“Bad Vegan: Fame. Fraud. Fugitives.” is a story about a “Raw Vegan Queen,” as they used to call her. It looks into the curious case of Sarma Melngailis. The series has been added to the list of fascinating crime documentaries streaming on Netflix. Just like the “Tinder Swindler,” this too is a story about how a person becomes psychologically captivated, so much so that they act in a manner that is contrary to their personality. It is intriguing because there is no logical explanation as to why Sarma did certain things. When there is no rational explanation, then even the legal system cannot help an individual. Persuasion cannot be charged unless and until it transforms into coercion, and furthermore, it has to be proven with the incriminating evidence. Sentencing the convict and establishing a distinct boundary when it comes to liability becomes almost impossible in cases like that of Sarma Melngailis. The victim believes in the bona fide intentions of the accused. Trust is the biggest accomplice for a person wanting to commit such psychological crimes. There just needs to be a convincing narrative, or maybe a baseless narrative told in a convincing manner.
Anthony Strangis, who told Sarma that his name was Shane Fox, knew exactly what his modus operandi was going to be and what kind of target he needed to choose. There was a bizarre narrative that he was going to sell, but before that, he had to find a way to enter Sarma’s life.
What Is ‘Bad Vegan: Fame. Fraud. Fugitives’ About?
Vegan food was the next big thing in the States. It was backed by a philosophy that made the people feel like they were a part of this great movement. Before Sarma Melngailis started this movement, she was studying economics at the University of Pennsylvania. But food was her calling. She joined a culinary class to pursue her passion. Sarma wanted to assist Matthew Kenny, who was a star chef. Matthew was writing his cookbook at that time, and Sarma was interviewed to work with him on the project. Soon they became a couple, and together they started planning to open a restaurant. Jeffrey Chodorow came on board and backed the initiative of the couple. Nikki King Benett, the Executive Chef of Pure Food and Wine, said that the idea was more appealing because, for the very first time, the concept of a vegan diet was amalgamated with a fine dining experience. Prominent personalities and celebrities like Woody Harrelson, Owen Wilson, and Bill Clinton came to the restaurant and joined the movement.
While the restaurant was booming, on a personal front, things were not right between Sarma and Matthew Kenny. They eventually broke up, and both approached Jeffrey Chodorow to make a decision as to who would have the ownership of Pure Food and Wine. Jeffrey sided with Sarma, considering the dubious reputation Matthew had as a businessman, though he never doubted his skills as a chef.
Alec Baldwin met Sarma in her restaurant, and his presence changed the course of the narrative. She suggested Alec Baldwin adopt a dog when he had told her how lonely he felt at times (though he wouldn’t have been interested in the dog’s company as much as hers). She came across a pit-bull while looking for dogs and it eventually became an integral part of her life. She named the dog Leon.
There was a guy named Shane Fox who used to interact with Alec Baldwin on Twitter. He started texting Sarma, and due to his apparent connection with Mr. Baldwin, Sarma entertained him. He told Sarma that he worked for the U.S. Army and was involved in black ops. There was a mysterious aura about the person, but Sarma went ahead with it, trusting her intuitions. He had a huge following on Twitter and was on good terms with eminent personalities. All these things cumulatively built his credibility. He once called the corporate office of Pure Food and Wine, and the caller ID showed his name to be Anthony Strangis. The employees, already fed up with his nagging behavior and negative personality, decided to search for the name online. There was a mugshot of him on the internet that told a different reality as compared to what was known to Sarma and her employees.
What Was The Real Vendetta Of Anthony Strangis A.K.A Shane Fox?
Somehow, Anthony Strangis was able to get away with the fact that he had faked his identity in front of Sarma and also with the fact that he was sentenced for committing a crime. He said that due to his covert operations, a lot of times, he had to fake his identity. When he saw that Sarma was losing trust in him, he played his master card. He made her meet his father, who reaffirmed the fact that he was indeed working in the special forces. Anthony took Sarma to Tiffany & Co. and made her try a few rings. He took her to meet some bankers at Barclays as he wanted to buy a property with Sarma.
He did all this to build credibility. Why would a guy scam you who already drives a Bentley and can afford rings from Tiffany & Co.? What would he gain from scamming a restaurateur who was already in debt and was barely able to make ends meet?
