She was New York's most glamorous vegan chef. He was a tubby divorced gambler. Their love affair possibly destroyed a raw-food empire.
They called each other Mr. and Mrs. Fox.
Years before raw-vegan restaurateur Sarma Melngailis and her gambler husband allegedly went on the lam with company cash, they used code names to flirt on Twitter—a secret romance hiding in plain sight.
Anthony Strangis was known only as "Shane Fox" to his 50,000-plus Twitter groupies and the employees of Melngailis's Manhattan hotspot, Pure Food and Wine. And beginning in 2011, she appeared to happily adopt this pseudonym too.
"Mrs Fox be in love with Mr Fox. Can't be helped," Melngailis posted in November 2011. Two weeks later, she cryptically tweeted only two words: "Mr. Fox."
The tweets reveal a timeline of their love affair and later marriage, which Melngailis managed to keep from her friends and family.
Strangis was like a chameleon, taking on at least three online handles to interact with celebrities, The Daily Beast has learned. (Strangis left behind Twitpic selfies that match his mugshot, and the Twitter aliases were confirmed by former Pure Food and Wine employees and a follower who interacted with Strangis and Melngailis online.)
At the beginning, the 35-year-old Strangis was @UKnowuwant_it, aka Mr. Longbottoms. While the account is now deactivated, his followers' posts reveal Strangis's flirtations with several women, including Melngailis.
The tubby Kevin Smith look-alike appeared to woo the blonde beauty with posts about animal rights and her beloved pitbull, Leon.
"This is where your bacon comes from," Strangis posted in November 2011, with a link to a pork industry abuse video. Melngailis retweeted his post with: "This is how you know Mr. Longbottoms n I been chatting
"Kisses only for Leon and a fox. That's it. I'm officially out," Melngailis posted that month.
In December 2011, Strangis's courtship with the herbivore siren intensified. He wrote, "I am not a vegan. However I do eat anything Mrs. Fox puts in front of me. It's all delicious."
Strangis was recently divorced and living in Florida, an inveterate gambler who allegedly abandoned his 8-month-old son, Riley, and would vanish for weeks. The Xbox nerd also used Twitter to hobnob with boldface names like Alec Baldwin and Ellen Barkin, all while complaining to buddies about his inability to "find the right women."
And somehow, the alleged scammer managed to charm New York's raw-food rockstar.
Melngailis, 43, whose career included a stint at the Mitt Romney-founded Bain Capital, opened Pure Food and Wine in 2004 with her ex, chef Matthew Kenney. It soon became a favorite of Alec Baldwin, Woody Harrelson, and Gisele Bundchen. The Wharton grad later launched One Lucky Duck juice bar and authored two books.
"Their whole relationship was a big mystery," said one longtime Pure Food and Wine manager, who asked to remain anonymous. "How does a 300-pound dude charm a raw-vegan hottie?"
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But after the vegan babe fell for the Boston-accented beast, her life took a bizarre turn.
Last month, Mr. and Mrs. Fox were collared in Sevierville, Tennessee, after nearly a year on the run. Prosecutors say Melngailis and her beau took off with $844,000 in investor money and owe employees $40,000 in wages.
The alleged con artists burned through nearly $2 million of Pure Food funds—looting the payroll and taking lux trips overseas, going bust at casino after casino, and buying Rolexes and Uber car rides, an indictment in Kings County claims.
Sevierville cops followed the whiff of a meaty Domino's pizza that Strangis had ordered using his real name and that had been delivered to the Fairfield Inn where the couple were hiding out for 40 days. They were extradited to New York and booked into Rikers. Melngailis made bail but Strangis didn't.
New York tabloids wasted no time gloating about the downfall of the vegan proprietess, who was reduced to the height of hypocrisy: ordering cheesy pies—an allegation one detective says is untrue. ("She did not order the pizza," Sevierville detective Kevin Bush said. "She was not consuming the pizza whatsoever.")
New York detectives began searching for Melngailis after she disappeared last summer while facing civil litigation from both employees and investors.
The couple faces charges of grand larceny, scheming to defraud and violation of labor law, and up to 15 years in prison. Meanwhile, Melngailis faces criminal tax fraud and grand larceny over $409,987 in unpaid sales tax to New York State, the indictment says.
Melngailis declined to comment for this article, and her attorney, Cesar de Castro, did not return messages left by The Daily Beast.
"Restaurants fail. It doesn't make it criminal. We're looking forward to the real facts coming out," de Castro told a Beast reporter in court last month.
