How Sarma Melngailis, Queen of Vegan Cuisine, Became a Runaway Fugitive
With customers such as Chelsea Clinton and Alec Baldwin, the Pure Food and Wine owner was a food-world star. Then, in 2011, she met Anthony Strangis. Now facing prison for grand larceny and fraud, Melngailis says her collapse was due to a spell he cast.
by ALLEN SALKIN
Focus on the dog. By the time police arrested Sarma Melngailis and Anthony Strangis on May 10 of this year on fugitive-from-justice warrants at a Tennessee hotel, where they’d been holed up for 40 days and 40 nights, this is how insane their marriage had become: Melngailis, 43, the radiantly blonde poster woman for vegan living, a Manhattan restaurateur, and a Wharton graduate, says she had come to believe—really, really believe—that her pit bull, Leon, was on the cusp of being made immortal. This Lazarus-ian feat, and more, would be accomplished by her husband, Strangis, 35, a gambler with a criminal past she’d met on Twitter five years earlier.
The two were accused by the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office of draining Melngailis’s 12-year-old raw-vegan restaurant, Pure Food and Wine, of nearly $2 million, stiffing employees, duping investors, going on the lam, and spending lavishly on hotels, watches, and casinos. After they left town, in May of 2015, Melngailis went from feminist business icon to clickbait—the “Vegan Vixen” and the “vegan Bernie Madoff.” (Attorneys for Melngailis and the attorney for Strangis deny all charges.)
It was an attention-getting story because of the delicious reek of hypocrisy. “She is guilty of conduct unbecoming a vegan,” one of the jilted investors, a Boston software entrepreneur, told me. It was widely reported that, just before the arrest, the couple had ordered a Domino’s pizza. Actually, the non-raw, non-vegan cheesy pie (plus a side of chicken wings) was only for the 300-plus-pound Strangis, who placed the order using his real name, thus leading authorities to their hotel, the Fairfield Inn & Suites Pigeon Forge, just down the road from Dollywood, in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains. Melngailis, alerted to a police presence by Leon’s barking while she was reading a book she’d bought at Goodwill, had been subsisting on vegan bowls from a nearby Chipotle. She begged the officers to treat the dog with care. Brooklyn district attorney Ken Thompson announced, “They were finally caught and we intend to now hold them accountable for this outrageous thievery and fraud.”
“SHE IS GUILTY OF CONDUCT UNBECOMING A VEGAN,” AN INVESTOR SAID.
It was a severe comedown. During Melngailis’s stint in the Sevier County Jail, where she was held for nine days before being transferred to Rikers, some of her female cellmates taunted her, asking if it was true that vegans taste better. Their nickname for her was Sweet Pussy. But to former employees who used to call her Sarmama for turning the workplace into a surrogate family, and social-media followers who lusted after her vegan-deluxe life of tight dresses, biodynamic wines, TV appearances, and customers such as Tom Brady and Chelsea Clinton, the unanswered questions have been how Melngailis got involved with Strangis and why she stayed.
“I don’t know how she got mixed up with Anthony,” Strangis’s own stepmother, Ellie Strangis, said. “A woman like her—what did she see in Anthony?”
“Sarma lost her mind,” said the novelist Porochista Khakpour, a close friend. “She really believed that her dog would live forever.”
A source close to Melngailis describes a scenario in which Strangis resorted to cult-like techniques, including gaslighting, sleep deprivation, and sexual humiliation, to control her. (Strangis, through his court-appointed attorney, Samuel Karliner, denied all these allegations but did not elaborate on his denials in responding to 80 questions from Vanity Fair.) Perhaps if you can understand how a sane, successful businesswoman comes to believe the insane idea that her dog can live forever, everything else snaps into focus—how that person might be accused of bilking her investors of $844,000, owe her employees more than $40,000 in unpaid wages, financially strip her restaurant, and now find herself awaiting trial, with a potential 15-year sentence. She had thought all harm would be magically reversed, just as Leon’s life span would be extended, according to her camp.
The arrest was a cold wake-up. After a court hearing in August, she spoke in a monotone, as if emerging, stunned, from a bunker: “Everything I worked for, and everything I cared most about, except Leon, is gone.”
