NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) — The owners of a popular Manhattan vegan restaurant have been arrested, on accusations that they ripped off their workers and investors – taking them for nearly $1 million.
As CBS2’s Ilana Gold reported, police said junk food led them to the fugitives hundreds of miles away.
Sarma Melngailas had her day getting arraigned at Brooklyn Supreme Court, where she faced many of the former employees she is accused of failing to pay.
“Seeing her brought a lot of emotion,” said former employee Kevin Woods.
Melngailas and her husband, Anthony Strangis, are now charged with dozens of counts – including grand larceny. The charges stemmed from problems at the famed upscale vegan restaurant Pure Food and Wine on Irving Place in Gramercy Park that has been shut down since July of last year.
They also own the One Lucky Duck juice bar around the corner, which is also closed.
Police said the husband and wife cheated 84 workers out of $40,000. Each lost roughly $3,500 in pay starting in 2014.
“That’s rent, all my bills paid, and food,” said former employee J.P. Ross.
“Initially the checks started to bounce and we were suspicious,” Woods said. “We were told lies about switching banks and routing errors.”
Investigators told CBS2 Melngailas, the primary owner, stole more than $840,000 from investors. She asked for the money to keep the restaurants running and pay the workers.
But police said instead, she transferred those funds into her personal bank account.
Melngailas and Strangis allegedly spent $2 million at Foxwoods Casino, Mohegan Sun, and luxury travel around the world.
And according to prosecutors, she also owes $400,000 in taxes. But her attorney said she denies the allegations.
Police said the two have been on the run with warrants out for their arrest. They told CBS2 in the last week, they traced one of their credit cards to a Domino’s in Tennessee, where the couple that supposedly preached a healthy vegan lifestyle to customers – including celebrities – ordered a pizza for delivery.
Authorities took the two into custody at a nearby hotel.
“It’s hilarious to most of the employees,” said former employee Caetano laprenbendere.
Melngailas’ bond was set at $350,000. Her husband is awaiting arraignment.
Both suspects face a maximum of 15 years behind bars if convicted. They will face a judge again in August.
Meanwhile, the workers who did not get paid are filing a civil suit against the owner.