But how Melngailis descended from raw royalty to the bride of a portly poker player is baffling to her friends who spoke to The Daily Beast. They question what she saw in the gambler, whose criminal record includes an arrest for falsely impersonating a police officer in Florida. (That charge was later dropped, online court records reveal.)
"He does not fit the profile of someone she's into," said Porochista Khakpour, a novelist and longtime friend of Melngailis. "Nobody can explain it."
Khakpour added she was in the dark like everybody else with her friend's new mystery man. "If she met someone she was in love with, we would all know.
"Sarma was someone you could always reach. During the course of this thing, she completely fell off the planet. Everybody was really concerned for her life," Khakpour added.
The way one former Pure manager—who asked to remain anonymous—put it, Strangis was dead weight who sank everything Melngailis built from scratch. "The consensus is that the moment Shane, aka Anthony, came into her life, there was a big change in her, and a big change in the overall way that the place was being run."
The employee, who worked at Pure since it opened, said he only knew of Melngailis's marriage because Strangis told him. "She didn't really like telling people about it. There wasn't an announcement and celebration. It was almost like a secretive, hushed vibe on her part," the insider said.
Confidants and former employees alike believe Melngailis met Strangis on Twitter, a hunch their trail of tweets appears to corroborate.
After Strangis allegedly abandoned his Florida family and moved to New York, he metamorphosed into @MrFoxNYC. He later settled on @JohnSpartanXX, an account inactive since May 10, 2016—the day he and Melngailis were arrested in their Tennessee hotel.
"I'm that guy from that thing you like!" Strangis's Twitter bio reads. "My Tweets have been featured in Rolling Stone, Funny or Die, People Magazine, Jimmy Kimmel Live. Proud Nerd and Gamer." Indeed, his account, created in October 2012 and confirmed by former Pure employees, has amassed 54,900 followers, including Melngailis, Alec Baldwin, Chrissy Teigen, and Cory Booker.
His dispatches turned bleak in the weeks leading up to his arrest.
"It's not hard to make a few million dollars. So Don't brag about it and don't think it makes you better than someone struggling. It doesn't," Strangis tweeted on Valentine's Day.
On May 7, Strangis posted a photo of himself in aviator sunglasses and a baseball cap referencing a fictional city in the game Grand Theft Auto V. "Life was so much better in Los Santos," he wrote.
That day, he also griped, "What's seriously the point of anything at all." A follower replied, "Sounds like suicide talk." Strangis replied, "Nah bruh. It's what happens when you get to the top of the hill and realize now shit is just boring AF."
The Real Anthony Strangis
Before he became the high-rolling "Shane Fox," Anthony Strangis was a married man living in Manatee County, Florida.
His ex-wife, Stacy Strangis, said he was living with his retired cop father when they met at the gym in 2003. She fell for his Massachusetts tongue and melted over his wit; they got hitched in Las Vegas just three months later.
They had a son, who is now 11 years old and hasn't seen his dad beyond photographs, the former spouse told The Daily Beast in a phone call.
"He told me that he was a Navy SEAL [shot] in the line of action and he was at his dad's recuperating. That's the story I got," the 44-year-old surgical assistant said from her Palmetto home. "It was hard to believe, but then he had a Navy SEAL ring. Don't even ask me where he got that from—eBay maybe? I don't know."
The Daily Beast was unable to confirm whether Strangis ever served with the Navy SEALs.
Stacy Strangis described Anthony as the consummate confidence man—he'd disappear on countless gambling trips with his dad, John Strangis. The two of them would hightail it to Vegas until money ran out and they slept in their cars, she said. (The elder Strangis died in 2012.)
"Any story he told, his dad backed him up. His father actually said he was a Navy SEAL," said Strangis, who first told the New York Post about the alleged special-ops whopper.
Strangis kept stringing Stacy along with cockeyed plans of becoming a seaman or a lawyer, but bluffed at both. His impersonation arrest nixed his supposed Navy plans, plus, she said, "he was too fat."
"One time when we got into a fight… his dad literally called me and told me, 'The Navy came and dropped off orders at my house and Anthony's going to have to leave the country.'"
The ex-wife remembered the father and son's bond as extremely deranged. They would "threaten to kill each other with knives and swords and guns and then 20 minutes later, they would be at the table playing poker. They're whackjobs. You've never witnessed anything like this!"
She believes John Strangis brought his son up to become a hustler and was always tagging along "because his dad was lonely."
"I really cared about his dad as well," Stacy Strangis said. "He'd come over and they played cards with [my daughter]. Never poker—Uno and all that."
She added of the father-son duo, "When they were good, they were really, really good. But when they were bad, they were really, really bad."
