New York’s vegan queen is heading to jail.
Celebrity restaurateur-turned-fugitive Sarma Melngailis became tabloid fodder when Tennessee cops cuffed her at a Sevierville hotel after her gambler hubby ordered a cheesy, non-vegan Domino’s pizza using his real name.
The duo bilked nearly $1 million from investors and employees of Melngailis’ Manhattan hotspot, Pure Food and Wine, before vanishing in May 2015. They looted Pure’s payroll for overseas vacations, casinos and Rolex watches, prosecutors say.
On Wednesday, the saga came to a close, when Melngailis pleaded guilty to grand larceny, tax fraud and a scheme to defraud in exchange for four months in jail and five years’ probation. Brooklyn Supreme Court Justice Danny Chun’s deal was much lighter than prosecutors’ request for a one- to three-year sentence.
Melngailis will begin her prison stint on June 21, but a facility has not been determined, said a spokesman for the Brooklyn DA’s office.
Meanwhile, the 44-year-old’s estranged husband, Anthony Strangis, is scheduled for release from Rikers on May 22. The reported con man and gambling addict had taken a plea deal for one year behind bars and five years’ probation.
Strangis, whose rap sheet includes grand theft and impersonating a cop, was also ordered to pay $840,000 in restitution.
“Entirely numb today. No words. Or. Too many I can’t say. Grateful to be in the sun a bit longer this spring. with Leon,” Melngailis wrote on Twitter after the court proceeding, alongside a photo of her beloved rescue dog, Leon.
Melngailis’ attorney, Jeffrey Lichtman, said investors submitted letters asking for her to be spared jail time. But prosecutors wouldn’t budge and “believed till the end” she should go to prison, Lichtman told The Daily Beast.
“They knew [Strangis] was manipulating her, ripping off her mother, controlling her, that she was fighting him half the time to get the money back,” Lichtman said.
“She’s been badly abused by Strangis over a period of years,” he added, suggesting his client had a minor role in what was truly Strangis’ scheme.
After the couple’s high-profile arrest, speculation swirled on how the blonde beauty—whose eatery attracted boldfaced names like Tom Brady and Gisele Bundchen—got involved with a frumpy, no-name gambler with a criminal record.
An investigation by The Daily Beast revealed the couple met on Twitter six years ago and began a romance under the pseudonyms Mr. and Mrs. Fox.
Back then, Strangis was known only as “Shane Fox” to Pure Food and Wine employees, and to his 50,000-plus Twitter followers. Those online fans included Alec Baldwin, with whom Strangis regularly cracked jokes.
Not even Melngailis’ friends and family knew they were married. “He does not fit the profile of someone she’s into. Nobody can explain it,” longtime pal Porochista Khakpour told The Daily Beast last year.
A Vanity Fair feature would reveal startling allegations that Strangis used “cult-like techniques, including gaslighting, sleep deprivation, and sexual humiliation” to gain control over Melngailis and her finances.
Strangis’ attorney denied these claims, which included accusations that Strangis promised Melngailis her dog would live forever and that she could realize her dreams if she continued passing a series of cosmic tests.
One of those alleged tests, according to Vanity Fair, was for Melngailis to accept the junk food-loving Strangis’ obesity—despite growing unattracted to him—and to continue asking people to invest in her business, which by then was hemorrhaging funds.
Melngailis transferred more than $1.6 million from her business accounts to one of her personal bank accounts, and from there to Strangis, who dropped nearly $1 million at the Foxwoods casino in Connecticut, the indictment stated.
She owed $40,000 to her employees, who continued keeping Pure Food and Wine open months after she skipped town.
One former manager told The Daily Beast that when Pure employees weren’t paid, Strangis would slip them cash.
“Hang in there. Everything’s going to be OK,” Strangis allegedly assured the employee. “Your loyalty will be taken care of. You wait and see. When everything goes OK, we’ll all be laughing from the yacht.”