MR. AND MRS. FOX
Melngailis first gained notice when she appeared with her boyfriend, the chef Matthew Kenney, on the cover of their cookbook, Raw Food, Real World: 100 Recipes to Get the Glow, in 2005. The restaurant they founded, Pure Food and Wine, had opened a year earlier in the ground floor and vast back garden of a Gramercy Park town house on Irving Place. Inside, the bar scene hosted yoga-sleek patrons sipping signature cocktails, like the Master Cleanse Tini (organic sake with lemon juice, maple syrup, and cayenne pepper in a martini glass rimmed with crystal date sugar). In the garden, lit by candle lights, the likes of Anne Hathaway, Stevie Wonder, and Rooney Mara could be seen gracefully masticating such offerings as cauliflower couscous with pickled Persian cucumbers and cultured tree-nut cheeses. On warm evenings, it felt as privileged a place to be as gated Gramercy Park itself. It was profitable, too, often serving more than 200 covers on a night and, with related businesses, yielding revenues of around $7 million and profits of about $500,000 annually, a former manager said.
Melngailis, sometimes sitting at a corner table in the garden, more often playing the role of gracious host around the bar even though small talk exhausted her, was at the center of it all. Back at Newton North High School, outside Boston, from which she graduated in 1990, she’d had a blue Mohawk. Taciturn in person, she loved a book called Party of One: The Loners’ Manifesto, a treatise on how the quiet ones change the world. But on the cookbook cover, Melngailis, now blonde, did glow.
After a personal and professional split with Kenney the same year the book came out—she claimed that the relationship drained her savings—Melngailis kept the restaurant, vowing that it would spearhead a raw-vegan movement. (She also opened three juice bars, called One Lucky Duck, and a brand of snacks sold in Whole Foods markets.) But her blog revealed struggles. In 2007, prompted by an e-mail she had received that said, “Your life is my dream life!” she wrote, “And so I’m thinking, these people would all probably choke on their flaxcrackers if they knew that not only am I walking around often feeling entirely spent, weary and even on the verge of a nervous breakdown, but that I’m also carrying a few hundred thousand dollars of personal debt . . . that I’m full of burning rage to build this empire . . . with a residual and occasionally reappearing destructive closet eating disorder.”
As a relationship with a man 13 years her junior was fraying in 2010, Melngailis met Alec Baldwin, at her restaurant, and accompanied him to a staged reading of Moby Dick in the Hamptons. He soon confided in late-night conversations how much he wanted a wife and children. Her advice to the actor was to get a dog. He resisted, but she became obsessed with the online photo of a red-nosed, brown pit bull named Quinn at a shelter in Brooklyn. “One night I woke up crying at like 4am,” she wrote in another blog entry. “My boyfriend woke up too and asked me what was wrong. I told him, ‘It’s Quinn.’ ”
She adopted him. Heartbroken when the boyfriend left, she had her puppy, renaming him Leon. “She wasn’t someone who dated a lot of people,” Baldwin told me. “She worked at the restaurant, did the books, went home, and passed out with her dog.”
“MRS FOX BE IN LOVE WITH MR FOX,” MELNGAILIS TWEETED. “CAN’T BE HELPED.”
After Baldwin met his future wife, Hilaria Thomas, at Pure Food and Wine, in 2011, he set up a Twitter account for her. One of Hilaria’s first followers was a clever guy with the handle @DiscipleOfTodd, who’d already been interacting with @AlecBaldwin. “At the beginning it seemed like this fun thing,” Hilaria recalled. “He seemed nice. He used to make us laugh.” Soon, @Sarma was following this fellow who used various humorous names, including Mr. Fox and Mr. LongBottoms.
Mr. Fox seemed to know just what to tweet to win @Sarma’s heart. On October 28, 2011, Melngailis blew a Twitter kiss to Mr. Fox (@UKnowUWant_It) for guessing why she named her dog Leon—even though she’d posted on her easily searchable blog a year earlier that it was from Léon: The Professional, the Luc Besson film about a hit man. “I <3 anyone who guesses. usually i get ‘like, Kings of Leon?’ ”
According to Melngailis’s camp, Mr. Fox was Strangis, perhaps using Twitter to play six degrees of Alec Baldwin, figuring that somewhere in the actor’s orbit was someone valuable. (Strangis’s attorney denies that his client used these Twitter handles or aliases, or that he insinuated himself into Baldwin’s circle.) If so, the ploy worked. On November 12, Melngailis tweeted, “Mrs Fox be in love with Mr Fox. Can’t be helped.”
