“Vegan Bernie Madoff”: Does she have a valid defense for coercive control?

By: Rebecca Jarboe

Psychological abuse is a form of domestic violence that does not appear in the form of bruises or scratches.  It can come in many forms such as humiliation, controlling, demeaning the victim in public or in private, denying the victim access to money or other resources, undermining the victim’s self-worth, deliberately doing something to make the victim feel diminished, convincing the victim they are crazy, or isolating the victim from friends or family.[1]  Since this form of domestic violence is not visible on the surface, it can be exponentially harder to prove in the court of law. But what if the victim has committed a crime after allegedly suffering years of abuse from their partner?  At what point can psychological abuse account for the victim’s crimes?

For nearly twelve years, Sarma MeIngailis was the co-owner of the wildly successful Pure Food and Wine Restaurant in New York City.[2]  Now, she is awaiting trial and has been nick-named the “Vegan Bernie Madoff.”[3]  Over the course of a year, MeIngailis embezzled $2 million dollars from her restaurant and stopped paying her employees, causing them to stage a walk out.[4]  However, she was not alone in this and certainly should not be considered to be the sole person responsible. Her ex-husband, Anthony Strangis, played a dramatic role in her downfall.[5]

Although her case has become sensationalized in the media, the events leading up to it should not be minimized. Through the various articles published about her, there have been murmurs of various types of psychological abuse she endured from her ex-husband leading up to her arrest.[6]  However, these issues are what should be taking front and center. There have been claims that her ex-husband used cult-like techniques to control her such as gaslighting, a form of psychological abuse in which a victim is manipulated into doubting their own memory or sanity, sleep deprivation, and sexual humiliation.[7] He had access to her e-mail, cell-phone, and bank accounts.[8] He told her that her memory couldn’t be trusted because of the Ambien she took to sleep at night.[9] Whenever she questioned his plans regarding her business he would degrade her and ask her questions like if she had properly taken her anti-depressants.[10] She was given “tests” that she was brainwashed to believe she needed to pass.[11] One of these tests allegedly included giving her ex-husband oral sex while she was blindfolded.[12] All of these alleged actions point to psychological abuse.

Now the question is, how does she prove that the actions of her ex-husband are what slowly broke her down, turned her into someone she wasn’t, and contributed to these crimes? To account for this, MeIngailis’ attorneys are considering a “coercive control defense.”[13]  This is a way to place the blame for her actions solely on her ex-husband. Coercive control is broadly defined as a pattern of assault, sexual coercion, threats, humiliation, and intimidation that is used to punish the victim.[14]  Despite the fact that there is no specific coercive control defense in the United States, there is one in the United Kingdom that criminalizes “coercive and controlling behavior in an intimate or family relationship.”[15]

Another defense that could possibly come into play is the affirmative defense of duress. Under the New York affirmative defense of duress, the defendant has the burden of proving the affirmative defense by a preponderance of the evidence.[16]  Although the defense usually only works for physical force upon the person under duress, courts may consider whether the person was predisposed to criminal conduct.[17] The statute explicitly states that the individual must have been coerced to commit the crime by use or threatened imminent use of unlawful physical force upon them or a third person, which they reasonably believed would have been unable to resist.[18]  In the case of MeIngailis, the abuse described is not only psychological but can also be included in the realm of physical abuse, such as sexual humiliation and sleep deprivation.

If there is any case where the coercive control defense should be brought, it is this one. However, despite the compelling defenses that MeIngailis could possibly bring, there is a possibility that she may instead be settling her case.[19] Unfortunately, this means that the psychological abuse elements may never come to light. Although the employees of her company deserve to be paid back what they are owed, it should not be at the expense of her own psychological well-being, and one can only hope that if the case does settle, she can re-start from a clean slate – now free from the last remaining tie she had with her ex-husband.


[1] CDC, Intimate Partner Violence Definitions, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, http://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/intimatepartnerviolence/definitions.html. (last visited Dec. 1, 2016).

[2] Georgett Roberts and Dana Schuster, The Downfall of NYC’s Hottest Vegan, nypost.com (May 22, 2016) http://nypost.com/2016/05/22/the-crazy-crash-of-nycs-hottest-vegan/

[3] Id.

[4] Nell Casey, Pure Food and Wine Employees Walk Out Over Unpaid Wages, gothamist.com (Jan. 13, 2015) http://gothamist.com/2015/01/13/pure_food_and_wine_walkout.php

[5] Allen Salkin, How Sarma MeIngailis, Queen of Vegan Cuisine, Became a Runaway Fugitive, Vanity Fair (Dec. 2016) http://www.vanityfair.com/style/2016/11/how-sarma-melngailis-became-a-runaway-fugitive

[6] Id.

[7] Id.

[8] Id.

[9] Id.

[10] Id.

[11] Id.

[12] Id.

[13] Id.

[14] Coercive Control Now a Crime in the UK, Global Rights for Women, http://globalrightsforwomen.org/2015/02/06/targeting-domestic-abuse-in-the-united-kingdom/ (last visited Dec. 1, 2016).

[15] Id.

[16] N.Y. Penal Law § 40.00 (McKinney 2016)

[17] Id.

[18] Id.

[19] Emily Saul, ‘Vegan Bernie Madoff’ May Get Plea Deal in $844k Fraud Case’, nypost.com (November 17, 2016) http://nypost.com/2016/11/17/vegan-bernie-madoff-may-get-plea-deal/