Bad Vegan is a 2022 Netflix documentary series about Sarma Melngailis and Anthony Strangis’ theft of approximately $6 million.
8 out of 10 stars. This was very well done. I had never heard of this case (I’m from the west coast) and the series covered most of the key points.
Sarma Melngailis before Anthony Strangis
This story takes place in New York City, even if the couple was caught and arrested in Tennessee. Apparently from 2010 to 2016 Sarma Melngailis was a Latvian socialite with money and a large following on social media. Her father was a physicist from MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) and had moved the family to New York City. She started out as a stockbroker at Bear Stearns then moved to equity investment at Bain Capital. She’d graduated from Wharton Business School and knew how to manage a business, but her true passion was food. So she went back to school and got a degree from the Culinary Institute of America.
While training to be a chef, Sarma had read about Mathew Kinney, a chef in a popular NYC restaurant. So she met him and they began dating. Eventually they married and became co-owners of the restaurant along with a third partner, Jeffrey Chodorow. After three years, they began arguing a lot. Mathew spent a lot of money and didn’t pay attention to the business side of the restaurant. Sarma did. So they divorced and Mathew insisted Jeffrey get rid of Sarma. Instead, Jeffrey got rid of Mathew and sold the entire restaurant to Sarma, putting her $2 million in debt to Jeffrey. She made payments whenever she could, so Jeffrey was very lenient with her. But after her divorce from Mathew, Sarma was depressed and lonely.
At that time, Alec Baldwin started coming around the restaurant, which she turned into a raw vegan restaurant called Pure Food and Wine. He was interested in dating her, but she thought he was too old, so instead she sent him pictures of dogs to adopt. One of those dogs was a cream pit bull terrier she adopted and named Leon. She fell in love with that dog. He became her whole world. And Leon became the perfect way for a con man to destroy Sarma’s life.
Enter Con Man Anthony Strangis aka Shane Fox
Anthony Strangis was a long time con man. His father was a Massachusetts cop and a violent alcoholic. He was also a con man who told fictional stories to cover for Anthony and they shared the spoils of Anthony’s cons, usually money.
In 2004, Anthony met Stacy, a beautiful girl he fell in love with. After three months of dating they went to Las Vegas and got married then returned to Fort Lauderdale, Florida to live. But Anthony never had money. He always took Stacy’s. She became pregnant and went on maternity leave to have the baby. So they had even less money and Anthony wouldn’t get a job. She couldn’t understand it. Anthony had told her he was a Navy SEAL who’d been injured in combat. He should be collecting a government pension or disability. Anthony’s dad confirmed his story, so she had no reason to disbelieve him. Until he told her they could kill the baby by giving it salt and it wouldn’t show up on the autopsy. :0 After that, she never left him alone with their daughter Riley. Then supposedly his dad had a heart attack followed by a heart transplant. Anthony left to care for his dad and never came back, leaving Stacy with no money and a new infant.
One of the stories that Anthony had used to worm his way into Stacy’s heart was that they were reincarnated lovers. He would use a similar ruse to worm his way into Sarma’s life.
Shane Stalks Sarma on Social Media
After her breakup with Mathew, Sarma was still posting on social media to keep the restaurant going. All of her photos included her dog Leon. So a man named Shane Fox contacted her and told her he was Leon’s owner in a previous life. Intrigued, she began corresponding with Shane, not realizing he was a con man named Anthony Strangis. She’d seen him tweet back and forth with Alec Baldwin so she though she could trust him. He told her he was a millionaire and he had an assistant, Will Richards, who managed the money. He also told her he worked in black ops for the CIA. This was confirmed by his father and Will, so she believed him.
Then Shane called the restaurant and the caller ID said Anthony Strangis. So her staff googled the name and up popped a mug shot with Shane’s face. Sarma called his dad who told her he’d been in trouble with the law in the past but that was all behind him and he had millions now so that would never be a problem again. One big fat lie. And she believed it.
They began dating and she told Shane about her $2 million debt to Jeffrey for the restaurant. So Shane offered to pay it off for her. But he complained that in giving her the money he’d be paying a gift tax almost as much as the debt. If they were married, there would be no gift tax. So they got married after 10 months of dating. That was November 2012.
Pure Food and Wine
From the moment they were married on, Shane insisted that Sarma give his assistant Will Richards access to all of her social media, email, and bank accounts, including those of the restaurants, supposedly to “encrypt” them. She had opened a second restaurant, One Lucky Duck, that sold takeout versions of their raw vegan food and was a huge hit. They had plans to open more of both restaurants across the U.S. and in other countries. Those two restaurants were making a lot of money, two cash cows. Shane couldn’t resist. So while they were married and she was running the businesses, he was draining their bank accounts and using her email and social media to make it appear like it was her.
Shane told Sarma that he was immortal. He called her TBH for tiny blonde human and would go into elaborate detail of his past lives. He said there was a family of immortals who would test her and if she passed these tests would make her and Leon immortal. These tests consisted of different things, but were mostly wire transfers to Shane with money from the restaurant accounts.
At this time both restaurants had a combined sales of about $7 million a year, so Jeffrey couldn’t understand why Sarma wasn’t paying him regularly, but he liked her, so he let it go. He is also a billionaire so this wasn’t much money to him.
