Two months ago, Department of Environmental Conservation inspectors paid a visit to a maraschino cherry factory in Red Hook to look into reports that it was dumping cherry-processing waste. Inside, investigators caught a whiff of marijuana and spotted some weirdly flimsy shelving on a wall. When they asked factory owner Arthur Mondella about the smell, he excused himself to the bathroom, yelled to his sister, "Take care of my kids," and shot himself.
Upon obtaining a search warrant, investigators discovered what they describe as the largest marijuana-growing operation they've ever seen in New York, along with hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash and a fleet of luxury vehicles. The New York Times has been looking into the story since then and just published its findings. The central mystery—why Mondella killed himself when presumably he could afford good lawyers—remains unresolved, but there is a lot of other new information here, including how Mondella explained the pungent aroma of weed coming from one area of the facility to his staff:
Among Mr. Mondella’s many rules was one that seemed minor, if odd: Workers were told not to spray the floors in the back of the factory, toward the garage where Mr. Mondella kept his cars. People had been fired for doing that. There was an unexpected smell back there that, even with the factory’s thickly cloying scent of brining cherries, some of the workers could identify right away. No one said anything. If asked about it, Mr. Mondella replied it was just the wood pallets getting wet, several workers said.
Having worked some menial jobs for some shady characters, I can totally picture this situation, and me responding, "Whatever you say, boss."
The people making $9 an hour, the factory's starting wage, according to the Times, aren't looking to jeopardize their toehold on stability by adding "drug enforcement agent" to their job description. And the employees closer to him were closer to him, meaning they got to do things like watch him snort cocaine in his office and on his yacht, according to the Times. Presumably those in the inner circle made more.
Here are some more of the details of Mondella's life unearthed by the Times report:
- He named his yacht The Gold Digger after his ex-girlfriend, former porn star Gina Halas.
- He listed his income on his tax returns at around $400,000, but his spending habits suggested he had a lot more money to throw around. He regularly dined at Peter Luger and hung out at Meatpacking District clubs with $20,000 cash "in each pocket." He enjoyed providing for those around him and would regularly blow throw his 40 grand in a night.
- Last year he divorced his second wife, whose lawyer describes her as a "Ukrainian mail-order" bride, and agreed to pay her $100,000 a year.
- Mondella hung out at the factory with his sister’s ex-husband, Salvatore Capece, who spent five years in prison on money-laundering charges. Capece's brother did federal time for marijuana smuggling.
- For all his spending, he was a hard worker, regularly putting in 16-18 hour days.
- The cherry factory, as neighbors observed at the time of the bust, was more than a drug front. It was founded by Mondella's grandfather and, under Mondella's leadership, gained clients including TGI Friday's, Checkers, and Red Lobster.
- Mondella was a decent boss, providing one was okay with working weekends and holidays, and getting cursed out occasionally. The Times reports: "If a worker was struggling with child-support payments or was behind on his bills, Mr. Mondella was there with his checkbook, many of his employees said."
- Mondella was beloved by some for being willing to hire people with criminal records.
- Somebody tipped off the Brooklyn District Attorney's Office to the possibility of a pot-growing operation at the factory in 2010, but nothing came of it. The dumping inspection that prompted Mondella's suicide came out of an effort by new District Attorney Ken Thompson to follow up on old cases carried over from the tenure of previous top prosecutor Charles Hynes.
- Mondella quit doing cocaine last fall, but couldn't shake a long-term funk that had recently alienated him from his close family.
If someone you know exhibits warning signs of suicide: do not leave the person alone; remove any firearms, alcohol, drugs or sharp objects that could be used in a suicide attempt; and call the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255) or take the person to an emergency room or seek help from a medical or mental health professional.