wilson says. “Another time, I went on a trip because he [Caruso] said he wanted my opinion on some office space elsewhere.”
Eventually, Wilson says, Caruso offered him a job. Wilson became, at least according to the website of a fund affiliated with Zima Digital Assets, the company’s chief operating officer.
But Wilson tells New Times that he actually had very little to do with Zima Digital Assets.
“I never lived in Arizona — there was not a lot of day-to-day involvement for me,” he says. “It was mostly text messages with John. When we would talk, I would tell him my opinion, and he’d usually do the opposite. At no point was I ever responsible for recruiting additional investors. I was a target of the operation.”
He adds that Salter “took a lot of liberty” with roles and job titles.
“Zach’s whole thing was to nominate people for things,” Wilson says. “He’d update the website on his own and say this person or that person was on the board now. I would be talking to people and asking, ‘Is there even a board or a charter?’”
A Renaissance man of the Instagram age, Salter seemed to have it all. His father, the producer Don Salter, is the founder of the Saltmine Studio Oasis, a reputable recording hideaway in Mesa whose clients over the last 30 years include Lil Wayne, Sheryl Crow, DJ Khaled, the Jonas Brothers, and DMX.
Salter “basically grew up in a music studio,” he said in a 2019 interview, and later attended Highland High School in Gilbert, where a classmate recalls “he was wealthy and always had a really pretty girlfriend.”
By 2017, Salter was the part-owner of a Crunch Fitness and a realtor with the Griggs Group, selling luxury real estate in Paradise Valley. In the background, Salter — tan, toned, handsome, and a wannabe singer — was also trying to get a music career off the ground.
It is not clear how Caruso met Salter. In an Entrepreneur article that has since been deleted from the internet, Salter says of his partnership with Caruso: “At the beginning, we just traded our own money in the cryptocurrency markets. We were getting such great results that others started asking us to trade for them.”
Caruso, their story went, was a code-cracking cryptocurrency expert. Salter was an elite salesman, using his charm and connections to recruit blue-chip investors.
“He’s all IQ and I am all EQ,” Salter told Cigar Aficionado regarding his dynamic with Caruso.
In addition to using the levers of traditional media — story placements in local glossy magazines, sponsored content on the websites of declining legacy outlets — Zima Digital Assets relied heavily on social media to sell its story of success.
“I have a team of 7 analysts and 2 executive traders working 24/7 on managing my crypto hedgefund,” Salter wrote to one potential investor in a DM obtained by New Times. “Run your money with us for 90 days, il [sic] guarantee your satisfaction against my own net worth.”
The photos they flaunted seemed to back up the brags: Salter with a Mercedes he says he purchased for his mother. Salter’s girlfriend posting the BMW he bought her, with a big, red bow around it. An Instagram story featuring a humidor emblazoned with “Zima Digital Assets $1 Billion AUM” — suggesting Caruso and Salter’s company managed $1 billion of other people’s money.
The #ZDA crew wasn’t just doing well, though; they were also, it seemed, doing good. In 2019, Zima Digital Assets sponsored Karts and Guitars, a fundraiser for Striking Out Poverty, and later in the year a “Haunted Mansion” charity costume party in Paradise Valley, where a bus shuttled lucky guests up the mountain to their multimillion-dollar compound.
Salter also told a website called fabulousarizona.com in 2019 that his “friends and family threw a charity event at my house in PV [Paradise Valley] a while back that raised a substantial amount of money for the refugees in Bangladesh.” The Bangladesh story is cited in a different Salter interview with a website called thriveglobal.com, which reports that he “raised $330,000 for the people of Bangladesh after turmoil had occurred within the country.” (Salter and his lawyer did not respond to requests for comment.)
Influencers were recruited. Some held themselves out as professionally affiliated with Zima Digital Assets.
The self-described “serial entrepreneur” Jon Boles is the founder of a Scottsdale-based digital marketing agency called Avintiv Media. Boles has 130,000 followers on Instagram and until recently listed himself as an “Executive Board Member” at Zima Digital Assets.
“I am excited to announce that Zima Digital Assets has launched its new Z-Fund Pro, the first crypto-backed CD,” Boles wrote in a LinkedIn message sent to potential investors in 2019, later obtained by New Times. “It’s time to start letting your money work for you.”
The “basics,” of the fund, as Boles laid them out, involved a minimum $25,000 investment and an 18 percent guaranteed annual return.
Reached by New Times, Boles initially said he would be willing to talk off the record, but then stopped responding to emails and calls.
In an apparent bid for legitimacy with the financial press, Zima Digital Assets attempted to court cable news talking heads like Jon Najarian, a former Chicago Bears linebacker who regularly appears on the CNBC stock-trading talk show Halftime Report.
