On the morning of September 9th, 1975 the residents of the 1600 block of United Street in Key West were in for a show.
Joseph Anthony Farto, Key West’s long-time fire chief, lived in the pink house at 1601 United. That day, like every day, he walked out the front door and over to his rather distinctive car: a lime green Cadillac El Dorado with a gaudy golden eagle hood ornament and a custom license plate that read “EL JEFE.”
That day was different, though.
As soon as Farto put his keys in the ignition, two other cars pulled out of nowhere, blocking off the street. Imposing men in suits and ties got out of the cars. Farto cursed, leapt out of the El Dorado, pulled a ring off of his finger and threw it at the men as he tried to run. He didn’t get far before was wrestled to the ground, handcuffed, and shoved into the back of one of the cars, which then drove away.
The whole scene had taken about five minutes. A short time later, a tow truck showed up to take away the El Dorado.
What the hell had just happened?
Joseph Anthony Farto
Joseph Anthony Farto was born on July 3, 1919 in Key West.
Yes, “Farto” is his real surname, so get the giggles out now because I am going to be saying it a lot. His family could have anglicized it to “Pardo” or “Fardo” but they chose “Farto.” I’m sure it didn’t seem as hilarious at the time.
Joseph’s parents were Spanish immigrants who ran the nicest restaurant in Key West, the Victoria, at the corner of Duval and Greene Streets. Best yellowtail in town, or so the story goes. Alas, the restaurant floundered during the Great Depression and the Fartos had to sell. The property was snapped up by Ernest Hemingway’s fishing buddy Josie Russell, who turned it into the now world-famous Sloppy Joe’s.
Like a lot of children, Joseph was obsessed with firemen. His family lived behind Fire Station No. 1, and so he spent all of his free time hanging out watching the firemen train and maintain their equipment.
The firemen gave young Joseph a nickname: “Bum.” (Yes, “Bum Farto,” laugh it up, take your time.) The exact origin of the name is a bit unclear, mind you. It could be that he used to try and “bum“ spare change and smokes from the firemen. It could be that he would occasionally “bum” a ride on a fire truck speeding out to a call. Or it could just be that the firemen got sick of their unwanted tag-along and would yell at that “lousy bum” to go home.
Whatever the case, the name stuck. Bum Farto.
Family patriarch Juan Farto died in 1937, and young Bum had to go to work as an ambulance driver for the Lopez funeral home. But he finally got to live his dream in 1942, when he became a volunteer fireman. He quickly rose through the ranks of the fire department. By 1963 he was a lieutenant, and just a year later he was made chief. He spent most of the next decade whipping Key West’s fire department into a state-of-the-art outfit.
It’s easy to see why he was a success. Bum was a friendly, welcoming guy with the unctuous charm of a salesman. Had a big broad face with a crooked smile that always seemed to be happy to see you. He loved his job. He loved his wife Esther. He loved high school baseball. (Go Fightin’ Conchs!) He loved life in general, and it was infectious. People around Key West respected him as a regular working class guy.
Well, maybe not a regular working-class guy. A super weird working-class guy.
The man loved gold. Now, I know what you’re thinking, ooh, weird, a Spanish guy in 1970s Florida loved gold. That’s so common it’s basically a stereotype. But listen — Bum Farto really loved gold. He was always draped with gold chains, bracelets, watches and rings. He had a gold tie pin in the shape of a fireman’s axe. Even his chief’s badge was custom-made, gold-plated and gem-encrusted.
Oh, and he loved the color red. Almost everything he owned, with the exception of the lime green El Dorado, was red. He wore red slacks, red shirts, and rose-colored glasses. His pinky ring, a gift from the men when he was made chief, had a red stone, and the gems in his badge? Rubies. His house was red on the outside, and interior rooms had red walls and red car[etomg/ In 1974 when the Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority painted all the fire hydrants in town an electric green color (which sounds weird now but it was trendy at the time), well, Farto flipped his lid because he wanted them to be red.