Her account of the couple's whirlwind marriage offers a rare glimpse into Anthony's past. Anthony Strangis's mother didn't return repeated messages left by The Daily Beast, and neither Stacy Strangis nor Melngailis's camp could name any of Anthony's close friends.
Strangis's attorney, Samuel Karliner, said he hadn't spoken to Stacy and that her commentary "plays no part in this case."
"There is no love lost between the two of them," Karliner said. "I would take what either of them says about each other with a pound and a half of salt."
Still, Stacy Strangis says she quickly cottoned onto her hubby's deceit.
"I'd caught him in so many lies that I figured he wasn't a Navy Seal. But then you had his father telling you, 'Yes, he was.'" Strangis said. "Your mind would go trippy because you would never know what to believe."
She said Anthony never could hold a job. "He thinks he's too good to work a normal job," she said. "Rather than work for a company, he wants to own the company."
One night, when she dropped him off at a local distribution center where he claimed to work, she idled on the other side of the building. "Sure enough… it wasn't three minutes later, his dad swooped him up and they went to the casino," Strangis fumed.
"His dad was picking him up every night… then he would bring Anthony back right before I was supposed to pick him up for 'his shift,'" she added.
Stacy Strangis confronted her husband, then let it go. "The thing was I loved Anthony. I really really loved him, and my daughter loved him. At that point, we were married and together and I kept thinking I could fix him," she said.
During one four-week jaunt to Vegas, Anthony wouldn't return Stacy's calls and pretended to be missing. But Stacy had the password for John's cellphone and began checking his voicemails to make sure they were okay.
According to Stacy, Anthony was on probation at the time for grand larceny, for allegedly selling his father's Jaguar. (Records show he was never charged.) When he finally returned home, he allegedly told her that shadowy captors "were beating me and burning me." She replied, "But they were nice enough to call your probation officer for you every day?"
"His answer for that was, 'Yes, they did!'" Strangis said. "So they're torturing him, and beating him to death because he owes them all this money but they were nice enough to call his probation officer so he didn't get a warrant put out for his arrest."
Anthony also allegedly carried around his father's old police badge—a habit that led to his arrest for impersonating a police officer. Stacy Strangis claims cops were called one night in 2005 when they got into a fight. "It's okay, I'm a police officer," Stacy heard him tell the dispatched officer. (Charges were dropped weeks later, records show.)
Soon Anthony's disappearing acts increased until he departed her life forever. She remembers his last words, in 2006, when she reminded him that they were responsible for the snacks at her daughter's softball game.
"Don't be late. It's our turn to work the concession stand," she said. He replied, "I won't be late. I'll see you there."
"I've never heard from the man ever again," she said.
She couldn't even reach him to sign their divorce papers, reduced to having to publish notices in the local newspaper.
As Stacy Strangis reads the news about Anthony's most recent dustup, she wonders if Melngailis knew of the son he left behind. She says while he was touring the world and buying bling—he never paid child support or showed an interest in their boy. (The Daily Beast was unable to confirm this allegation.)
"Yes, Anthony can be Mr. Wonderful and sweep you off your feet, but there comes a point where your logical brain kicks in and it's like, 'Seriously,'" she added.
"I just can't find the right women," Strangis griped on Twitter, around the time he was apparently courting Melngailis in October 2011.
"Have Hilaria hook you up," replied one of his followers, Maggie, referring to Hilaria Baldwin. Days later, the woman repeated the suggestion: "Your friend, Hilaria, needs to hook you up! She must have lots of friends in the 28—35ish range."
Strangis spindled a new world for himself on Twitter as @Uknowuwant_it, which he used to disseminate stick-figure drawings.
Among his fans were actor Alec Baldwin and his yoga instructor wife, Hilaria, who also happened to meet at Melngailis's Pure Food and Wine. The couple repeatedly plugged @Uknowuwant_it in Twitter posts.
He was "Enrique" to the Baldwins.
In October 2011, Hilaria created the nickname for Strangis. She often lauded his doodles, which included Alec and herself as characters. "I created a name for you: Enrique. Since u r no longer Todd and Harry isnt ur real name… We go 4 the Spanish version, ok?" Hilaria tweeted.
Strangis sketched a passport that says "Alec Baldwin" and "certified-official NOT a Terrorist" in one post. Another drawing shows Hilaria on an "awesome Tibet mountain" with a Yeti, alongside a stick-figure of Strangis and leprechauns plummeting below.
"I drew this picture of you guys eating sushi … It took 45 minutes to draw … your [sic] welcome," Strangis tweeted, with an image of Alec and Hilaria sitting at a table with floating hearts.
