The True Story Of Bad Vegan's Sarma Melngailis

Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction, and the story of how Sarma Melngailis went from being a successful vegan entrepreneur to a wanted fugitive is one of the most unusual tales in recent history. Melngailis is a well-educated, seasoned businesswoman who became a pioneer in the raw vegan food movement. She launched her groundbreaking restaurant Pure Food and Wine in New York City in 2004, and it soon became an in-demand dining destination (via Forbes). But somehow, Melngailis lost her way and started taking from the business she was supposed to be building.

Even Melngailis herself is a bit bewildered by what happened. She wrote on her website that anyone "wondering what landed me in jail, it's too long a story ... There is way too much to say and a lot I'm still sorting out." It is clear that Melngailis feels remorseful about her actions, writing that "my life's work and the hard work of so many good people is gone, so many people I care about were hurt financially and otherwise."

A promising start

Sarma Melngailis grew up in Newton, Massachusetts, not far from the city of Boston. She attended Newton North High School, where she was known for sporting a blue mohawk, according to Vanity Fair. Melngailis graduated in 1990 and went on to attend the University of Pennsylvania. She earned two degrees in economics — one from the Wharton School and one from the College of Arts and Sciences, per her official website. From there, Melngailis pursued a career in finance. She worked for such prestigious firms as Bain Capital and Bear Stearns.

After a few years, Melngailis became disenchanted with the business world. She completely switched gears, enrolling in the French Culinary Institute. Melngailis made her first foray into restaurants with Commissary in 2001, per the Daily Mail. Three years later, she launched Pure Food and Wine with then-boyfriend Matthew Kenney. The pair's restaurant showcased raw vegan foods in a high-end dining environment. The couple also produced their own cookbook, "Raw Food, Real World: 100 Recipes to Get the Glow," which was published in 2005.

She found love on Twitter

Sarma Melngailis and Matthew Kenney's relationship may have fizzled out in 2005, but their creation, Pure Food and Wine, continued to thrive. Melngailis kept the restaurant in the split, and the place attracted the likes of such celebrities as Alec Baldwin, Daryl Hannah, and Woody Harrelson, per Forbes. According to Vanity Fair, the business was also a moneymaker, bringing roughly $7 million in revenue and making a $500,000 profit yearly. Melngailis built a vegan food empire, which grew to include three juice bars called One Lucky Duck and a line of snacks as well.

While she was a savvy businessperson, Melngailis struggled in her personal life. She went through a breakup in 2010, and she soon found herself connecting on Twitter with a follower of Alec Baldwin's wife, Hilaria. Melngailis was wooed through Twitter by a man she first knew as Mr. Fox, and she wanted to form a connection in real life. This new relationship may have led to her undoing.

Melngailis' criminal romance

According to some reports, Sarma Melngailis' Twitter friend was Anthony Strangis. But his attorney denied that it was him to Vanity Fair. In any case, Melngailis met Strangis in 2011, and the two became romantically involved. She had been experiencing some financial troubles, and he allegedly promised to help bail her out. But those funds never came through. The pair broke up for a time, but they ended up getting married in December 2012.

Melngailis and Strangis seemed like an unlikely couple. She championed good nutrition, and he was a junk food devotee. Strangis allegedly played a lot of mind games with Melngailis, convincing her that she had to go through a series of tests to reach great rewards. He promised to make all her dreams come true. Strangis also reportedly told her that her beloved dog, Leon, had been his dog in a past life, and the dog would become "immortal and safe to be by my side for eternity" (per Vanity Fair).

What Melngailis didn't know was that Strangis had a criminal background with past arrests for theft (via People). And he was known for making up all sorts of details about himself — he claimed to his first wife that he was a retired Navy SEAL, per The Daily Beast.

She stole to fund a lavish lifestyle

Sarma Melngailis brought Anthony Strangis into her business as a manager by 2013 (via the Daily Mail). She introduced him to her staff as "Shane Fox," per CBS News. He reportedly took deposits meant for the restaurant's bank accounts and put the funds in his own account. Over time, Melngailis and Strangis used money from her business to support an opulent lifestyle and support Strangis' gambling habit, per Forbes. In all, about $2 million was drained from the business. The bulk of the money, $1.2 million, went to cover gambling debts at two Connecticut casinos, Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun. Other expenditures included $80,000 on watches and $70,000 on vacations.

With much of the restaurant's cash gone, Melngailis and Strangis soon short-changed the staff, and her 98 employees went without pay for almost five months (via Forbes). The couple pledged that the staff would get paid, but that never happened. Workers walked out in January 2015, and the restaurant closed. In addition to not paying her employees, Melngailis was also in trouble with New York State for not paying her taxes (she owed $400,000, per CBS News). Somehow, Melngailis managed to rope in four investors to give her an additional $844,000 to reopen Pure Food, but its revival proved to be short-lived — Melngailis' popular dining hotspot closed for good in July 2015.

She ran from the cops

To avoid prosecution for their financial crimes, Sarma Melngailis Anthony and Strangis went on the run. They escaped the long arm of the law for about 10 months, moving around from place to place. But on May 12, 2016, the authorities managed to capture the pair after Strangis ordered a pizza to their motel in his own name, per Forbes. They had been hiding out in Tennessee, not too far from Dolly Parton's famed theme park Dollywood.

The choice of food delivered caused almost as much of a ruckus as their capture. "Sarma's arrest — and subsequent ordering Dominos — calls into question whether she even had a fraction of the commitment the workers had, " said Ben Dictor, a lawyer for her former employees (via Forbes). According to Vanity Fair, the pizza — along with the side order of chicken wings — was for Strangis; Melngailis had been getting vegan bowls from a popular Mexican fast-food chain.

A few days after her arrest, Melngailis was brought back to New York City to face an array of charges, including grand larceny, tax fraud, and labor law violations. Her lawyers stated that they were contemplating using a coercive control defense, according to The Cut. Coercive control is a form of domestic abuse in which one partner mentally overpowers the other and makes them obedient and compliant. Melngailis claimed that Strangis used numerous mind game tactics on her to gain control over her.

If you or someone you know is dealing with domestic abuse, you can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1−800−799−7233. You can also find more information, resources, and support at their website.

Sarma Melngailis went to jail

Called a vegan version of Bernie Madoff in the press, Sarma Melngailis only spent a short time in police custody as she was able to make bail, according to Grub Street. Anthony Strangis, however, ended up staying behind bars. She announced plans to divorce him a few months after their arrest. In the end, Melngailis' lawyers didn't need to defend their client in court. She accepted a plea deal in May 2017, which called for a four-month jail sentence and probation for five years, according to Forbes. Melngailis could have gotten up to 15 years in prison had she been found guilty on all the charges.

After serving her sentence at New York's infamous Rikers Island jail, Melngailis was released in October 2017 (via The New York Post). She wasn't completely off the hook, though — she still had to pay $1 million in restitution to those she ripped off. Still, she was able to reunite with her dog Leon (which has its own Instagram account). Melngailis wrote on her website in May 2019 that "I hope to be able to turn things right side up again." It's unclear if being the subject of the 2022 documentary, "Bad Vegan," will help her achieve this goal.