Sex. Celebrity. Politics. With Teeth
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Sex. Celebrity. Politics. With Teeth

'Bad Vegan,' 'The Tinder Swindler' Are Stories of Fraud. They're Also Stories of Partner Abuse.

Research has shown that romance scams can bear some of the hallmarks of domestic violence.

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Sarma Melngailis/Simon Leviev
Sarma Melngailis/Simon Leviev
Screenshot: Netflix

If you’ve spent time on social media recently, you’ve seen Simon Leviev’s face. After The Tinder Swindler premiered on Netflix in February, the story of his alleged misdeeds, which include conning women he met on dating apps out of hundreds of thousands of dollars, took the internet by storm. Immediately, he spawned memes and inspired countless “my enemies are after me” jokes.

On Wednesday, Bad Vegan, another financial crime documentary, debuts on the same streaming platform. A four episode mini-series, Bad Vegan tells a story that’s just as engrossing as Leviev’s, and frankly, just as meme-able: In 2016, celebrated raw vegan restaurateur Sarma Melngailis was arrested alongside her husband, Anthony Strangis, and charged with stealing from investors in her business and from her employees, who were forced to work without pay. Melngailis claims she participated in the fraud after Strangis, manipulated her into believing that, if she went along with his schemes, she and her dog would become immortal. Yes, you read that right.

Amid increasing awareness of the ways in which true crime documentaries can be exploitative and promote inaccurate perceptions of violence and criminality, comparatively light real-life tales of chicanery like Bad Vegan and The Tinder Swindler now dominate the documentary streaming world. From the dueling Fyre Festival documentaries to LuLaRich, these stories are far less bloody and grim than earlier true crime mega-hits like The Jinx or The Staircase, and without the life-or-death stakes, often feel less morally complicated. But, free of physical violence though they might be, Bad Vegan and Tinder Swindler still tell troubling stories. They are all tales of financial misdeeds—but also potentially tales of intimate partner abuse.

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“There is evidence to suggest that romance fraud offenders use the same types of techniques that are well established in domestic violence research,” criminologist Cassandra Cross wrote Jezebel in an email. “Romance fraud is all about the use of coercion and control, and the ability of offenders to use their power to get victims to things they wouldn’t ordinarily do.”

For Melngailis and Strangis, each part of the story is more jaw-dropping than the next. The couple’s notoriety hit an apex when they were arrested 2016 on charges that they’d siphoned funds from her business, Pure Food & Wine (a wildly popular Manhattan vegan restaurant that has since shut down), scamming investors and leaving employees in the lurch. Melngailis was a seemingly normal business owner before the pair met on Twitter, where Strangis was a reply guy to actor Alec Baldwin, one of Melngailis’ famous friends. (She says that she’d rejected advances from the actor, who, in some sort of multi-layered scandal-inception, first approached his future wife, Hilaria, at one of Melngailis’s eateries.) Bad Vegan reveals that Strangis allegedly led Melngailis to believe that he was a fabulously wealthy secret agent working on international military operations, obtained access to her email accounts so that he could spy on her and send emails pretending to be her, and promised that, if she completed the series of trials that he was putting her through, she and her beloved pit bull would earn eternal life. Over the course of their relationship, Melngailis and her mother transferred more than a million dollars to Strangis, who used much of the money to fund his gambling addiction.

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It’s hard to see Melngailis as a sympathetic figure. She personally courted investor funding that she seemingly had no intention of putting into the restaurant, committed large-scale wage theft, and fired those who raised objections to the deteriorating work conditions or Strangis’ suspicious-seeming involvement. She pled guilty to charges of fraud, grand larceny, and tax fraud, and was sentenced to four months in jail. (Strangis also took a plea deal, and was sentenced to a year in jail.) In the interviews Melngailis gave for Bad Vegan, she seems unable to fully explain her actions, or express remorse.

Still, the tactics that Strangis is accused of having deployed, much like Leviev’s alleged M.O.— which involved lying, gaslighting, manipulation, and creating fictional and frightening crisis scenarios—are among the hallmarks of domestic abuse scenarios. In 2018, Cross and other Queensland University of Technology researchers co-authored a paper for the British Journal of Criminology examining the parallels between domestic violence and romance fraud, via interviews with victims of online schemes in which con artists and their targets never meet face-to-face. They reported that the scammers had devised ways to isolate them from support networks, monopolized their time, caused them to become unsure of their perception of reality, and made them fear physical violence.

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“Financial abuse is one of the places where, on the one hand, it’s easier to quantify the effects of abuse because you have a financial loss that you can count,” said Molly Dragiewicz, a domestic violence researcher and another co-author. Whereas the emotional aspects of that abuse, the feeling of betrayal or being manipulated or questioning reality, that stuff is a lot more difficult to quantify and count. So it’s sort of a double edged sword.”

Neither The Tinder Swindler nor Bad Vegan feature scenarios exactly like the ones Cross and Dragiewicz studied, as though the relationships began online, the scammers and their targets eventually met in real life, and in some cases, spent years together, which likely means that the potential for emotional abuse was even higher. Cecilie Fjellhøy, one of Leviev’s exes, entered a psychiatric facility after considering suicide when she learned that he’d left her more than $200,000 in debt.

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“Looking at romance fraud through the lens of psychological maltreatment in intimate relationships demonstrates that there is considerable overlap in the types of psychological maltreatment in both crimes, despite the differences in the presence of a physical relationship,” the British Journal of Criminology article concludes. “It is therefore likely that victims of both psychological maltreatment and romance fraud share similar harms as a result of their victimization.”

Viewed through the lens of domestic abuse, not only do these stories become more sinister, but they’re easier to understand. After decades of public efforts to correct myths about intimate partner abuse, it takes a particularly callous person to ask why victims of domestic violence didn’t leave, or to claim that stronger, savvier people might have been able to avoid abuse. Yet, as reactions to the Tinder Swindler story showed, plenty of people were willing to dismiss Leviev’s victims as gold diggers or dupes.

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Considering the domestic abuse at play in these stories might make it easier to find empathy with the women at the center of the story—and to understand how anyone could end up at risk.“No victim wakes up in the morning thinking,’ I am going to give away all my money today,’” Cross wrote in an article for The Conversation. Instead, it’s the result of a painstaking grooming process.”