SHE was the emerging New York vegan chef applauded by A-listers and called ‘mama’ by her staff – but soon she went from idolised to infamous. 

In a stranger than fiction tale, Sarma Melngailis, 49, secretly syphoned £1.5m ($2m) to her “controlling” estranged husband, who claimed the funds were needed otherwise he would be killed – and in return, he promised to make her dog immortal.

Sarma Melngailis was dubbed the 'Vegan Queen'


Sarma Melngailis was dubbed the ‘Vegan Queen’Credit: Netflix
Melngailis and hubby Anthony Strangis conned investors out of more than £1.5m


Melngailis and hubby Anthony Strangis conned investors out of more than £1.5m

Anthony Strangis, whom Melngailis met on Twitter, told the foodie, dubbed “Queen Vegan”, that he was black ops, an underground force that runs military operations.

Melngailis claims he was controlling and pushed her into handing over cash, while also making her take “loyalty tests” and perform sex acts while blindfolded.

In return, she says Anthony promised to expand her restaurant empire, banish their financial woes – and ensure pitbull Leon would live forever.

The pair went on the run in 2015, after Melngailis swiped cash from investors, failed to pay $400K in taxes and failed to pay employees – who had gone on strike.

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They were eventually caught a year later, after bouncing from motel to motel across America.

Their undoing? Strangis ordered a Domino’s Pizza with his real name and credit card. 

The pair were found guilty of numerous crimes – and their fascinating tale of deception plays out in the new Netflix docuseries Bad Vegan: Fame. Fraud. Fugitives.

The four-parter, from the executive producer of Tiger King and director of Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened, is tipped to be bigger than The Tinder Swindler.

A-listers including Woody Harrelson and Alex Baldwin were big fans of her restaurant


A-listers including Woody Harrelson and Alex Baldwin were big fans of her restaurantCredit: Getty
Melngailis outside her Manhattan restaurant


Melngailis outside her Manhattan restaurantCredit: AP

A-list hit and Alec Baldwin ‘romance’

Melngailis ran Pure Food & Wine, an emerging celebrity hotspot in Manhattan’s overcrowded sea of upscale restaurants.

It was a favourite of stars like Owen Wilson, Woody Harrelson, Chelsea Clinton and American footballer Tom Brady.

Hollywood legend Alec Baldwin was also a fan and was extremely close to her – once tweeting in 2011 that you should visit “even if just to stare at @Sarma”.

A relationship nearly blossomed between them, and the restaurateur spoke candidly about her regret over not trying to take the next step.

It came before he met future wife Hilaria in 2011, whom he married a year later, but it also appears there was romantic tension with Melngailis.

After her arrest in 2016, Alec confirmed to Vanity Fair that they had visited the Hamptons, an affluent spot in the state, to watch a play.

Boyfriend’s ‘sick demands’

Strangis made a number of allegedly controlling demands of Serma and claimed to make her dog immortal


Strangis made a number of allegedly controlling demands of Serma and claimed to make her dog immortalCredit: Instagram/@sarmamelngailis

In 2011, Melngailis met Strangis, who used the name Shane Fox, and unbeknownst to her, was previously jailed for fraudulent activity including impersonating a police officer.

Strangis claimed to be a member of a black ops team, which he used to explain his secrecy over his personal life, and began to manipulate her and extort her for cash – claims he’s consistently denied.

He reportedly said the three of them had lived together in a previous life for “a thousand years” and that if she followed his orders they would last “for eternity”.

Melngailis’ friend, novelist Porochista Khakpour, told Vanity Fair: “Sarma lost her mind. She really believed that her dog would live forever.”

As their relationship progressed, Melngailis claimed she was coerced into passing bizarre tests. According to Vanity Fair, he deliberately gained weight to see if she would stand by him.

Strangis also allegedly told her Leon had been his dog in a previous life, and made her believe he would be “by their side for eternity” if she did what she was told.

Meanwhile Melngailis’ colleagues became suspicious of his aloof and shifty behaviour – with some suggesting in the documentary there was blackmail involved.

Millions blown in casinos while staff unpaid

Melngailis' restaurant was a major hit with celebs in New York


Melngailis’ restaurant was a major hit with celebs in New YorkCredit: Instagram/@sarmamelngailis
Staff staged strikes, protests and walk-outs after they weren't paid in 2015


Staff staged strikes, protests and walk-outs after they weren’t paid in 2015Credit: Facebook

Melngailis married Strangis a year after meeting, and he was made a restaurant manager in 2013.

As time passed, the amounts of money Strangis demanded increased, and she transferred £1.2m ($1.6m) between 2014 and 2015.

They continued to live an extravagant lifestyle, blowing £1.5m ($2m) at casinos including Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun, and on expensive jewellery, trips to Europe and Uber rides.

It’s claimed they also looked at a high-end brownstone apartment in Manhattan worth £11.5m ($15m) and she tried on engagement rings at Tiffany worth £600,000 ($800,000).

Trouble kicked off in January 2015, when the 60 staff members staged a walkout, protesting over not being paid.

It followed Strangis and Melngailis changing their payment plans from weekly to monthly, paying late, and then finally at all – citing bank problems and escalating ingredient costs.

The restaurant closed for three months before Melngailis was able to scramble £650,000 ($850,000) from investors to reopen – but again she funnelled the funds to her husband. 

She claimed this followed increasingly hostile threats from Strangis to serve him and his higher purpose – but in reality, he was gambling it away.

In one recording played on the Netflix show, he’s heard saying: “You signed onto this. You told me you wanted happily ever after. If I tell you to take all your money out of the bank and light it on fire, do it.”

Dominoes order caught runaway scammers

Stranglis claimed to have gained weight to test their relationship resolve


Stranglis claimed to have gained weight to test their relationship resolveCredit: NYPD

In May 2015, the couple disappeared with around £1.5m ($2m) of company money, and the restaurant closed once and for all in July.

During this time, investor Rob Levine wrote on Facebook: “The FBI was looking for her and she’s got a pile of lawsuits waiting for her in NY.”

While on the run, Stranglis hassled Melngalis’ mum for money, claiming her daughter was in desperate need of help, and in videos, she was shown in a state of depression.

Melngalis was often seen crying or screaming in footage when informed they had to move out of a hotel.

In May 2016 they were caught in Tennessee after a 40-night stay in a motel because Stranglis used his credit card and real name to order pizza and chicken wings to his room.

By this point they were in separate rooms because she could no longer stand to be near to him. 

Once arrested they were charged on 24 counts, which included 11 counts of grand larceny – unlawful taking or theft in the UK, eight of criminal tax fraud, three of scheming to defraud investors, labour law violations and other financial crimes. 

Stranglis pleaded guilty to the charges but denied controlling Melgalis in court, arguing they had an equal share in the scheme. 

He will be released in May this year after spending five years in prison since his 2016 arrest.

In 2017 Melngailis took a plea deal and admitted to grand larceny, criminal tax fraud and scheming to defraud, which landed her five years probation and four months of imprisonment. 

She was also ordered to repay $1.5m in restitution costs. 

While her legal case ensued, the New York Post claimed she had an affair with her attorney Jeffrey Lichtman, who was married while representing her.

It allegedly spanned between February 2017 and May 2018, with the pair exchanging X-rated messages.

Melngailis admitted to it after being approached by the publication, claiming she didn’t know he was married or had kids.

By 2018 she’d divorced Strangis and now lives in New York – with her beloved dog. She has worked with Netflix on the documentary – which is available to watch now.

Sarma is reportedly still living in New York alongside her pitbull


Sarma is reportedly still living in New York alongside her pitbullCredit: NYPD

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