And others. In one video, Najarian says, “The Crypto King — the dude that buys cars like this — the Crypto King John is gonna be there, along with ... so many great traders are gonna be there in Las Vegas.”
In another: “You’re gonna get the likes of John the Crypto King. Just like this car is at the next level, you want your trading to be at the next level. You gotta get out to Las Vegas.”
Najarian tells New Times he did not promote Caruso.
“I was unable to understand how Zima’s returns were being generated and, therefore, discontinued any consideration of an investment in Zima / Caruso,” he wrote in an email.
On Instagram around the time of these videos, Najarian posted a shirtless poolside photo (also since deleted) with the caption, “See ya later Scottsdale...thanks @skydom45.”
That account belongs to Skylar Domine, the aforementioned muscle of Zima Digital Assets’ operation. Domine is regularly seen in photos alongside Caruso or Salter, often looking menacing, wearing black, and holding a handgun or assault rifle. The Cigar Aficionado story mentions a bodyguard named Skylar who is “well-trained in all sorts of lethal arts.” A former trainer at 5 Star Fitness in Scottsdale, Domine is also the founder of a CBD company called Goat Grass, which he and Boles incorporated in May 2019, according to state records. (Domine did not respond to a request for comment.)
“Meet talanted [sic] Skylar Domine a Marine Cop, Blockchain expert and Manager of top musician Zach Salter,” reads the grammatically challenged headline of a January 2020 story in a web publication called Fab World Today. In it, Domine credits his success to Zima Digital Assets, where he holds “the position of Deputy Director” and has “magnified my net worth from 6 figures to 8 figures going into 2020.” Domine adds that he is also the manager for the “celebrity and musician Zach Salter.”
As the investors signed up and Zima Digital Assets’ bank accounts grew, so did Salter’s singing career — or, at least, that’s how it looked from a certain angle. On YouTube, the lush, professionally shot videos for his white-boy slow jams have hundreds of thousands of views. And when Salter shared the video for his song “Zaddy” with his 45,000 Facebook followers in November, a whopping 127,000 users “liked” the post.
For comparison, that is 30,000 more “likes” than Justin Bieber received when he shared his new album with his 70 million Facebook followers in February.
Nearly all of the 700 commenters on Salter’s “Zaddy” post appear to be from foreign countries. Many comments are simply “Hi,” “Super,” or “Beautiful”; others are emojis or bitmojis, or written in a different language than English; some are just a handful of unrelated letters mashed up against each other.
interview with Arizona Foothills Magazine. Somers, a former MMA ring girl turned Instagram fitness influencer, was briefly tabloid fodder in 2017 when it was rumored that she was dating Tiger Woods. Like Salter, she was — still is — an aspiring singer, though it’s possible that many of her 10 million Instagram followers are unaware of this, given that Somers’ feed is almost entirely photos of her in revealing swimwear or lingerie.
Somers, who’s also been photographed with Caruso and Salter on multiple occasions, did not respond to a request for comment. But in an interview on the popular No Jumper podcast in November 2019, she spoke with host Adam Grandmaison, a.k.a. Adam22, about her investments.
“I met this guy and he’s one of the top trader — top Bitcoin crypto traders in the world,” Somers said. “I invested with him, and literally I don’t have to work if I don’t want to.”
She went on: “I was hanging out with him awhile, and I saw all these celebrities investing with him, and I was like, if they’re doing it, then it’s pretty safe. Because I don’t think they’re stupid, you know?”
“So this is just your dude, you just trust him that he’s not involved in some crazy conspiracy or whatever?” Grandmaison replied.
“Yeah,” Somers replied. “Yeah. I mean, I’ve seen returns. Most of the stuff I’ve bought or have — my house, my cars, everything — is from that, and him. My family is invested, my friends. I got a few athlete friends that have invested. It’s insane.”
The feds had been tracking the men since at least June 2019. According to the complaint, an investigator learned during a “review of source information” that Caruso was reportedly spending millions of dollars sent to his bank for Zima Digital Assets’ cryptocurrency investments instead for his own personal use. (An anonymous complaint from an individual who suspected fraud after Salter approached them about investing was also submitted to the Federal Trade Commission in April 2019.) The investigator researched Zima Digital Assets and found a (now deleted) Forbes article titled “Zach Salter On How Blockchain And Crypto Will Benefit The Gig Economy.”
“Principals at ZDA have had a pulse on the digital asset markets since 2011 being early bitcoin investors,” Salter had told Forbes.