Now, I don’t practice Santeria, but I’m told that the color red is good luck because it wards off evil spirits.
You may be wondering how Santeria ties into all of this, but what if I told you that Bum Farto was also devoted to Santa Barbara? I mean, you wouldn’t be surprised because he was Catholic and she’s the patron saint of firemen. But what if I also told you that in Santeria, Santa Barbara is the same as Changó, the god of fire? Changó, leader of men, charming and seductive? Who always wears red? Whose symbol is a double-headed axe, kind of like a fireman’s axe?
Farto was way into Santeria. He had altars in his home and he would occasionally throw parties to honor Santa Barbara. At high school baseball games he would park his car by the outfield fence and light a red candle on the fender to ensure a Conchs victory.
Would it also surprise you to learn that Farto was corrupt? Probably not, after all he was a city official in a small south Florida town. You have to imagine that in a situation like that they just slip a bribe into the HR packet you get on your first day.
In 1965, an FBI report mentioned Farto as a “known associate” of Tampa mafia don Santo Trafficante, To be fair, pretty much everyone in south Florida was a known associate of Santo Trafficante.
In 1966, the fire department came under investigation after an auditor discovered the chief had been using department funds for personal expenditures. The City Commission tried to fire Farto, only to be overruled by the Civil Service Board, who decided a thirty day suspension was punishment enough. Apparently they thought Farto was merely ignorant, not malicious. It probably didn’t hurt that his nephew was the chairman of the CSB.
In 1968 Farto was hit with a number of strange charges all at once: forging a signature on a $90.73 check; forcing subordinates to take out personal loans on his behalf; claiming other people’s per diems for himself; and destroying a log book showing the hours worked by his men. Farto vociferously denied the charges, and even claimed that the log book was his personal property and not a public record… which is not a defense that innocent people ever have to trot out. In the end he was only found guilty of the check forging, and had another short suspension.
Still, embezzlement and mob ties are the sort of garden-variety corruption you can find most anyplace. Key West had bigger problems than most other places, though. For decades it had been a Navy town, but in the late 1960s the Navy drastically scaled back operations in the area. That crippled the local economy, and locals were left trying to make money any way they could think of.
Some of those methods were less than legal.
Mostly that meant drug smuggling.
The island had always been a hotspot for narcotics, thanks to its proximity to international waters, but now it seemed like every fisherman had a hold full of square grouper. (Those are bales of marijuana for those of you who aren’t hip like me.) It seemed like almost everyone on the island was selling something, and those who weren’t were at the very least being paid off to look the other way. Anyone who wasn’t getting a piece of the action was incompetent or an idiot. Possibly both.
Bum Farto may have been an incompetent idiot, but he was no dummy. There was easy money to be made and he was going to make some. Soon he was just as dirty as everyone else in town. Don’t get me wrong: no one was ever going to mistake him for Tony Montana, but he could get you a dime bag or a bump if you asked nicely.
By 1973 the drug problem in Key West was so endemic it would no longer be ignored so Governor Ruben Askew launched Operation Conch, an elaborate sting operation designed to cripple the drug trade in the Keys. It was a sprawling multi-agency operation that involved the Drug Enforcement Agency, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, and the Miami-Dade County Organized Crime Bureau.
Drug stings are usually pretty predictable. You start at with the low-level guys, the bottom-feeders, the dumb and the weak, and then scare the living crap out of them. Then you get them to flip on their bosses and repeat as needed until you’ve worked your way up to the top of the chain.
In Key West, you couldn’t get closer to the bottom than Bum Farto.
Operation Conch had an in. One of their first busts was Titus Walters, a former Key West high school sports star (go Fightin’ Conchs) who’d developed a pretty bad heroin habit and turned to petty crime. Walters turned out to be a very useful informant. He knew all of the key players and could give Operation Conch agents an introduction.
In July 1975, Walters introduced Bum Farto to his “cousin,” Operation Conch agent Larry Dollar. Dollar told Bum that he needed some cocaine, not much, just an ounce or two. For payment, he offered some jewelry he had: a gold chain, and a gold ring set with diamonds. Cheap and gaudy baubles at best, but Bum Farto was nothing if not cheap and gaudy. He told Dollar he would talk to Manny James and see what he get him.
