How Bees Revealed a Pot Farm Beneath the Maraschino Cherries
Were it not for the red bees of Red Hook, Arthur Mondella might still be Brooklyn’s own Cherry King and New York City’s No. 1 pot grower.
He might still be running his family’s maraschino-cherry factory while secretly operating New York City’s biggest-ever marijuana farm in the basement.
The bees changed everything, because the explanation for what so mysteriously turned them red indirectly gave investigators a pretext to twice search the factory after they were unable to obtain a search warrant.
The second search was last week and led to the confirmation of what a tipster had told investigators six years before. Mondella’s double life ended with the 57-year-old father of three daughters committing suicide in a factory bathroom after shouting, “Take care of my kids!” through the locked door.
Back in 2010, Mondella likely did not imagine that it would eventually lead to his undoing when urban beekeepers in the area surrounding Dell’s Maraschino Cherries factory in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn began noticing that their bees were producing bright red gunk instead of honey.
The bees themselves were not actually red, but they assumed that hue when their translucent honey stomachs carried red stuff whose source was initially a mystery.
The hue immediately brought maraschino cherries to mind, but some of the affected hives were halfway across the harbor on Governor’s Island.
“Everybody was joking about the cherry factory,” recalls Cerise Mayo, the keeper of the Governor’s Island hives as well as others in Red Hook. “All of us were, ‘No, it can’t be.’”
Mayo figured at the time, “There’s no way they’re going to cross the water to the cherry factory.’”
An apiculturalist then analyzed the red gunk and found Red Dye # 40. Both bees and spilled syrup—high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) and red dye #40—were seen outside the factory.
At the same time, Mondella was growing concerned about bees invading his factory. He contacted John Bozek at the nonprofitBusiness Outreach Center Network. Bozek emailed the New York City Beekeepers Association (NYCBA), seeing help.
“We need somebody to act as a ‘bee consultant’ in a difficult case in Brooklyn,” Bozek wrote. “One of our clients, a factory that has been in business for 50 years and employs 30 people in the community, has had a serious problem with a neighboring apiary. Could you give me a call?”
NYCBA founder Andrew Cote has a true beekeeper’s appreciation for workers and busy-ness. He called Bozek and subsequently communicated with Mondella, both by phone and via dozens of emails. Cote later gave The Daily Beast an analysis of the case via email:
“The factory feared that the large numbers of bees would one day somehow get into the factory and into jars of cherries (theretofore it did not happen). They also did not want any sort of negative PR, a la, ‘cherry factory poisons bees’ (which thankfully did not happen).”
Cote went on, “Beekeepers (particularly the hipster versions) in Brooklyn sometimes (often?) lead a myopic sort of existence wherein only their world view, or their set of needs, is valid or important.”
He continued, “The factory employed hundreds if not thousands of Brooklynites over half a century—and wished to ensure the longevity of their good name and product (such as it was). The beekeepers were annoyed that their bees were drinking run off from a food factory. Everyone had a valid beef.”
At Mondella’s invitation, Cote made repeated visits to the cherry company that had started as a storefront run by Modella’s father, Ralph Mondella, and uncle, Arthur Mondella. Cote met with the younger Arthur Mondella there three times for a total of around four hours.
“Arthur allowed us unrestricted and unaccompanied access to all areas of the property that we wished, and an OK to document with photographs, which we did,” Cote recalls.
NYCBA’s goal was simple.
“We were trying to understand the process by which the honeybees were gaining access to the HFCS mixed with red dye #40,” Cote says.
An attorney named Vivian Wang, keeper of the bees (nicknamed ‘the Chelsea girls”) atop the officers of the Natural Resources Defense Council in Manhattan, went with Cote to one of the meetings with Mondella.
“An amicable, straightforward guy who was totally open to talking about a solution,” she recalls of the factory owner.
She remembers that Mondella suggested that he could also put out other colors of syrup.
“You could have rainbow-hued honey,” Wang says. “He was trying really hard to work with us.”
The rainbow honey was certainly an original, good idea, but the stuff the bees made with the dyed syrup was not really honey at all and tasted terrible.