When Strangis was about three years old and living in a raised ranch house in Brockton, Massachusetts, a suburb of Boston, he pulled a pair of dice out of his pocket and uttered, “Baby needs a new pair of shoes.” His mother, Patricia, aghast, knew her husband, John, a local policeman, gambled. But this? “He was holding Anthony in one arm and rolling the dice with the other,” she recalled. The couple was married for seven years, having one child. Around 1984, when she informed John she was leaving, Patricia said, “he pulled out a gun. First he put it to my head. He put it in my mouth. He pushed me back in the chair. And he had the gun pointed at me. Anthony came running out. John pulled up this ottoman and we sat there three or four hours.” Finally he walked out, and she called the police. “They called John. He came back and ripped the phone out of the house.” (The lawyer for Strangis denies his mother’s version of events.)
As a kid, Strangis would live with both parents. (His mother tried but failed to secure full custody rights.) In 2004, Strangis, then 23 (he never graduated from college), was said to be living with his father in the Orange Acres trailer park, in Sarasota, Florida, when he met Stacy Avery, a young mother separated from her husband, at a gym. She said that he came on so strong that she agreed to marry him in Las Vegas a few months after they met. She was taking birth control, she said, but Strangis pushed her to stop. Then, after she became pregnant, she alleges, he pawned her jewelry, telling her he was due to inherit $5 million from an aunt. “He went as far as to take me to Raymond James”—the financial-advisory firm—“and to say he wants his money invested in this stock and that stock,” Stacy Strangis said. “One account was to be for my daughter for her college.” Strangis had moved in with her (“I had a house; he didn’t have a house,” Stacy said, bitterly), and things got creepier. There was the time at his father’s trailer when he theatrically tripped over a heating vent. “He lifts the vent up,” Stacy said, “and it had a grenade in it. He said, ‘They are out to get me.’ ” She scoffed, pointing out that it was an antique with no pin and that she knew he had put it there. Even so, she started questioning her own sanity: “You say, ‘Why am I staying with this guy? Who is they?’ ” When Stacy fell three months behind on her mortgage in 2005 and all her electronics had been pawned, she said, Strangis took off for good, leaving a healthy eight-month-old son he has apparently never visited nor sent a penny to support. (Strangis’s attorney denies the ex-wife’s allegations.)
According to Strangis’s mother, it’s possible that when her son first began communicating with Melngailis, in 2011, he was living in a van with his father near the docks in New Bedford, Massachusetts. She said that the two, who often quarreled, had been living rootlessly, traveling together from casino town to casino town. (Strangis’s attorney says his client was living with a friend.) On July 6, 2012, John Strangis Sr. was found dead in that van. An obituary said he had “died unexpectedly” at 72, but did not say of what.
When Melngailis and Strangis first met face-to-face, in New York in late November 2011, a source close to Melngailis said, he was in decent shape, though not as rugged as he’d appeared online. According to Leo Candidus, Melngailis’s confidant since high school, she told Strangis, when they got into bed after a boozy night in the first weeks of their courtship, that she was in the fertile part of her menstrual cycle. She thought he would understand this to mean he should not ejaculate inside her, Candidus said. Instead, he did not pull out. (Strangis’s attorney denies this account.) Without conferring with him, Melngailis, angry, had an abortion on January 12, 2012. But soon, the source said, Strangis was promising to give her enough money to become independent of meddling investors, help anyone she wanted, and pay off her debts, including those related to a $500,000 mortgage she says she had taken to bail Kenney out of a floundering investment in a Maine restaurant property, and more than $1 million to Jeffrey Chodorow, the original backer of Pure Food and Wine. By April 2012, according to Melngailis’s camp, none of this money had materialized. (Strangis’s attorney denies these promises were made.) By then, she had told Strangis she’d terminated the pregnancy, and stopped responding to his messages. “I love my dog,” she tweeted. “Leon will never lie to me.” The breakup didn’t take. A city of New York marriage license was issued on December 5, 2012. Melngailis told almost no one about it. “He told me if I was his wife I’d be more protected,” she said. “It was vague.” (Strangis’s attorney denies that his client made such promises.)
According to a source close to Melngailis, Strangis began to speak of a secretive brother who was an expert in surveillance, violent, and connected to mysterious forces. (In reality, his one half-brother and two half-sisters “walk the straight and narrow,” Strangis’s stepmother said.) The Melngailis source said that Strangis told Melngailis that his tech expert, “Will Richards,” detected that her computer had been hacked. She needed to e-mail Will her login passwords. At some point, Strangis had access to her e-mail, cell- phone, and bank accounts. (Strangis’s attorney denies this version of events.)
