When Arthur Mondella killed himself in February, soon after investigators discovered he had kept a marijuana farm under his maraschino cherry factory in Red Hook, Brooklyn, there seemed no obvious way to unravel his life and death.
His family, understandably, didn’t want to speak to reporters. The workers at the factory couldn’t speak out for fear of losing their jobs. The district attorney’s investigators were just getting started, and they seemed to hit a dead end after a few days. And — oddly for a place like Red Hook, where I’ve often recognized the barbecue-restaurant owner, the key lime pie store owner and other local figures strolling around chatting with residents and other business owners — many people in the neighborhood didn’t know the Dell’s Maraschino Cherries factory existed, let alone what pushed its owner to lead a secret life.
The factory’s immediate neighbors had given me a few bits of information, like the fleet of white luxury cars Mr. Mondella and his relatives drove around and the red cherry syrup that often trickled into their backyards. But hanging around Red Hook was only so useful.
I turned to the Internet — a surprisingly useful reporting tool for researching a man many people described to me as “old school” through and through. I contacted people who had left comments on his paid obituary notice, saying they had grown up with him or used to know him. After a lot of aimless fumbling around on LinkedIn, I found a website where many current and former Dell’s employees had posted their résumés.
At every step, I reminded myself that although I was writing about a man who had committed a crime, the story wasn’t about a criminal. It was about a man who had achieved significant success, who had a complicated personal life, who had extravagant tastes, who could be incredibly generous, who could be incredibly abusive, who loved his daughters, who harbored a huge secret and who ultimately came to a tragic end.
My job wasn’t to prosecute him. It was to illuminate what his life was like, the good and the bad.
That ended up being the most I could do, in any case, since the investigation seemed to have stalled. Readers of the story will know that I wasn’t able to penetrate how he ran his operation, why exactly he began growing marijuana or who else was involved.
That was frustrating, and for many days I only inched forward, getting a rejection here, a source who knew very little there. I had to step delicately, knowing that while some people might be eager to gossip, many others were still raw and hurt from losing a friend and mentor.
In recent weeks, some of the feelers I had put out paid off. But it’s obvious that a lot of the story remains to be told. And some things, like what was going through his head in the minutes he was locked up in his bathroom just before he died, are beyond a journalist’s power to uncover.
By Vivian Yee - The NY Times/May 5, 2015
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