Red Hook cherry company pleads guilty in marijuana case

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

NEW YORK -- A company that touts itself as one of the largest manufacturers of cocktail cherries in the United States and had a secret marijuana growing operation in its basement pleaded guilty on Tuesday to criminal and environmental charges.

Dell's Maraschino Cherries was charged in state Supreme Court and pleaded guilty minutes later to crimes including felony marijuana possession and failing to monitor wastewater it was dumping into the city's sewer system.

The company, whose website says it was founded in 1948 on family values and a passion for cherries, calls its cherries the crunchiest, tastiest and sweetest, perfect for cocktails, soft drinks, ice cream or desserts. Under a plea deal to resolve the criminal case, it agreed to pay $1.2 million, which includes $130,000 in cash seized when investigators raided its Brooklyn factory in February.

Detectives working off a tip executed a search warrant at the company's warehouse in the Red Hook neighborhood, looking for possible violations of the state's environmental laws. During the raid, a detective smelled marijuana and later found an entrance to a 2,500-square-foot hidden room being used as a marijuana growing plant.

As the investigators were waiting for a warrant to enter the basement room, the company's owner, Arthur Mondella, locked himself in a private bathroom and fatally shot himself.

Detectives later found about 15 pounds of marijuana in plastic garbage bags inside the room, court documents show.

Prosecutors also alleged the company failed to properly monitor its wastewater.

The company had received a special permit allowing it to dispose of a liquid byproduct of its cherry-brining process in the sewer system. But officials had charged the company did not appropriately monitor the acidity level. The settlement will force the company to ensure the liquid is not too acidic, something its lawyer says it has been doing since the raid.

"The company is very, very pleased with this outcome," attorney Michael Farkas said. "It's a resolution that not only lets the company survive but to thrive."

He said Mondella's daughters, who are now running the business, are looking "to put this horrible chapter of their lives behind them."

"No one at the company had any idea that basement contained what it did," he said. "It's another life."

Farkas said the company, which employs about 30 people, was working to find a way to finance the settlement. Judge Danny Chun didn't set a date for the money to be paid but ordered both sides back to court next month for an update.