When she would protest about his plans, the source recalled, he’d say such tantrums risked knocking them off course, and asked if she’d properly taken her antidepressant, Wellbutrin, and told her she shouldn’t trust her memory, because of Ambien. He said he could tell at a glance if people were “red shirts” (bad) or “blue shirts” (good). He began to tell Melngailis that some of her family and employees were red shirts. (Strangis’s attorney denies this.) At the apple orchard that Melngailis’s mother, Susan H. Jasse, owns and runs in New Hampshire, Strangis told Jasse that he needed funds to help Melngailis, according to Jasse’s attorney, Patrick Brackley. After all, she’d had an abortion, was bulimic, and was on antidepressants. “The poor mother came to believe based on what he was saying that if he didn’t get the money for Sarma she would have a nervous breakdown,” said Brackley, adding that his client took around $450,000 out of a trust to help her daughter. (Strangis’s attorney denies his client made this request or received any money.)
A source close to Melngailis said that Strangis told Melngailis that the money she was lending him (and that he had still not paid back) was one of a series of cosmic endurance tests similar to a series he had passed years earlier. Passing meant vast rewards. “He convinced me I’d be empowered in ways I couldn’t imagine,” Melngailis explained. “I would have access to unlimited resources so that I could grow my brand all over the world, make the documentary I always wanted to make—the one that would finally change people’s ways and help eradicate factory farming. Basically, I could do all the world-changing things I’d been quietly dreaming about. I could help whoever I want, and stay young forever doing it.” (Strangis’s attorney denies these allegations.)
Another test she allegedly had to pass was giving Strangis oral sex while blindfolded, which Strangis denies, even though, as he gained weight, she was becoming repulsed by him. Unlike Melngailis, he was not a vegan. He apparently loved junk food—Subway tuna-salad sandwiches with extra mayo, for instance. A source close to Melngailis said that he told her that dealing with his obesity was a test, as was the humiliation, for her, of repeatedly asking strangers to invest in her struggling company. Another test involved his moving many of her possessions to a storage unit. The bill went unpaid, and Melngailis’s photos, clothes, and journals were sold at auction. (Strangis’s attorney denies this account.)
Meanwhile, he allegedly let her know that he and his nameless brother were constantly watching. Once, according to a source close to Melngailis, he phoned a raw-food restaurant in Los Angeles, where she was dining. She had not informed him where she was. Staffers alerted Melngailis that “Mr. Fox” was on the line. (Strangis’s attorney denies that his client was involved in this incident.) According to Melngailis’s camp, he would warn her that, if she did not continue to pass tests, forces controlled by his brother would “gut” him and come for her. He told her that Leon had been his dog in a previous life. They’d all been headed toward one another for a thousand years, through past lifetimes, and if she did as he said, “among the things I’d be granted,” Melngailis said, “Leon would also be immortal and safe to be by my side for eternity.” (Strangis’s attorney denies this account.)
According to the indictment, over time, Melngailis transferred more than $1.6 million from her business accounts to her personal bank account, and Strangis spent $1.2 million of this money at Connecticut casinos. Strangis, whom employees knew as “Shane,” was “riding around in a Suburban” and acting like the boss whenever Melngailis was out of town, said Jim Switzer, the restaurant’s operations manager at the time. After Switzer was fired (for unclear reasons), a younger employee was put in charge of accounting. On about five occasions in 2014, this employee said, he received a text from Strangis/Shane telling him to meet him at the Citibank on the south side of Union Square with a week of Pure Food and Wine cash receipts, between $3,000 and $10,000. The employee was not a trained accountant. He said he never saw Strangis make a deposit. Instead, he said, Strangis would head out to a waiting Uber. (Strangis’s attorney denies this.) By the winter of 2015, Pure Food and Wine employees had begun picketing after not receiving paychecks.
Alec Baldwin became suspicious of Melngailis’s new beau: “One time he sent us a message and said, ‘Can you recommend a broker in East Hampton?’ I said, ‘Sure. If you don’t mind my asking, what’s the price range you want to stay within?’ He messaged me back on Twitter and said, ‘About 10 million.’ I said, ‘You must be selling a lot of cucumber towers over there.’ ” (Strangis’s attorney denies Baldwin’s account.)
A frustrated Pure Food and Wine investor turned up an arrest record for Strangis in Florida and shared it with Joey Repice, the restaurant’s beverage director. Repice texted Strangis for answers. Strangis texted back threats: “If anyone is going to try and drag me into some bullshit or drag my name through the mud because of something she’s caused I’ll be immediately suing . . . I’ve broken my fucking back helping her out non stop.” Repice, concerned for his longtime boss, texted: “Nothing makes sense. Where is the woman I knew the last nine years?”