But Zima Digital Assets, state records showed, was incorporated in 2018. And the Securities and Exchange Commission didn’t have any record of a Zima Digital Assets as a registered security. And a background check on Caruso revealed he’d been in prison from 2011 up until the end of 2017.
Social media provided a bounty of additional information for the feds: photos of the two men on private planes and at their mansions (Salter’s valued at $9 million, Caruso’s at $8 million, according to the complaint), all those luxury cars, the guns. In August 2019, the feds observed that Domine posted a photo of “an automatic money counting machine in front of eight bound stacks of what appear to be $20 and $100 bills.” The photo was captioned, “Dinner is served.”
Search warrants sent to Google and Facebook (which owns Instagram) yielded more evidence — those “snowballing my money” DM slides where Domine and others “actively advertised and recruited potential victims to invest.”
Grand jury subpoenas were sent to multiple banks where Caruso, Salter, and Zima Digital Assets held accounts. Forensic accountants examining their transactions found that nearly 100 different entities had invested as much as $7.5 million — that estimate was recently bumped up to $15 million, following discovery in the case — with Caruso and Salter. The federal complaint states that “numerous victims in this investigation have been identified as former MLB players and their families,” but beyond Wilson New Times was unable to confirm the identities of any other professional athletes. One senior citizen invested $60,000; another senior put in $200,000. Contracts reviewed by the feds say the investments ranged from $10,000 to $300,000, with guaranteed returns as high as 30 percent in some cases.
Meanwhile, the principals of Zima Digital Assets spent $350,000 on private jets; $350,000 on renting luxury cars (a Rolls Royce, a McLaren, an Aston Martin); and $150,000 to rent Salter’s 20,000-square-foot Paradise Valley mansion. After being issued a subpoena, the MGM Grand in Las Vegas informed investigators that Caruso and his girlfriend had visited the casino 30 times and lost $1.4 million gambling over the course of the previous year. Records show Caruso reported just $22,000 in income in 2018; Salter reported none.
In the end, investigators were unable to find evidence of any cryptocurrencies purchased with investor funds, or any transactions using known cryptocurrency exchanges.
Zima Digital Assets, it appeared, was simply a Ponzi scheme. Some of the new money that came in was paid to earlier rungs of investors; the rest was for the boys.
Both Salter and Caruso have entered not guilty pleas. Salter, who had no priors, was released on bail. Caruso’s request for pretrial release was denied, as was a second emergency motion to reopen his detention hearing in light of concerns over a potential COVID-19 outbreak at his prison. Caruso is currently being held at Florence Correctional Center.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Arizona declined to comment on the case, citing the ongoing investigation. The trial is scheduled for October.
At least one civil lawsuit has been brought over the alleged scheme. An LLC called Voltaire-Painted Sunset filed suit against Caruso and Salter in February. Its attorney, Ronald Meyer, tells New Times that his clients, whom he declined to name, “gave him [Caruso] $160,000 and were supposed to get $3,000 a month back in return.”
And they did, Meyer says, until the arrests in January.
“It was a thing where a friend says, ‘I got a great deal going, and you can have your money back whenever you want it,” Meyer says. He adds that his understanding is that the government “has a list of people they’re pursuing” in conjunction with the case. “There’s not a hell of a lot I can tell you beyond that.” (Jimmie Pursell, the attorney Salter has retained for the civil suit, declined to comment.)
Following the January arrests, several Zima-adjacent characters took to — where else? — Instagram to offer their version of the story.
“Did I rep Zima and talk about it? Absolutely — I thought it was an amazing product from what I was told and sold,” Boles wrote. He added that he and his family “have lost a LOT of money due to this whole situation” and that “the majority of our close circle of friends had 50%+ of their life savings in that company.”
Domine, claiming that he had been working “like a slave” for “12-18 hour days” seven days a week for Zima Digital Assets, wrote, “One morning I find out through a Secret Service agent that I have been lied to this entire time and ALL my money is gone, my home, and my job gone.”
He continued: “I get it, it’s easy to see from the outside looking in that I was repping the brand and next to nice cars and houses but guess who wasn’t enjoying it all, ME. For example the Halloween party a lot of y’all got to enjoy I worked the entire thing and the days prior and after setting up and cleaning up the massive mess.”
Wilson — who says he learned that Zima Digital Assets was a scam when the Secret Service called him in January and told him to come pick up his cars — tells New Times he’s in the same spot as the dozens of other defrauded investors who now “have their hands up, saying, ‘I am owed money, are we going to get anything back, how long will it take?’”
Pressed for the names of any other Zima Digital Assets associates who could shed more light on the story, Wilson rejected the premise.
“You’re not going to be able to tell this story, is my point,” he said. “Because there’s only one guy who knows everything. And he’s on trial.”