How Fraud Affects Queens Divorce Cases
It was a bad relationship that took a nosedive into a criminal fraud worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, but after serving her time in Rikers, the once-celebrated vegan lifestyle guru and Pure Food and Wines owner Sarma Melngailis has filed for divorce from her husband. How they got here isn’t even particularly a mystery after testimony at trial exposed the laundry list of tactics that her estranged husband, Anthony Strangis, used to isolate his wife, damage her relationships, and destroy her mental health, all while stealing millions from her and her business. The couple was eventually discovered holed up in a hotel room near Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, having lived on the lam for months. They were busted by Strangis’s desire for a Domino’s pizza, paid for with a credit card that law enforcement was monitoring.
Earlier in her life, it would have been hard to predict the turn of events that would follow in Melngailis’s life. A graduate of The Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania, she started her career at Bain Capital, of all places. Apparently moving money between wealthy people wasn’t where her passion was focused, and by 2005 she was in a serious relationship with chef Matthew Kenney. The couple released a cookbook called Raw Food, Real World: 100 Recipes to Get the Glow that became a surprise hit and opened a lot of doors for the pair. Pure Food and Wine, a Gramercy Park institution for years, was born, with Melngailis and Kenney initially helming the endeavor. When their romantic relationship ended in 2006, Kenney left the business and Melngailis, supported by very happy investors, was in charge.
The staff at Pure Food and Wine loved her and called her “Sarmama,” reflecting the family-like atmosphere that she fostered there. The restaurant, situated in a lovely ground-floor space that extended back into the town house’s garden. Ample seating, outdoor tables, and a classy, well-appointed vibe dovetailed with the menu that Melngailis carefully curated. All the parts folded effortlessly into a whole that became a major draw for ordinary diners and celebrities alike. Famous fans included people like Woody Harrelson, Rooney Mara, Anne Hathaway, Stevie Wonder, and Chelsea Clinton.
Alec Baldwin, who became a close friend and confidant of Melngailis, even met his wife at Pure Food and Wine in 2011. This seems to be the event that tilted Melngailis’s life off of the trajectory it had been on, though not for the reasons you might assume. It wasn’t that Melngailis harbored secret feelings for the actor. Instead, it was that as Baldwin courted his wife, he introduced her – and Melngailis – to Twitter. Melngailis began following her famous friend on the platform, and began interacting with his other followers in the comment threads of his tweets. One user in particular grabbed her attention, a man who went by aliases like Mr. Fox and Mr. Longbottoms, and with whom she developed an online flirtation that eventually moved into real life.
The Twitter alias belonged to Strangis, and to say that he and Melngailis made an odd couple was an understatement. Strangis came to New York to meet his online flame and was apparently living in his car at the time. He was wildly overweight, had no interest in healthy living, and had reportedly abandoned an old girlfriend and his baby son in Florida earlier in his life. Even better, he had a rap sheet that included convictions for grand larceny and impersonating a police officer and was not in any way addressing his gambling addiction. To be fair, Melngailis didn’t know much of this about her new boyfriend, but her friends were immediately concerned by the presence of this new figure in her life. Some described their first impression of him as “dishonest,” but it’s always a tricky thing to discuss your dislike of a person’s new partner with a friend. Most probably believed the relationship would run its course in short order, but Strangis had a lot of experience in making things turn out the way he wanted, especially when it came to wrapping women around his fingers.
Melngailis had long struggled in her relationships with Pure Food and Wine’s investors. It wasn’t that she wasn’t grateful for their contributions, but she felt that they diluted her vision for the business and dreamed of buying them out. She had also taken on a mortgage on a Maine property that belonged to her ex-boyfriend Kenney, a debt that she couldn’t really afford. Strangis told her that he was about to come into money, and that when it arrived, she could finally own Pure Food and Wine outright and pay off the Maine mortgage. Being debt-free is an alluring dream for anyone, and for Melngailis, that seems to be the way that Strangis was able to first get his hooks into her.
From there, it was a downward spiral of emotional abuse, gaslighting, and constant attacks on her friends and family. Strangis scammed hundreds of thousands from Melngailis’s mother by telling her that Melngailis was sick with depression and had recently had an abortion. He got key employees at the restaurant fired and replaced with inexperienced people he could manipulate. When Melngailis would argue, he would mentally knock her off balance by asking if she’s remembered to take her medication that day. It was corrosive and erosive, and Melngailis was gradually being subsumed.
Strangis began picking up the night deposits from Pure Food and Wine and pocketing them. He told Melngailis that her computer had been hacked and that he needed her login information in order to get it fixed. Soon he was diverting money from the business account to her personal account and withdrawing it for himself. He spent $1.2 million of Melngailis’s and Pure Foods’s money at casinos in Connecticut. And yet, as this theft and abuse was unfolding, Strangis convinced Melngailis to marry him in a secret ceremony.
In 2015, the restaurant stopped issuing paychecks, and workers responded with a lawsuit. It was too late though. Melngailis and Strangis had disappeared, and when the restaurant shut down, investors also responded with lawsuits. Criminal investigations were opened, and by the 2016 capture of the couple in Tennessee, they had been charged with stealing $844,000 from their investors, $40,000 from their employees, and $400,000 from the state in unpaid sales taxes.
Both were able to negotiate plea agreements that shortened their time in prison. Strangis was locked up for a year before he could come to terms with the DA and was granted five years of probation. Melngailis ultimately pleaded guilty to fraud and grand larceny. The court largely agreed that Strangis had been the driving force behind the criminal conduct, and she served just four months. Now that she’s been released, she’s filed for divorce from her ne’er-do-well husband. There are no assets left to fight over, and the action is uncontested. If Melngailis wants to get her life off to a fresh start, it seems that she’s taking the first steps toward it now.
Hiring A Queens Divorce Attorney When You Suspect Fraud From Your Spouse
After discovering your spouse may have been committing fraud during your marriage, you might have questions about discovering hidden assets during a divorce in Queens.
If your marriage in Queens is ending, an experienced divorce attorney can make a big difference for you. The team at Zelenitz, Shapiro & D’Agostino can protect your interests and provide valuable perspective as you make your way through a painful and confusing time. Call us today at 718-523-1111 for a free consultation.