During a visit to New York around May of 2015, Strangis’s half-sister McKaila Coulter said, she overheard Melngailis yelling, “You ruined my life!” and “Everyone thinks I’m crazy because of you!” But Melngailis wasn’t yelling for outside help. She was yelling for his, still wanting to know when his alleged promises for financial and emotional deliverance would come true.
If the facts are as the Melngailis camp claims, what she has suffered may be an example of what is called “coercive control,” a form of domestic violence that can manifest as a cult of one, with a spouse as brainwashed follower. “What they are basically trying to do is to close out the options so you are completely dependent on them for your sense of reality,” said Evan Stark, a professor emeritus at Rutgers, and the author of the 2007 study Coercive Control: How Men Entrap Women in Personal Life.
I spoke by phone with Strangis, who is in prison on Rikers Island, awaiting trial because he has not come up with the $300,000 bond. His voice was confiding and sweet, like a little boy’s. But in three calls he placed to me, he never answered any questions on the record, and very few off. And there are still so many questions: Was the money gambled away or stashed? What exactly was the couple running from? Was someone threatening to “gut” Strangis? Karliner, the court-appointed lawyer, said Strangis is guilty only of liking gambling and having a rich wife in Melngailis, who indulged him and had her own expensive appetites. “No jury is going to look at her and say, ‘Oh, poor her, she was taken advantage of,’ ” Karliner told me. “She doesn’t have that history. She was too savvy a businesswoman.” But what about the claims that Strangis used coercive control to extract money and make Melngailis believe he had supernatural powers? If she were his client, Karliner said, he would put the kibosh on that: “I’ve got 12 people looking at her thinking, You’ll say anything for us to say, ‘Not guilty.’ Do you think we’re stupid?”
But Melngailis’s lawyers, Sheila Tendy and César de Castro, say they are, in fact, considering a coercive-control defense. Although there is no specific law criminalizing it in the United States, there is one in the United Kingdom (as of December 2015), which punishes “coercive and controlling behavior in an intimate or family relationship” by up to five years in prison. (Coercive control was a prominent plot point this year in the BBC radio soap opera The Archers, with a character being described as “the worst kind of abuser, because he doesn’t leave bruises.”) According to Stark, it has worked as a defense strategy. He said that up to 25 percent of domestic-abuse cases involve patterns of psychological control without physical violence.
A decade ago, men went nuts for Neil Strauss’s book The Game, about pickup artists, tantalized that there were mind-control tricks like “negging”—using vaguely insulting compliments in order to undermine self-esteem—to turn beautiful women into bedded putty. A coercive-control defense would indicate that Strangis had taken The Game to its extreme. Tendy told me, “He combined the best techniques of cult leaders—abusive partner control, manipulation, and con artist—along with the worst tactics of prosperity theology, meaning, When you give me your money, you’ll get 10 times back next week.” Karliner says that such claims make “her even freakier than him.”
Outside an August 10 hearing at the Brooklyn Supreme Court, Assistant District Attorney Meredith McGowan wryly observed of Strangis: “Well, he hasn’t lost any weight at Rikers.” In Tennessee, Strangis allegedly told Melngailis that they’d probably have to endure one more “shot to the gut” before the transformation was granted. (Strangis’s attorney denies that this statement was made.)
Melngailis’s own hearing had been an hour earlier, so she was not there to see her husband looming before he was escorted back to Rikers, where she had spent five days in May before posting $350,000 bail. The New York Post reported that the couple would be divorcing, which a source close to Melngailis confirmed. At a subsequent hearing, the judge announced that if no plea deals were reached a trial would start in early 2017. The October 9 cancer death of District Attorney Thompson won’t slow the prosecution, because acting D.A. Eric Gonzalez, Thompson’s former chief assistant, had been weighing in on the case all along, an office spokesperson said.
Melngailis, who could face up to 15 years in prison for grand larceny and fraud, said she is grateful that the madness is finally over. Suicide, she admitted, had occurred to her: “Imagine suddenly realizing, My dog isn’t going to live forever, I’m not eternally safe, all my dreams and visions that he promised me he’d make happen are not happening, and this colossal mess isn’t all just going to be undone, like he always said it would be. It’s like waking up into a nightmare.” As of October, she was living in a small upper Manhattan rental, hoping to find a way to pay everyone back and regularly feeding Leon yams to help with his digestion.
Allen Salkin is an author, screenwriter and actor. His most recent book is From Scratch: The Uncensored History of the Food Network.