The 30 Rock star routinely answered comical queries from Strangis too.
"I need a new suit.. any suit advice from my life coach?" Strangis tweeted. Baldwin replied, "No striped tie with striped shirt."
When Strangis joshed, "Cheney & Martha Stewart got a cook book coming out.. what's it called," Baldwin replied: "Yellow Cake Uranium Treats."
The Daily Beast contacted the Baldwins' publicist, but the couple did not return messages left for comment. It's unclear if the celebs knew Strangis outside of his online alter ego.
By 2012, Strangis was planning to relocate to New York. "I'm moving 2 the city in a few short months..best place 2 live?" he tweeted to Alec Baldwin in November 2011. The actor replied, "Up by Columbia."
A month later, followers wished him well, including one woman who tweeted, "Enjoy your time w Mrs. Fox."
Soon, Strangis was juicing and noshing his way like a pro with his squeeze Melngailis, according to the veggie maven's own Twitter posts. "Where is Mr Fox when you need some citrus zested?" she tweeted in December 2012.
Strangis was never introduced as her husband or under his real name, Pure employees said. He was simply "Shane" and an "old friend of Sarma," who sometimes helped out at the restaurant, one manager said.
While Melngailis's marriage was kept secret from friends and waitstaff, her social media indicates Strangis at least met her family.
"Going to dinner w my Mom n Mr Fox at @BurdickChocolat in Walpole, NH," she wrote days before Christmas in 2012.
In another post, Melngailis said, "My Mom and Mr Fox bonding via conversation by the fire. I'm eavesdropping. Making salad. Everyone's drinking. I'm going to stab myself."
Strangis also bonded with Melngailis's brother, Noah, who runs a One Lucky Duck juice bar in Texas. "My brother and Mr Fox talking, on and on, about the Ninja Turtles movies. Ho hum," she wrote in January 2013.
Under his newest username, @JohnSpartanXX, Strangis started calling his wife, "Weezy."
Melngailis's friends told The Daily Beast she was vulnerable, recovering from a breakup, when things started cooking with Strangis.
"She is the type of person to give her whole heart to someone, and completely consume her life with them to make them happy," said Joe Hardin, Melngailis's former assistant. "And I feel like people knew that about her. Some men would take advantage of that."
Hardin said he spoke to Melngailis in recent days. "From her perspective, she feels like she's walking out of a coma," he said, adding, "She said at some point, the full truth will come out."
Khakpour echoed this claim, saying male investors often breezed into Melngailis's life, "promising her the world."
"These investors were always a little bit in love with her and promised to help with the restaurant, but it really was about an interest in her," Khakpour said. "There's a whole misogyny aspect to the story people aren't looking at. How it's [currently] portrayed makes her look terrible."
In 2014, according to employees, Strangis, going by "Shane Fox," made more frequent appearances at Pure Food and Wine.
That's when the business went sideways, the indictment states.
Melngailis ran Pure in absentia, communicating only through email and text messages. Paychecks routinely bounced. Melngailis stiffed workers of their paychecks in April, May, July, August, and November 2014, the indictment says.
Her food dynasty seemed to come down like a dry sand castle once Strangis entered the picture, multiple former employees told The Daily Beast.
"Our paychecks never bounced prior to Anthony coming around," one former manager, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told The Daily Beast. (Several longtime Pure employees and managers confirmed this claim.)
"He was a super intimidating guy, but he was good to me, to be honest with you… He carried himself in this Goodfellas way," the employee added.
When workers weren't paid, Strangis played an offseason Santa and slipped cash into people's pockets, saying, "Hang in there. Everything's going to be OK," the manager said. Strangis allegedly assured him, "Your loyalty will be taken care of. You wait and see. When everything goes OK, we'll all be laughing from the yacht."
As paychecks kept bouncing, Strangis bought the worker an iPad and allegedly told him, "I know you trained everybody. [Melngailis] remembers that."
In July 2014, Connecticut cops cuffed Strangis on a warrant out of Florida after he won two jackpots worth $164,000 at Foxwoods.
At the time, Strangis was a wanted man in Sarasota County for violating probation on a grand larceny conviction and charged with being a fugitive from justice. He posted a $50,000 cash bond, The Day reported. (When asked about the charge, a Sarasota County sheriff's spokeswoman said she had no record of Strangis, indicating the record was likely expunged.)
Only a month later, Strangis was holding a meeting for Pure managers, telling them he'd buy the company from Melngailis "on paper," according to the Brooklyn indictment. His transfer of millions of dollars was causing payroll delays, Strangis claimed, and he promised to fix the problem.
