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From vegan icon to convict: The fall of Sarma MeIngailis

Sarma Melngailis holding a plate of food in front of a Pure Food and Wine restaurant in New York
Image: Owner, founder and CEO Sarma Melngailis in front of Pure Food and Wine in New York on Tuesday 18th October 2011 | Associated Press / Alamy Stock Photo

How did Sarma MeIngailis go from the toast of the New York restaurant scene to a wanted criminal dubbed the ‘vegan Bernie Madoff? It’s a story that involves Hollywood stars, cauliflower couscous, enraged waiters and one potentially immortal pet pit bull.

The foodie superstar

The young Sarma MeIngailis was originally all set for a career in finance, graduating from one of America’s top business schools and landing roles at Wall Street investment banks in the late 1990s. But her passion for food led her to give all that up and enrol at culinary school, and before long she was in a relationship with a well-known chef named Matthew Kenney.

In 2004, she and Kenney launched Pure Food and Wine, the first upscale raw food vegan restaurant in New York City. Dishes like cauliflower couscous with pickled Persian cucumbers, and salsify noodles with radicchio and figs became a hit with Manhattan’s well-heeled foodies. MeIngailis herself was thrust into the limelight as the photogenic first lady of vegan cuisine.

Pure Food and Wine became a red-hot celebrity haunt, with the likes of Owen Wilson, Anne Hathaway and Bill Clinton popping in to try the dishes everybody was talking about. One particularly keen diner was Alec Baldwin, who struck up a close friendship with MeIngailis – a friendship that inadvertently put MeIngailis on the path to disaster.

The fantastic Mr Fox

Behind the glamorous façade, MeIngailis was leading an increasingly strained existence. Running the restaurant on her own after the breakdown of her relationship with Kenney, she felt adrift in her personal life, with her only constant companion being her pet pit bull, Leon.

That changed when she started chatting, through social media, with a cocky and funny guy from Massachusetts calling himself Shane Fox. What made ‘Mr Fox’ more than just some randomer from Twitter was that he had a close online rapport with Alec Baldwin – a fact that gave him a degree of social credibility in MeIngailis’ eyes.

The Baldwin connection made MeIngailis more comfortable about getting to know the stranger. When they eventually met in 2011, he didn’t look quite as rugged and hunky as his online photos made out, but the force of his personality helped seal the deal and the pair were officially a couple.

The ‘outlaw non-human’

MeIngailis knew there was something shady about Shane Fox. He would allude to secretive government work, heavily hinting that he was involved in covert CIA missions and ‘black ops’. Then came the revelation that his real name was in fact Anthony Strangis, and he’d been in trouble with the law before.

Despite the red flags, his charm offensive – which included trips to high-end boutiques and assurances of extreme wealth – continued to sweep MeIngailis along, and they got married in 2012. His personal mythology became increasingly peculiar, with Strangis claiming that he was an ‘outlaw non-human’ who had the power to make her dog Leon immortal and provide MeIngailis with a ‘fantastical, magical future’.

All she had to do was prove her commitment to the ‘process’ by passing celestial tests like sending Strangis money whenever he asked for it and agreeing to follow instructions like going on impromptu trips to Europe. If she ever questioned what was happening, Strangis would angrily rebuke her for resisting the process, and ominously suggesting that unseen forces – known as ‘the family’ – would be displeased by her refusal to cooperate.

The fugitive queen

Assured by Strangis that she would become a ‘queen’ if she followed instructions, MeIngailis gradually siphoned off around $2 million from the restaurant-related business accounts, which Strangis splurged on casinos, high-end watches, and luxury trips. As the prosecuting attorney later put it, the pair were ‘repeatedly stealing from and lying to their loyal employees and to investors who poured money into their company. They allegedly gambled away the money or spent it lavishly while leaving everyone else in the lurch.’

Gutting the company finances meant that the restaurant couldn’t pay staff the wages they were owed, which led to angry walk-outs and street protests outside the doomed restaurant. MeIngailis, once the much-loved mother hen of the establishment, eventually went AWOL with Strangis, holing up in a Tennessee hotel for over a month.

Authorities finally caught up with them in May 2016 when Strangis ordered a pizza to his hotel room using his real name and bank details. Handcuffs were slapped on their wrists, and MeIngailis soon found herself flown back to New York, straight to a cell at the Rikers Island jail complex.

‘Conduct unbecoming a vegan’

The story became a tabloid sensation, in part because MeIngailis’ bizarre, decadent exploits flew in the face of her glowingly virtuous image. As one of her investors put it, she was ‘guilty of conduct unbecoming a vegan’. A friend of hers, the novelist Porochista Khakpour, said, ‘Sarma lost her mind. She really believed that her dog would live forever.’

Many commentators echoed this take, believing that this was a textbook case of coercive control on the part of Strangis, who gaslit and psychologically bullied MeIngailis into doing his bidding. Others, especially on internet forums, have been far more cynical, suggesting that MeIngailis was far too savvy a businesswoman to fall for Strangis’ far-fetched claims, and actually willingly embezzled millions from her business.

In any case, both of them pleaded guilty to grand larceny and tax fraud and served relatively short sentences behind bars. Thanks to the documentary Bad Vegan, the whole bizarre saga has now become firmly enshrined in true crime lore, and online debates continue to rage about the downfall of Sarma MeIngailis.