Vanity prevented a Port St. Lucie man from getting away with getting $245,286 in Veterans Administration disability benefits by claiming, among other things, combat experience and arm and leg weakness that prevented him from lifting weights since 2010.
While pulling this scam, bodybuilder Zachary Barton and his wife were posting pictures and videos online of Barton pushing heavy iron to build his physique and flexing in the gym and on stage in contests. Investigators began tracking the muscular moves of Barton, such as moving furniture and regular workouts at gyms in Colorado Springs, Colorado, where Barton and his wife moved.
Eventually, prosecutors had enough of a case against Barton that the 35-year-old U.S. Army veteran pleaded guilty Thursday in West Palm Beach federal court to theft of government funds from a federal agency. Barton’s sentencing is scheduled for Aug. 11.
Big fraud, big muscles, big mouth
Barton submitted a benefits claim to the VA in April 2012 that stated he was dealing with several issues, including Guillian-Barre Syndrome and anxiety. Over the next five years, his percentage of disability, which is used to determine the amount of VA benefits, decreased so Barton’s benefits decreased.
But on May 22, 2017, Barton’s percentage evaluation for PTSD and persistent depressive disorder jumped from 30% to 70% after Barton said his symptoms were getting worse. His guilty plea said he claimed increased “social impairment, with deficiencies in work, school and family relations...depressed mood...memory loss...anxiety...chronic sleep impairment; and total social and occupational impairment” and other mental health problems.
Physically, he said he had “limited motion of the arm at the shoulder level and painful movement of the arm.”
Barton showed up for an Aug. 7, 2019 exam using a cane, which he said he’s been using for nine years. He dropped a small book on the floor, “indicating he had no strength to hold it.” He claimed erectile dysfunction. He said his gym activities were limited to stretching, using bands, sauna sitting and weights of only 5 to 10 pounds. And he only went to the gym twice a week.
Asked by the doctor about his size, Barton dismissed it with, “I am fat,” but when asked about his muscle mass, he said, “I guess I have good genetics.”
But, the previous month, law enforcement began collecting photos from the Facebook and Instagram accounts run by Barton aka Zach Ryan and his wife, Nicole Barton, formerly Nicole Cowan. They showed Barton, Z., doing what he told the VA he couldn’t.
“Such activities included strenuous weightlifting, executing bodybuilding poses and competing in a bodybuilding competition,” Barton’s admission of facts says. “None of the posts, images or videos showed Barton using any assisting devices at any time.”
In August 2019, when investigators learned Barton was moving to Colorado Springs, Colorado, they put a pole cam outside Barton’s Florida home. They saw Barton walking and, on Aug. 23, moving furniture with no problems.
Still, on March 16, 2020, the VA granted his claim as having a spine degenerative disc disease related to his service, a problem that Barton said made it painful to even walk. On May 18, 2021, that jacked his PTSD disability percentage to 100%.
Barton would enjoy those full disability benefits only a short while. On June 23, 2021, the day after agents saw Barton walking and playing with his dogs, Barton skipped a scheduled VA examination. But he did hit a Planet Fitness early that morning, at which he gave another man working out fitness advise. He told the man he’d been lifting for the last 10 years, usually did cardio training in the morning and weights in the evenings. He told the man to meet him later at Flex Gym & Fitness for a workout.
Before the workout, Barton warned it would be “grueling,” but he was a “gym rat,” a serious bodybuilder for two and a half to three years. During the workout, Barton discussed performance enhancing steroids and bragged his use didn’t even affect his ability to get an erection, which ran counter to what he’d told VA doctors.
The man was an undercover agent. The next day, investigators confronted Barton.
“During the interview, Barton admitted to faking his disabilities to received VA disability compensation benefits,” Barton’s guilty plea admits. “Barton stated that he was not in combat and made up stories of combat to obtain a disability rating for PTSD.”