Pure Food and Wine eventually shuttered in January 2015, after paychecks bounced and employees refused to work.
Melngailis rushed to find investment capital to relaunch the restaurant.
And in Bernie Madoff fashion, Melngailis used part of the $844,000 seed investment to pay back wages and other bills, prosecutors say. Then she rehired Pure stalwarts and reopened her shop in April 2015. She promised to never miss payroll again, court papers state.
In the meantime, she told one investor she was negotiating a sale of her entire company to "Michael Caledonia," who was actually Strangis posing as a wealthy businessman, the indictment says. Strangis, as the fictitious Caledonia, even met with a second investor to support the web of deceit, prosecutors say.
By June, Melngailis had transferred over $400,000 in company funds to another account in her name. She withdrew $100,000 of this money, then wired over $300,000 to Foxwoods casino in Connecticut on behalf of Strangis, court papers state.
Staff tried to keep Pure Food and Wine open, even operating as a "cash only" cooperative so revenues wouldn't go into Melngailis's account. They picketed and held streetside potlucks to save the healthy eatery. In July 2015, without access to accounts and unable to pay vendors, Pure shut down.
Melngailis had moved more than $1.6 million from her business accounts to one of her personal bank accounts, and from there to Strangis's account, prosecutors say.
Strangis spent nearly $1 million at Foxwoods, at least $200,000 at the Mohegan Sun in Connecticut, and over $80,000 at ritzy stores including Rolex. He also dropped $70,000 on hotels in Europe and New York, $10,000 on Uber car rides, and withdrew hundreds of thousands in cash, court papers charge.
His attorney, Samuel Karliner, said it's easy for Melngailis's allies to blame the husband, but "something more is going on here."
"She was the straw that stirred the drink," Karliner told The Daily Beast. "She had the access, she had the funds, she had the intelligence, and the business acumen.
"To hear him tell it," the barrister added, "they were in love, they traveled and she had the financial means to do that."
When police came knocking, Sarma Melngailis didn't try to run or even bother asking about her husband's fate. The beautiful foodie-turned-fugitive had only her beloved pit bull, Leon, on her mind. And she begged cops not to send him to the pound.
She sat on her Tennessee hotel bed and began to cry.
"The only thing she was concerned about was the dog," Sevierville detective Kevin Bush told The Daily Beast of Melngailis's high-profile arrest at the local Fairfield Inn. "We could tell how fond she was of [him]."
Moments before, cops had arrested Strangis after he ordered a Domino's pizza to the hotel. The couple had been laying low at the Sevierville pit stop—in a tourist area known for Dollywood and a casino on the North Carolina border—without visitors or room service. They stayed in separate rooms, Bush said.
"Our county population doubles on any given day," Bush said. "It's like a small Las Vegas. We have a lot of fugitives come through here and seasonal kids coming to work at Dollywood and theme parks."
Around 3 p.m. on May 10, Bush and his partner, detective Ray Brown, used a ruse to coax Strangis to the lobby and into handcuffs. Then they moved on to Room 316, where they assumed Melngailis was hiding. But when they knocked, a woman came out from next door.
"Ma'am, you need to go back inside," Brown told her, just as Bush realized it was Melngailis and shouted, "Whoa, that's her! Grab her!"
"She didn't try and run or anything," Bush told The Daily Beast, adding, "I think reality set in for her that she was gonna have to go back [to New York]."
Melngailis pleaded with the detectives to care for Leon, who was living in her room and adored by hotel staff, Bush said. "She asked specifically about the dog, and I promised her, I gave her my word that we'd take care of it. It stayed [here] for a few days, and Sarma's father came and got it," the detective added.
Once the pizza gourmand and his vegan celeb were caught, it was clear their sizzle was long gone.
"You could tell they were not fond of each other," Bush told The Daily Beast. "She volunteered that. We were going to let them hug and kiss goodbye, and she did not want to."
Back in Brooklyn, the couple was arraigned separately. At least a dozen former Pure staffers suing for unpaid wages showed up to Melngailis's May 19 court appearance.
They studied their former, outfoxed boss as officers led her out in handcuffs and tan prison garb. She wore dark-rimmed glasses, nervously bowed her head and pressed her fingers together as her attorney spoke.
While ex-waiters await their overdue payday, they're also watching the criminal case to piece together this tragic puzzle.
"If there's one thing I could ask her, it would be, 'Was it all worth it? What were you looking for that is worth ruining what you had?'" former juice-slinger Caetano Laprebendere told The Daily Beast. "Maybe it's a force beyond her."