When bees are turning red, it’s clear something is not quite right. But when locals in the New York neighbourhood of Red Hook found there was a link between the colour change and a local Maraschino cherry factory, they could never have imagined that this discovery would lead to the uncovering of a massive marijuana farm and to the tragic death of the factory’s owner.
Arthur Mondella, known as the Cherry King, was the grandson of the man who founded Dell’s Maraschino Cherries in the Red Hook neighbourhood of Brooklyn back in 1948. He had led the company to greatness, bringing it to the point where it processed an estimated one billion cherries a year to create its sweet, eponymous product and supply it to some of the largest retail and foodservice chains in the US.
But beneath the factory floor, in scenes reminiscent of the hit television series Breaking Bad, lay a 2,500ft2 underground farm containing 120 high-powered lamps, electricity generators and a sophisticated irrigation system – enough equipment to grow an estimated 1,200 plants and earn its owner millions of dollars per year in additional income.
Above ground, the bees had been ingesting a mixture of high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) and red dye #40, substances used in the process of turning fresh cherries into the sweet, glacé versions that had made Dell’s name.
The fact that the insects were feasting on spillages outside the factory gave officials from the local District Attorney’s office an excuse to search the building. Finding nothing untoward, they returned in late February with another warrant to check if hazardous waste was being dumped illegally.
It was at this point that they reportedly uncovered a secret set of stairs behind some shelves in a store room. The stairs led down to a hollowed-out cave where the marijuana production site was housed. It was the largest such farm ever to be discovered in the city of New York.
As the full scale of the clandestine operation became clear, Mondella apparently asked the investigators to be excused so he could use the bathroom. Behind the closed door, he took his own life with a single gunshot to the head.
A sad footnote to a sad story: this week, a federal judge ruled that Dell’s must immediately pay off around US$100,000 in debts owed to another company, California Fruit Processors. Nevertheless, those left behind say they will keep the business going.
“The company will continue to fully co-operate with the district attorney's investigation and appreciates that office's assistance, which allows us to immediately resume our business operations despite this tragedy,” said Michael Farkas, a lawyer acting on behalf of the Mondella family, in a statement. “We look forward to providing the same high-level service as we have throughout our entire 67-year history.”