Dollar’s ears perked up at the mention of Manny James. James was the adopted son of police chief Winston James, served as Key West’s city attorney, and also served as defense counsel for most of Key West’s drug smugglers and dealers. If Operation Conch could take James down, it would be a near fatal blow to the local drug trade.
There was only one problem. Manny James was on vacation in the Bahamas and Farto could just not get a hold of him. For weeks Farto gave the Dollar the run-around while he desperately tried to reach his hook-up.
Drugs or no, Farto had already condemned himself. On August 7th, Operation Conch agents procured sealed indictments against thirty drug traffickers they had uncovered. Among those indictments: two small time dealers, Artie Crespo and Bobby Francis; bail bondsman Manny Ortega; fireman Danny Blanco; and, of course, two high-ranking city officials: fire chief Joseph Anthony Farto and city attorney Manuel Winston James.
One of these men was actually already in jail. On August 1st, Walters and Dollar had gone to buy drugs from Bobby Francis, but something went so egregiously wrong that Dollar arrested Francis on the spot rather than wait. That was a mistake. Francis immediately realized that Walters was an informant and swore to get his revenge.
Two weeks later, Francis was out on bail. On August 18th, he and several accomplices lured Titus Walters to a secluded location and shot him in the head with a .38 special. Walters survived the glancing blow, so Francis had him bound and gagged and dragged into the bathroom. Then he injected the informant with Drano, battery acid and heroin and sat back to have a drink while he watched him die.
When Walters’ mutilated body was discovered, it put Key West’s criminal community on edge. No one yet knew who had committed the heinous deed or why. But it got all of them thinking very hard about their recent dealings with Titus Walters.
Walters’ death also put Larry Dollar in a bind; without the confidential informant’s testimony, his cases were going to be harder to prove in court. So he started leaning on Farto in an attempt to procure some actual physical evidence.
Farto had still been unable to reach Manny James in the Bahamas. He arranged a quick meeting with Dollar at Key West’s central fire station, right next to city hall, where he apologized for the delay and gave dollar a bag of weed as a peace offering.
Several days later, Bum had finally managed to get ahold of James and score some coke. He set up a meeting with Dollar at Fire Station #1 on September 3rd and gave the undercover agent a small baggie of cocaine as a sampler. It was good, so they completed their full transaction at the same location two days later. Larry Dollar got an ounce of cocaine, and Bum Farto got a tacky diamond ring.
Operation Conch was finally ready. Dozens of agents checked into a local motel, posing as karate guys in town for a tournament. On September 9th, they sprung into action. They arrested twenty of the thirty men that had been indicted. Farto was the first arrest, nabbed in front of his house as he left for work. He was booked on several charges of drug trafficking and selling narcotics and thrown in jail to await trail, but was soon back on the street. Fellow defendant Manny Ortega, the bail bondsman, decided to be generous and post everyone’s bail.
The city fired Farto almost immediately after his arrest. Of course this decision was the immediately reversed by the Civil Service Board, which reinstated him with back pay. (If you remember, the CSB was packed with Farto’s relatives, which didn’t exactly do much to improve the underlying impression that Key West authorities were thoroughly corrupt.) The city manager got the last word, though, suspending Farto without pay until after his trial.
Unfortunately, Operation Conch had some difficulty getting the arrested men to flip on each other and the more serious trafficking charges against Farto had to be dropped. They had him dead to rights on selling narcotics, though, and also for possession of two sawed-off shotguns that had been found in his home during the raid.
Farto’s trial was set to begin on Monday, February 9th, 1976.
That first day he didn’t show. The previous night he had gone to see his family doctor, Manuel Pino, complaining of stomach pain and looking waxy and pale. Pino diagnosed Farto with stomach ulcers, prescribed a course of harsh antacids, and then had him checked into (I kid you not) DePoo Hospital.
