Friday, February 27, 2015

Pot farmer in the Dell?

"Take care of my kids," Arthur Mondella, 57, screamed to his sister after locking himself in the bathroom.

Joanne Capece stood outside and could do nothing to help her brother when he shot himself to death on Feb 24 2015.   Dell's Maraschino Cherries opened in 1948 in a warehouse almost a block long in Brooklyn NY.  The family run business, started by Arthur's grandfather on Dikeman Street has been producing maraschino cherries there for decades.  They process 400,000 pounds of cherries a week that have been purchased from growers world-wide.  The cherries arrive packed in a brine made of sulfur dioxide and calcium chloride which bleaches the cherries to a pale yellow color.

The cherries are then repeatedly washed and afterwards are soaked in a mixture of sugar, citric acid and red dye.  It takes about a week for a fresh vat of cherries to complete the process and be ready for packaging.  In 2008, in response to stagnant business, Dell's began investing about $5 million dollars in upgrades which included updating the 35,000 square foot warehouse, new automated machinery, a website and rebranding the product packaging.

In 2010, Dell's ran afoul of local bee keepers when they discovered that their bees and honey were a bright red color.  The honey was analyzed and found to contain high concentrations of red dye # 40 which was then traced to the Dell's factory.  Evidently the bees had begun traveling far from home for the very sweet mixture used to create Dell's product.

Mondella had to work with scientists and beekeepers in order to find a solution for keeping the bees away from the corn syrup.  The red honey is not harmful for consumption but it's color does not help to sell it.  It also does nothing to enhance the flavor of it, instead, it leaves an odd taste on the tongue when eaten.  Dell's is not the only case of colored honey either.  in france the same year, beekeepers found that they had blue and green honey in some of their hives which was traced back to the bees getting into the sugary waste M&Ms that were being disposed at in a biogas plant.

A team of eight district attorneys and seventeen environmental officials began their raid of Dell's at 8 am on Feb 24 2015 in search of environmental violations.  It was part of a larger investigation of the business since officials had been tipped off in 2013 that it was a front for a large drug business.  The Department of Environmental Conservation investigators were leading the raid and had asked Mondella if he had any guns on the premises and he opened a safe to show them that he had a gun there.  He did not tell them at that time that he had a .357 strapped to his ankle.  A source did state later that Mondella was licensed to carry a gun and often carried the .357 on his ankle.

The investigators were looking for documents relating to alleged pollution of the waters near the cherry plant and had been questioning him for about 5 hours when they discovered the flimsy shelving unit.  They asked Mondella about the partition and shelves that looked as though they were held up by magnets at about 1 pm.  Modella excused himself then and shut himself in the bathroom that was attached to his office.  He was heard yelling to his sister then, right before he shot himself in the head.

Police later received a search warrant for the secret entrance and they found the source of the faint marijuana smell they had found upstairs in the plant.  In the space below the plant they found several high-end cars including a Porsche and Rolls Royce as well as a Harley davidson motorcycle.  A crawl space led to a 2,500 square foot divided grow space that had the capacity to grow 1,200 plants at a time.  In an office area there were over 50 books pertaining to botanics as well as seeds for about 60 varieties of marijuana.

They also found about $125,000 in cash as well as three large bags of marijuana weighing close to 100 pounds.  The police stated they they believe that they had just missed the harvest of the last crop but with 120 grow lights and the additional materials found there, they feel that it has been in operation for some time.  The NYPD Narcotics Division will now have to sift through 100 boxes of evidence to try and sort out what environmental violations related to illegal dumping of waste as well as an illegal drug trade that may have gone on at the plant.  Dell's which supplies cherries to such big name clients as Red lobster, Buffalo Wild Wings, Caesars Entertainment and Chick-fil-A is cooperating fully with the investigation and has resumed manufacturing as of Feb 26th.

There is speculation that he took his own life either because he felt that he was going to lose a lot of other people's money, saw he double life unraveling or that there may be ties to the mob with the grow plant in the basement.  The police had stated that they had not begun the raid looking for drugs and they added that the sweet smell from production upstairs combined with the large amount of electricity used by the packaging plant daily helped to mask the two easiest ways to find a large marijuana grow.  It will certainly take months to sort out what exactly had been going on in the basement of Dell's cherry plant and for how long.

clockwise: Arthur, wife Elaine & daughters Dominque and Dana

Joanne Capece

Update Feb 28 2015:

It has been reported that officials had suspected Mondella of operating a marijuana operation at the cherry factory as far back as 2009 after a postal inspector's tip.  He had been able to smell a strong odor of marijuana at the property and reported it.  The tip was deemed to be very legitimate and was passed on but they were unable to get a search warrant at that time.  The police did use a drug dog to search the exterior of the plant in 2010 and even though the dog did get hits for the drug, they were again unable to get a search warrant.  The police also wanted to test the emissions from the exhaust for the presence of drugs but that also would have required a search warrant.

City officials did try to investigate a pair of complaints stemming from two huge generators that were hidden in an area of the plant that was inaccessible to the employees.  Mondella evidently used these to help power the marijuana grow in the basement and they also kept the electric bill from spiking and tipping off police.  It was in the following year that an ex employee complained to prosecutors that the plant was dumping syrup and other waste into the water near the warehouse.  Evidently that was what the police could use to begin to build a case for the search warrants that led to the raid of the factory.

With a new District Attorney in 2013, there was a push to clear cold cases and that led to the investigation of Dell's again.  There have been reports that Mondella may have had mob connections but sources have stated that the grow operation was run by Mondella alone.  The operation was described as being very well installed and probably had been wired and plumbed by individuals who knew what they were doing.  The plant was also described as having a very good security system as well as having the grow location very well hidden from even the regular employees.


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