United States / Drugs

How Red Bees Took Down the Cherry King of Red Hook

The funeral for Arthur Mondella, the Cherry King of Brooklyn, was held on the last day of February at the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary – St. Stephen Roman Catholic Church on Summit Street. A wake followed at Raccuglia & Son Funeral Home in Cobble Hill. Mondella’s three daughters – Dana, Dominique, and Antoinette – sobbed and hugged one another as their father’s dark wood casket arrived for his funeral and Frank Sinatra’s “My Way,” the anthem of Italian South Brooklyn, played in the background. As the funeral music demonstrated, Arthur Mondella did things his own way — for better or worse.

Fifty-seven year-old Arthur Mondella owned Dell’s Maraschino Cherries, one of the largest maraschino cherry processors in the United States. His grandfather, Arthur Mondella Sr., and father, Ralph Mondella, founded the business in 1948 in a small 1,500 square foot Brooklyn storefront. Today, the factory – located in an immense warehouse in Red Hook, churns out 400,000 pounds of cherries per week. Chances are if you’ve ever enjoyed a fresh, cold root beer float at Red Lobster, Buffalo Wild Wings, TGI Fridays, Chick-fil-A, or Caesar’s, you’ve encountered a Dell’s cherry. Its website proudly proclaims: “Inspired by 67 years of family ownership, Dell’s Maraschino Cherries is still guided by the same family values, traditions and their passion for cherries.”

Despite the once impeccable reputation of Arthur Mondella, Dell’s has not escaped the scandals that generally befall businesses whose owners have known ties to the Brooklyn Mafia. For Mondella, the scandal begins with some red bees and ends with him locking himself in a bathroom and putting a gun to his head.

This story spans a period of six years and cannot be told by starting at the end. Back in 2010 some urban beekeepers, typical Brooklyn hipsters, grew concerned when their bees started returning to the hive with red gunk showing through their translucent stomachs. The bees also began producing something closer to cough syrup than honey, and which had a strong metallic taste. The beekeepers jested that the bees must be feasting on the waste at the maraschino cherry factory. But then an apiculturist (a beekeeper, to the uninitiated) found Red Dye #40 in the gunk being produced by the bees. As luck would have it, #40 is the same dye that gives maraschino cherries their delightful hue. Arthur Mondella was wonderfully accommodating during the subsequent investigation and attempts to find a solution. Little did he know that the police had decided to take this opportunity to further an investigation of a different nature.

In a truly appalling display of the efficiency that is the Brooklyn DA’s Office, Mondella’s suicide was actually the culmination of an ongoing six-year investigation by the DA’s office into his second life as the owner of the largest marijuana farm in New York City. In 2009, a Brooklyn postal inspector made the first tip that Mondella was selling pot. He alleged that there was a secret entrance to the farm via the factory’s garage, in which Mondella kept his luxury toys: a Mercedes, a Porsche, a third unidentified vehicle (the inspector was unclear on whether it was a Rolls Royce or a Bentley), and a Harley-Davidson motorcycle. In what may have been an underhanded attempt to prove his innocence, all three vehicles were snow white. They may also have been merely a reflection of his favorite color. Lacking all the necessary details, however, the police failed to obtain a search warrant to examine the garage.

Luckily, the drama with the bees gave police the opportunity they needed to continue investigating Mondella. For six weeks they followed him, staking out the factory and tailing Mondella 24/7 as if they were the lead investigators in a particularly eventful NCIS episode. They started out simple, parking discreetly outside the warehouse and watching as he drove around the block five or six times at the end of the day before returning to his relatively modest house on Staten Island. They also watched him score cocaine from various friends in Red Hook. Following this discovery, they sent in a drug-sniffing dog, which detected drugs inside the factory. This was not enough to obtain a search warrant, however. Police wanted to test the factory’s exhaust, but could not obtain a warrant for that either. Branching out over the next few weeks, they consulted the fire department and discovered that Mondella had permits for two large generators. In an attempt to cover all their bases, they also checked the factory’s official building plan, finding to their dismay that the factory did not have a basement. In a final desperate effort, police flew a helicopter with a thermal-imaging camera over the warehouse to see if they could find the big glow that usually emanates from a grow house. They found nothing.