Yes. Farto in DePoo. Yuck it up.
It was interesting, because Farto had never had ulcers before and now he had ulcers so severe that he would not be able to stand for weeks. It was a transparent delaying tactic, and it didn’t work. Court-appointed doctors conducted their own examination and determined that regular antacids would be just fine and there was no need to delay the trial. Bum Farto had made himself look guilty and stupid and only managed to get himself a delay of two days.
The trial finally got started on Wedneday, February 11th. The state’s case was pretty open and shut. They had Dollar’s testimony, which was basically unimpeachable, along with the drugs he’d purchased, and damning photos taken of the handoff with a telephoto lens.
Farto’s defense was conducted by Manny James, and mostly consisted of gainsaying anything the state said without providing much in the way of proof. The defendant, notably, did not testify on his own behalf, dressed in a rather conservative (and uncharacteristic) blue suit, and chewed on Tums like they were going out of style.
Both sides rested on Friday, February 13th. The jury took only half an hour to convict Farto on one count of selling marijuana (a misdemeanor) and two counts of selling cocaine (a felony). Sentencing was set for early April. The state attorneys indicated they would push for the maximum possible sentence of 31 years: 15 years for each coke buy and one year the marijuana.
The defense filed an appeal almost immediately, on the grounds that Dollar’s testimony had prejudiced the jury against the defense counsel. Said counsel, if you remember, was city attorney Manny James, who had been implicated by Farto’s own words and subsequently arrested during the sting. It kind of seems like an own goal to me, but what do I know? I’m not a lawyer.
As the appeal worked its way through the courts, law enforcement suddenly realized it had a lot bigger problem on its hands. Which was that Bum Farto had disappeared off the face of the Earth.
Where is Bum Farto?
The weekend after his conviction, Farto had seemed to be normal. He even went to a fire department fundraiser, laughing and smiling and glad-handing like usual.
On Monday, February 16th he suddenly announced to his family that he was going up to Miami to visit a friend. He promised to return in a day or two. Then he rented a 1976 Pontiac Le Mans (red, of course) and drove out of Key West.
He was never seen again.
For some reason, Esther Farto waited nearly two weeks before reporting her husband’s disappearance to the authorities. This, I don’t get. If my wife suddenly disappeared, I don’t think I’d wait fourteen hours before calling the cops. In any case, once she’d reported her husband’s disappearance Esther refused to make any further statements, claiming, “It gets me too upset.”
Once they realized Farto was gone state authorities launched a massive manhunt. No one had seen hide nor hair of Farto. Rumors began to circulate that he had turned state’s evidence in order to get a lighter sentence, and was now in witness protection. The Florida Department of Criminal Law Enforcement shot those rumors down hard.
On March 23rd, the missing rental car was finally located on 2250 SW 8th Street in Calle Ocho — Miami’s Little Havana district. Based on the accumulated parking tickets under the windshield wiper, it had been there for at least two weeks.
Still no sign of Farto. He failed to appear for his sentencing on April 5th, and as a result his $25,000 bond was revoked and a warrant issued for his arrest. The FBI was called in, in case he’d fled across state lines.
Farto also failed to appear on May 2nd at the start of his second trial, for owning the sawed-off shotguns, and was convicted in absentia.
As spring turned to summer, t-shirt shops up and down the Florida coast started printing that year’s crop of beach t-shirts. One of 1976’s best sellers was simple red-and-white ringer tee, with “El Jefe” printed on the front and “Where’s Bum Farto?” on the back. It was topical, tasteless, and also pretty funny. In short, it was Florida through and through.
Some thought Bum had fled the country to live the glamorous life of an international fugitive somewhere in Central America. That didn’t seem likely. Living on the lam like that requires some degree of forethought, a degree of forethought Bum Farto was incapable of. Remember, this is the guy who couldn’t finish a drug deal because his connection was out of town, and who tried to delay a trial with the excuse that his tum-tum hurt.
It was far more likely that someone, afraid Bum would spill the beans, had killed him, dragged his body out into international waters, and dumped him overboard.