Eventually, it was determined that the bees were feeding off syrup as vats of cherries were moved briefly along a sidewalk in transit from one section of the factory to another. The solution was no more difficult than finding an appropriate way to seal the containers.
The problem was a problem no more. Mondella had seemed just the kind of guy you would want to run a human hive.
“Arthur was, to me, an honest, somewhat stereotypical Brooklyn-ite (in the best sense) and a gentleman who cared about this family’s business, the neighborhood, and the welfare of his many local workers,” Cote recalls in an email to The Daily Beast. ”He was polite, accommodating, and pleasant. He clearly cared that the issue that brought me there at his request—the ‘red honey’ be solved to the satisfaction of all.”
In the days leading up to the resolution, The New York Times had run an article headlined “The Mystery of the Red Bees of Red Hook” that suggested the bees were feeding on runoff from the cherry factory.
And in this, investigators at the Brooklyn District Attorney’s discerned a legitimate way to further a stalled investigation.
Back in 2009, an informant had told a U.S. postal inspector about a huge marijuana farm in the basement of the cherry factory. The postal inspector alerted the detective investigators at the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office.
The information was second-hand. The informant had never actually seen the farm. The tip nonetheless rang true enough to pursue.
The investigators staked out the factory building, but there were so many trucks coming and going that it was impossible to discern any suspicious patterns. They noted that the building was outfitted with cameras and motion detectors, as well as razor wire on the roof.
The informant had said that the entrance to the underground farm was behind a set of shelves in a garage where Mondella kept several luxury cars.
Mondella usually drove a Mercedes and sometimes took out a Porsche when the weather was nice. He never seemed to drive what some say was a Rolls-Royce, others say was a Bentley. He also had a Harley-Davidson motorcycle. All the vehicles were snow-white.
The investigators noted that when Mondella left for the day, he did not behave like your typical factory owner.
“He’d drive around the block, drive around the block six times looking for surveillance,” an investigator recalls.
The investigators followed him to his relatively modest house on Staten Island and saw that it too was outfitted with anti-intruder devices.
Over the six weeks of surveillance, the investors never saw Mondella with an organized-crime member, though it seemed that he occasionally scored some cocaine for himself at the nearby Red Hook Houses.
In looking for telltale signs of pot cultivation, the investigators found the factory had high water usage, though that could have been explained by the demands of producing a billion cherries a year.
The investigators also would have expected high electricity use, but the records showed none at all. They then learned from the fire department that Mondella employed two massive generators, perhaps as a way of masking actual electricity use.
But the fire department also concluded from its inspections what the investigators themselves saw when they pulled the structure’s plans at the city Buildings Department.
“No basement,” the investigator says,
And, when the investigators helicoptered over the factory with a thermal-imaging camera, they failed to see the big glow that usually emanates from a grow house.
The investigators might have had cause to doubt the informant had they not taken a late-night stroll past the factory with a police dog trained to detect narcotics. The dog became alert, indicating it sensed marijuana.
“We figured we had something,” the investigator says.
But they did not have enough to secure a search warrant. The investigation had stalled when they heard all the buzz in the news about the red bees and talk that runoff from the factory might be to blame.
The Brooklyn District Attorney’s office was and is loath to recruit other agencies to conduct inspections without justification. The investigators now felt comfortable suggesting to the state Department of Environmental Conservation that the possible runoff merited a visit to the cherry factory.
The DEC folks agreed, and went through the building, checking sewer traps for evidence of illegally dumped syrup or other waste. The DEC also gave a good sniff for the smell of marijuana or any other suspicious signs of a grow house.
But the DEC caught no scent other than that of the cherries, and it did not find a basement.
The investigators were still not ready to quit, and arranged for an informant to apply for a job at the factory. An investigator reports, “They kept saying come back and see Mondella.”
After four or five times, the informant finally was told to leave his name and number. Nobody ever called.
When Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes failed to win reelection last year, the new D.A., Ken Thompson, moved to clear unresolved cases. That included the cherry-factory investigation, and it was decided to give it one more try.
