There was no sign on the former brick factory on the treeless block in Red Hook, Brooklyn, where Arthur Mondella worked. No name on the door. Nothing — other than the bright-red liquid trickling onto the sidewalk and into the gutter, and the thick scent of syrup on a summer’s day — to announce the presence of one of the country’s largest suppliers of maraschino cherries.
“Look at this building,” said Brian Connell, 68, who has lived next door to Dell’s Maraschino Cherries for nearly 20 years. “It’s totally anonymous. And then, here you see this Porsche Carrera being backed out. I say to myself, ‘The cherry business is profitable! Who knew?’ ”
Mr. Mondella’s company, which his grandfather and father founded in 1948, was indeed large and, to all appearances, profitable. But the Dikeman Street plant had some trappings the neighbors found curious. The fleet of cars Mr. Mondella kept in the garage, for instance, including the Porsche, a Rolls-Royce, a Harley-Davidson and a Mercedes — all pure white. The security cameras bristling from the building’s corners. The razor wire barricading its roof.
On Tuesday, Mr. Mondella, 57, shot and killed himself in his office bathroom just as city investigators were discovering that a marijuana farm lay beneath the factory. On Wednesday, investigators were still sorting through what was legal and what was not at the plant. According to one law enforcement official, who asked not to be named because he was not authorized to comment on a continuing investigation, it appeared that Mr. Mondella’s employees had not known about his other operations.
A truck was dispatched to collect material, which included nearly $200,000 in cash, the official said. It was not clear by Wednesday evening how the marijuana came to be grown at the factory or how it was distributed.
The factory’s residential and commercial neighbors, many of whom said they had had no idea a cherry factory was nearby, found little to explain Mr. Mondella’s sideline business, or why he would take such an extreme step over a crime that struck many as fairly minor in a borough where the district attorney has stopped prosecuting most low-level marijuana offenses. The most controversy the factory had attracted before this came several years ago, when local bees began turning red after feasting on the cherry liquid.
“In this neighborhood it’s hard to keep a secret — except for this one,” said Pat Murano, 41, who has lived next door to the factory since 2005, occasionally complaining about the noise coming from Dell’s but rarely seeing Mr. Mondella himself.
In hindsight, the security cameras, wire and lights Mr. Mondella installed after a break-in about eight years ago seemed strange, Mr. Murano said, especially after investigators told neighbors that a large sum of money had been taken. “I didn’t think he was protecting the Dye No. 7 or his equipment,” he said.
Yet the factory seemed nothing if not successful. Mr. Mondella had expanded the plant multiple times, neighbors said, and he had bought warehouses and satellite facilities on other streets nearby. Hurricane Sandy devastated much of the rest of the waterfront neighborhood, but left the Dell’s factory intact.
He would often call Frank Manzione, a local real estate broker whom he had known since the 1990s and who sold Dell’s another property on Dikeman Street, to ask about acquiring other buildings. Mr. Mondella — described as mellow yet direct, friendly and hardworking — was one of the clients Mr. Manzione said he most enjoyed doing business with.
The last time they spoke, in December, Mr. Mondella said business was good — so good that he needed an additional 4,000 to 6,000 square feet of space.
“The man was a stand-up gentleman,” Mr. Manzione said. “He was a good family man, and a very, very good individual. I tell you, I’m at a loss. When I heard about this yesterday, I say, ‘Something’s wrong here.’ I’m flabbergasted by this whole situation.”
Beyond Mr. Manzione and a few other local business owners, Mr. Mondella seemed to keep to himself.
He did not live in the neighborhood. He bypassed the meetings and community events many local residents organized after the hurricane in 2012.
“Until yesterday, I had no idea there was a big cherry place,” said Susan Saunders, an employee at the New York Printing & Graphics shop opposite Fairway Market. “After Sandy, we went to all these meetings and got to know everybody, but not him.”
A woman who answered the phone at Mr. Mondella’s home on Wednesday said his family did not want to talk to reporters.
Mr. Mondella told Crain’s New York in January that the business was profitable, with $20 million in revenue a year and clients including T.G.I. Friday’s and Checkers.
On Tuesday, investigators from the Brooklyn district attorney’s office, the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation and the city’s Department of Environmental Protection arrived at the plant to search for evidence relating to accusations that Dell’s had been dumping toxic substances into Red Hook’s water supply.
The investigators’ search warrant was for files, nothing more — but when they searched Mr. Mondella’s office, something else caught their attention.
“They saw this shelving unit in his office and they also smelled the whiff of marijuana,” the law enforcement official said. “They said, ‘What’s behind here?’ ”
As they prepared to return with another search warrant, Mr. Mondella excused himself to use the bathroom, where he stayed for a long time. When investigators tried to coax him out, he asked them to get his sister.
“Take care of my kids,” he said. Then the gun went off.
Al Baker contributed reporting.
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