Sarma was totally entangled in the web. Anthony Strangis was a con artist, and he had done this before, with a woman named Stacy, whom he was also married to. Anthony told Sarma that he could make her dog, Leon, immortal. He portrayed himself as a person who did not belong in this physical realm. He used to tell Sarma that demons were after him and that “they” were watching his every move. He often told Sarma that it was possible for her to achieve that “happily ever after,” something that she had always wanted. But like every good thing in life, that too came at a cost. He told her that money would be in abundance if she was able to show that she was not bound by it, and she wouldn’t hinder her path even if she had to burn each and every penny she had. He started asking her to transfer sums, to apparently prove that she was steadfast and was ready to be accepted into this supernatural community, which he called his family.
Anthony told Sarma that he needed her passwords and IDs for security purposes, as being a covert agent meant he had to make sure that people close to him were not in danger. He made her meet his associate, Will Richards, who used to talk to Sarma and convey what needed to be done. Will Richards only used to talk to Sarma over texts. She never met him in person. It was because there was nobody who existed by that name. It was a fake identity created by Anthony himself, and he himself used text Sarma, pretending to be Will.
It was all a trap to force Sarma, psychologically, to embezzle funds that were given to her company by the investors. Sarma was sent to Rome as she was told that it was the final act, after the completion of which all debts would be paid off, and they would live together happily ever after. Anthony used that time to go to Pure Food and Wine physically and transfer all the funds to his name.
At the very last moment, Anthony stuck to his supernatural theory, and managed to appropriate around 6 million dollars from Pure Food and Wine.
Did Sarma Melngailis Marry Anthony Strangis For Money?
Sarma’s father, John Melngailis, agrees with the fact that when she met Anthony, she was in desperate need of funds. For her, marriage meant something very different. Obviously, that didn’t mean that she had given him permission to defraud her. She trusted him, and he not only broke her trust but put her through her worst nightmare.
But the question still arises: why did an Ivy League graduate buy his bizarre story of demons chasing him and all those misleading things that he said? Sarma was a loner and was a very different person as compared to her public image. She was self-contained and, a lot of times, couldn’t express herself. Her restaurant was going into debt after Matthew Kenny left, and there seemed to be no hope at the end of the tunnel. She always wanted to do something different, and Pure Food and Wine was her passion project. She wanted to keep it afloat at any cost. Anthony Strangis made an entry into her life at a very opportune moment. He took advantage of Sarma’s reclusive nature. He did not physically restrain her, but somehow managed to make her dependent on him and cut her off from her parents, her close ones, and the rest of the world. Sarma found herself in this deep, dark abyss, holding the hands of the man she thought to be her wedded husband, but little did she know that he had every intention of leading her astray. Vulnerability and insecurity also give way to self-doubt in an individual. Sarma found herself distant from others. She knew that even if she started making her point, the first question that she would be asked is why didn’t she move back or take help from the trusted people in her life. But it was never so black and white for her.
On the one hand, she was made to believe that Anthony would pay off her debt, so in the beginning, even if he asked her to wire a certain amount of money, she didn’t get paranoid. Anthony had created this setup which looked credible, and even when Sarma’s intuitions told her otherwise, she blindly did what he said. It was as if she was in a slumber, and once she woke up, the nightmare would be over. But it never did. She got deeper and deeper inside the swamp, and one day a headline made the rounds in the entire United States of America: “Nyc’s hottest vegan, felled by pizza order.”
The couple was in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, when they ordered a pizza, and through their card details, the authorities tracked them down. Sarma was charged with grand larceny and criminal tax fraud and got bail while the case kept going on. Anthony denied that there was any coercion in the relationship, though he later pleaded guilty because he had already spent a year in New York’s Rikers Island prison, as he had not applied for any bail. He was released on probation, which is going to end in May 2022. The couple filed for a divorce in 2018.
Anthony was never charged with the huge sum of money he took from Sarma’s mother while they were on the run. He was never charged for the mental torture he put Sarma through. He was not branded as somebody who was dangerous to society. He played in the gray areas of the law, and many would feel that he got away easily. What is the guarantee that he won’t defraud another woman? Well, in simple words, there is no guarantee.
Sarma Melngailis lost a lot. She lost her morale, her confidence, and also her passion project, Pure Food and Wine. Though Sarma knows that no investor would trust her and invest in her business, she still aspires to be back in the culinary business, as that was always her calling.
“Bad Vegan: Fame. Fraud. Fugitives.” is a 2022 Limited Documentary Series directed by Chris Smith.