In the summer of ’78 there were rumors that he’d returned for Esther and whisked her off to live in exile with him. Turns out, she was just on vacation.
In the winter of ’79, there were rumors that he’d appeared at the U.S. Embassy in Costa Rica to renew his passport. That would be an idiotic move for a fugitive from justice, but would be entirely in character for Bum Farto. Alas, the FBI shot that one down too.
In ’84, Esther Farto moved to have Bum declared legally dead. It took two years, but she finally got the declaration in May ’86, enabling her to cash out his city pension (of $5000) and file claims against two life insurance policies (worth $1000 each). To those who thought Bum was living high on the hog in Central America, it was a shock to realize that he only had about $10,000 in tangible assets at the time of his disappearance.
Over the years, various theories about Bum’s disappearance have been floated. That he was killed by the Tampa mob or the Columbian cartels. That he had fled the country and was living somewhere in Central or South America. That he hadn’t fled the country and was hiding right under everyone’s noses in Miami. That he had turned state’s evidence and was living in witness protection. Even that he was alive and well and managing a supermarket in Perth Amboy, NJ.
No one really knows. The safe bet is that Bum Farto was killed by the higher ups in the drug smuggling operation, because they knew he was the weak link and they wanted to scare everyone else into keeping their mouths shut. If so, it worked. Operation Conch failed to make a dent into Key West’s drug smuggling problem.
Bum Farto quickly slipped into obscurity, forgotten by everyone except for the Parrotheads. One-time Key West resident Jimmy Buffet worked a reference to Farto into his song “Landfall,” and used to wear a “Where’s Bum Farto?” t-shirt while performing.
Where indeed. If Bum Farto were alive today, he would be 103 years old. It would be extremely unlikely, but stranger things have happened.
Especially in Key West.
If the name Santo Trafficante seems familiar, well, that’s because during the 1970s the Tampa Mafia had tendrils all throughout the Sunshine State. In addition to Farto, Trafficante also had ties to Richard Nixon’s best friend, Miami real estate developer Bebe Rebozo (“Be My Bebe”).
If you’re interested in mysterious unsolved disappearances check out our episodes on the 1930 disappearance of Judge Joseph Force Crater (“Judge Crater, Call Your Office”), the 1874 abduction of 4-year-old Charley Ross (“Your Heart’s Sorrow”); the 1924 disappearance of missionary Ira Colver Sparks (“The Prophet of the Pacific”); and the 1809 disappearance of British diplomat Benjamin Bathurst (“Gone Guy”).
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- McClure: Robert. “Key West: For richer, not poorer.” South Florida Sun-Sentinel, 24 Oct 1998.
- White, Ellen T. “Where is Bum Farto?” Unwind: The Florida Keys, 15 May 2015.
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- Sloan, David. “The Bum Farto Files: Better Red than Dead.” Keys Weekly, 9 Apr 2020. https://keysweekly.com/42/the-bum-farto-files-better-red-than-dead/ Accessed 03/20/2021.
- Sloan, David. “The Bum Farto Files: Bubbas and Chiefs.” Keys Weekly, 19 Apr 2020. https://keysweekly.com/42/the-bum-farto-files-bubbas-and-chiefs/ Accessed 03/20/2021.
- Sloan, David. “The Bum Farto Files: Married to the Mob.” Keys Weekly, 30 Apr 2020. https://keysweekly.com/42/the-bum-farto-files-married-to-the-mob/ Accessed 03/20/2021.
- Sloan, David. “The Bum Farto Files: The Dollar Dance.” Keyws Weekly, 9 Jun 2020. https://keysweekly.com/42/the-bum-farto-files-the-dollar-dance/ Accessed 03/20/2021.
- Sloan, David. “The Bum Farto Files: The Ballad of Titus Walters.” Keys Weekly, 23 Jun 2020. https://keysweekly.com/42/the-bum-farto-files-the-ballad-of-titus-walters/ Accessed 03/20/2021.