The staff of the restaurants also noticed that bills weren’t getting paid and Shane was coming into the restaurants and saying he owned them. Shane was telling Sarma to stay home as part of another test. One day he came into Pure Food and Wine, asked where the employee files were, found them, and took them with him. Then he told Sarma there were blue hats (good staff) and red hats (bad staff) and when they went red they had to let them go. So he began firing staff who were complaining about Sarma and Shane stealing from the restaurants.
Sarma began to be very suspicious of Shane, especially when he knew every email she sent, every place she went (credit card receipts), and had complete control of her finances and her life. But he promised her immortality for Leon and that after she passed the tests he’d pay off her $2 million debt. She still believed him.
Between 2012 and 2014, Sarma sent Shane $1.7 million as part of these “tests” in order to get immortality for Leon. It was all money from the restaurants.
Nazim the Bartender
Down the street from the restaurant was a bar where Nazim was the bartender. He became friends with Shane who borrowed $100,000 from him to be partners in a new juice bar. Then Shane took him to Las Vegas where he gambled for 30 days. Nazim was horrified but didn’t say anything because he’d already given Shane $100,000. He was hoping to get his money back.
When Sarma confided in Nazim about Shane, Nazim told her to begin recording her conversations with Shane. So she did. Those conversations air throughout the documentary.
Now Sarma had three men telling her Shane was a great guy–Shane’s dad, Will Richards, and Nazim. They all know the truth about Shane, but none of them are telling her. In fact, they’re lying to her to protect their investments.
Staff Walks, Restaurant Closes
Restaurants can’t stay open when their bills go unpaid. Think about it. Those bills are for the groceries and other deliveries required to make the food. No food=no restaurant. There are also the staff’s salaries. No servers=no restaurant.
Shane and Sarma had reached a point where the restaurant was in dire straights. So Sarma announced a staff meeting only it’s really Shane. He’s already sent Sarma to Italy on another test. He tells the staff everything will be okay but not to rat out the restaurant or they’ll be fired. Then he fired several staff. When the restaurant manager calls Sarma, she fires him.
As soon as Sarma gets back, he takes her to Paris. While they are gone, the staff walks out and the restaurant closes. When Sarma gets back she immediately begins calling investors and gets $850,000 to reopen the restaurant. Her old restaurant manager gave the staff jobs when they quit but the moment she reopened Pure Food and Wine, they abandon him and come running back to Sarma. So no loyalty there. It’s hard to like any of these people.
At this point, the restaurants are open, but Shane is still stealing money from the restaurants’ accounts so they can barely operate. Staff have not been paid in months and even though the restaurant reopens, the staff still has not been paid. Seeing that the restaurant is about to close again, Sarma begs Jeffrey to talk to investors and get more money into the restaurant. Against his better judgment, he does. Then it becomes clear that she’s scamming him. She introduces a man to him called Michael Caledonia and says she vetted him through Bain Capital. But when Jeffrey checks, there’s no such person. Since Jeffrey has never met him personally he’s wondering what’s going on. It’s unclear who was pretending to be Michael, Shane or Will.
The staff walks out again, the restaurant closes, and the staff pickets in front of the closed restaurant. The investors deposit more money into the restaurant accounts. Sarma and Shane immediately take it out and run. Here’s where Sarma becomes very vague while being questioned by the makers of the documentary. So far she’s been open and freely spoken, but when talking about this point, she is intentionally vague.
Caught in Tennessee via a Domino’s Delivery
Shane takes Sarma and flees to Las Vegas. Pretending to be Sarma and using her email, he begs her mom for money. She gives him her entire savings, $400,000. Meanwhile, the police are knocking on her mom’s door looking for Sarma. An arrest warrant was issued based on complaints filed by investors and staff.
After Las Vegas, they ran out of money. Shane was gambling it all away. Sarma called friends in NYC and begged for money. They agreed to give her some, so they went to NYC to get it. On the way back to Las Vegas, they stopped in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. They’re staying in separate rooms and Sarma is anorexic thin because she can’t find vegan food many places. Shane orders Domino’s pizza delivered to his hotel room under his real name, Anthony Strangis. The cops arrest them hours later on May 10, 2016. Sarma’s dad drives to Tennessee to rescue Leon.
The collateral damage from their thievery is $6 million. Shane/Anthony is given one year jail and then set free. He is never charged for pretending to be Sarma or stealing her mom’s money. It’s a small price to pay for the damage done to all the staff who went months without pay and lost their homes and jobs. They were never paid.
Sarma gets 4 months in jail and 5 years probation. Less than two years after she gets out of jail, she calls Anthony to chat. It’s as though she can’t separate her life from his. 🙁
Coercive Control and Sexism
Throughout this documentary you hear the words “coercive control” and “gaslighting” which is precisely what’s going on. Men like this prey on women and use them to commit crimes. The women are left devastated with mountains of debt while the men walk away with a few months in jail. That’s it. That should anger you, but unfortunately it only seems to anger women. Not men.
When you watch the documentary, pay attention to the viewpoints of the female staff as opposed to the male staff. It’s as though the male staff were all in love with Sarma and could not understand why she would believe her husband, Shane, over them. So they’re out for blood and don’t believe any of the coercive control. The female staff, on the other hand, could see how Shane controlled her and tried to help get her out of that relationship. But the men in her life kept telling her what a wonderful man Shane was. :0 That’s sexism right there and the key to Sarma’s downfall. You don’t hear Shane Fox’s name anymore (or Anthony Strangis’s), but you do hear Sarma’s. She was a victim too, here, but you’d never know it. And the media is still terrorizing her.
8 out of 10 stars. Well executed documentary.