And so they retreated, not entirely convinced of Mondella’s innocence, but lacking the evidence to do anything about the situation. In 2012 there were two complaints from Mondella’s neighbors about the generators, but again the police failed to get the necessary warrant to act. In 2013 a former factory worker accused Mondella of polluting local waters, with no results. Finally in 2014 new DA Ken Thompson, in an attempt to clean house, reopened the investigation one last time.

Having obtained a warrant on the previous grounds that Mondella’s factory was dumping hazardous waste, police went back into the warehouse, heading straight for the aforementioned garage from the first tip. Once there, one of the investigators noticed suspicious shelving on wheels. He yanked on the shelves but they did not roll. He then noticed that the wheels were held in place by magnets in the way of “traps,” the secret compartments used in cars to hide guns and drugs. So the investigator pulled harder on the shelves, which suddenly swung away to reveal a door and the overwhelming scent of pot. Opening the door, investigators found a stairway leading down into a secret basement that the building’s official plans said did not exist. At that moment Mondella excused himself, saying he had to go to the bathroom.

After six long years, the investigators finally had enough to secure a search warrant. And, once they did, they ventured tentatively down the steps. What they found at the bottom was far beyond what anyone had expected: a 2,500-square-foot underground marijuana farm, the largest ever discovered in NYC. Investigators estimated that the farm had the capacity to produce 1,200 pot plants reaching five feet tall. There were 120 grow lamps (shielded from thermal imaging by the floor above), seeds of 60 different marijuana strains, and an irrigation system, all of it seemingly more than any one person could install. Police were shocked that Mondella had managed to operate the entire operation one his own, without any of his employees discovering his surreptitious business. The search also produced a secret office containing $125,000 in cash and bookshelves stacked with 50 volumes on horticulture and a copy of the World Encyclopedia of Organized Crime. Mondella apparently had just completed a harvest. Investigators found only three large bags with a total of 100 pounds of marijuana.

So how did Mondella manage to keep secret for so long NYC’s largest-ever marijuana farm, one from which he was apparently raking in more than $10 million a year, at $6,500 per pound? While investigators suspect that Mondella has ties to the Mafia, it appears that he ran the marijuana business on his own. Investigators believe that neither his family nor his employees knew anything about his double life. The two biggest tipoffs of grow houses are an electrical bill spike and the smell. Mondella used the pair of huge generators to avoid the first problem and the cherries themselves to mask the second.

The greatest mystery of all, however, comes in the form of Mondella’s reaction to the entire situation. For five hours Mondella cooperated fully with the police inspection of his factory. When police found the suspicious shelving, Mondella politely excused himself to use the bathroom. At which point he quickly locked the door, shouted at his sister: “take care of my kids,” and then proceeded to shoot himself in the head with a .357 Magnum handgun that had been strapped to his ankle the entire time.

In the shocking days that followed, some likened Mondella to Brooklyn’s own Walter White. However, this comparison fails to explain Mondella’s response to the police’s discovery. As it currently stands, the very district attorney whose investigators made the bust has a very lenient policy towards prosecuting people caught with marijuana. Mondella was like a guy caught with an illegal still just as Prohibition was about to end. And that just deepened the persisting mystery of why he had gone into the bathroom and shot himself, just after his mother had left the factory, while his sister was still there. Some pointed to his paranoia and cumulative stress from years of living a double life as reasons for his drastic actions. Others claim he may have just freaked. It is tempting then to think that were it not for the instantly accessible gun in an ankle holster, the moment of panic and perhaps shame might have just passed. When asked for his opinion, Mondella’s family attorney Michael Farkas gave a very Brooklyn answer: “I wouldn’t tell you.”

At Mondella’s funeral, family and friends spoke about the positive impact Mondella had on the Red Hook community: his generosity during Hurricane Sandy, his philanthropic hiring of parolees from a nearby housing project. Mondella’s daughter, Dana Mondella-Bentz, delivered a eulogy in which she said her father was not defined by his mistakes. “I am, and will always be, so proud to call Arthur Mondella my dad,” she said. In the meantime, prosecutors and cops sift through the 100 boxes of evidence pertaining to the investigation, while the factory continues to deliver its cherries to customers across the nation. Less clear is what will happen to Mondella’s other set of customers.