Raw food restaurateur and fugitive Sarma Melngailis has finally been arrested — about a year after disappearing in the midst of unpaid wage lawsuits at her hot spot restaurant Pure Food and Wine. Police arrested Melngailis in a hotel in Sevierville, Tenn. with a man named Anthony Strangis, according to local paper Sevier News Messenger. She was wanted for a scheme to defraud, grand larceny, criminal tax fraud, and violation of labor law. Melnagailis — well-known for her role in the raw food movement — may no longer be a practicing vegan. Detectives found her and Strangis on Tuesday after they ordered a pizza from a local Domino’s, according to TV station WBIR.
Pure Food and Wine opened in 2004 in Gramercy and was one of the city’s first raw food restaurants. But at the beginning of 2015, staff said they weren’t getting paid, all while Melngailis could not be reached. The staff staged multiple walk-outs and protests, eventually unionizing and suing her for back wages. One of the restaurant’s investors also filed a lawsuit against Melngailis, claiming that she took $280,000 from the restaurant’s account. Employees initially planned to reopen the restaurant without her, but they ultimately moved on. The restaurant, once a favorite of celebrities like Alec Baldwin, closed last July. Melngailis and Strangis are being held in Sevier County Jail.
Update: Melngailis and her husband, Strangis, face up to 15 years in prison if found guilty of their crimes, according to the Brooklyn District Attorney’s office. They’re charged with stealing nearly $800,000 from four different investors, not paying employees more than $40,000, and avoiding more than $400,000 in sales tax. The couple instead spent nearly $2 million of company money on luxury watches, hotel rooms, and at casinos.
Melngailis in particular transferred more than $1.6 million from the restaurant into her personal accounts and spent more than $1 million of it at casinos in Connecticut. She spent another $80,000 at places like Rolex and $10,000 on Uber rides, according to the Brooklyn Eagle. Meanwhile, she told employees and investors that she was expanding and then negotiating to sell the company to an investor.
The four investors she approached last February for cash to restart the business were former customers of Pure Food and Wine, according to the DA. She did spend some of the money bills and paying employees, but most of it went to her personal account and to casinos. A man who said he was an investor said on Facebook: “I visited her restaurant every year and was happy to help her business, which I loved. It was a sad and shocking betrayal. She hurt a LOT of people.”