“Either close it up or get [DEC] in there and see what we got,” an investigator says.
Long after the mystery of the red bees had been solved, the DEC used the old talk of illegal dumping to justify another inspection. Investigators from the district attorney’s office came along, and the informant’s tip six years before led them to the garage where Mondella kept his luxury cars.
One of the investigators noticed that a set of steel shelves was on wheels. He yanked on them and they did not roll. He then noted that they were held in place by magnets in the way of “traps,” the secret compartments used in cars to hide guns and drugs.
The investigator pulled harder on the shelves and the result was like opening a huge trap. The shelves swung away to reveal a stairway leading down into a basement that the building’s official plans said did not exist.
The investigators now had enough to secure a search warrant. And, once they did, they ventured down the steps. They found themselves in a 2,500-square-foot underground marijuana farm, the biggest ever discovered in the city. There were 120 grow lamps (shielded from thermal imaging by the floor above) and an irrigation system, all of it seemingly more than any one person could install.
Mondella apparently had just completed a harvest. Investigators found only three sacks with a total of 100 pounds of marijuana. The also recovered seeds for 60 kinds of pot and $125,000 in cash.
By one investigator’s estimation, Mondella likely had three to five harvests a year, making it a multimillion-dollar illegal operation to accompany the $20 million-a-year cherry business directly above.
In the days that followed, some likened the case to the TV show Breaking Bad. That comparison might have been more apt if investigators had been able to make the case immediately after that tip six years ago, when marijuana was still taken somewhat seriously.
As it is in 2015, the very district attorney whose investigators made the bust had a policy of not prosecuting people caught with small amounts of marijuana.
The Mondella tale now was “Breaking Not So Bad.” He was like a guy who had been caught with an illegal still just as Prohibition was about to end.
And that 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.
Part of it may be that he had never been in serious trouble before. The very fact that he had a valid pistol permit was proof that he did not have a felony record.
And part of it might have been paranoia born of years of living a secret life.
“His mindset was so paranoid it probably cost him his life,” an investigator says.
Maybe it was just cumulative stress. Imagine the anxiety that must have been crackling beneath his affable and accommodating exterior when those red bees were focusing so much attention on him.
His family attorney, the well-regarded Michael Farkas, gave a very Brooklyn answer when asked if anybody had any idea why Mondella had taken his life.
“I wouldn’t tell you,” Farkas said.
Mondella’s funeral was on Saturday at Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary-St. Stephen Roman Catholic Church. His eldest daughter, Dana Mondella Bentz, stood with her two sisters as she gave the eulogy. She told the mourners that the manner in which he ended his life did not define him
“He was so smart, intelligent, a hard-working international businessman and the patriarch of our family,” she went on. “I am, and will always be, so proud to call Arthur Mondella my dad.”
The anthem of Italian South Brooklyn, Sinatra’s “My Way,” played as Mondella’s dark wooden casket was carried out to begin the brief journey to Green Wood Cemetery.
The factory had already resumed operations, with the clatter of machinery coming from inside and a tractor-trailer pulling up with a load of empty glass jars and the block smelling of maraschino cherries. There was a splash of HFCS with red dye #40 on the sidewalk, but the containers that a forklift was moving from one part of the factory to another were sealed. Mondella had sometimes told stories of his father letting him ride on one as a youngster.
A number of the workers had been in tears at Mondella’s wake, with one telling a New York Daily News reporter, “He was like a father. He would give me life advice.”
One investigator said Mondella’s employees were likely unaware of the doings in that stealth basement. These employees include parolees that Mondella was known to hire from the nearby housing project, giving them a chance to not let a crime define their lives.
In the end, he had not been able to give himself that same break. You have 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. He might even now be producing cherries with the method that became prevalent after Prohibition made alcohol as illegal as pot has been.
Those who mourned his passing included the founder of the NYCBA.
“He was a nice guy and it is very sad that he saw no other path than the one he took,” Cote said. “We at NYCBA are very sorry for his family, especially his children, and our prayers are with them in these difficult times.”
Mondella might very well not have been caught at all were it not for those red bees of Red Hook.