Key West Fire Chief Joseph “Bum” Farto disappeared Feb. 16, 1976 while awaiting sentencing for a drug trafficking conviction stemming from Operation Conch – a sting operation that found Farto allegedly selling cocaine from the city’s fire station. Facing a lengthy prison sentence, Farto (yes, it’s his real last name) became the Jimmy Hoffa of Key West, and the island has swirled with rumors of his fate since he disappeared.
David Sloan and Quincy Perkins have launched an unparalleled investigation into Chief Farto’s life, legends and long-ago disappearance in an attempt to find the truth. Each week they will share elements of their research here in the Key West Weekly while working to solve one of the greatest mysteries in the island’s history. Share your Bum Farto tips and stories at www.findbumfarto.com.
José Farto was born in Key West, Florida on July 3, 1919, just a few months before the island was battered by the devastating hurricane that inspired Sister Gabriel to build a prayer grotto at St. Mary Star of the Sea Catholic Church, asking the saints for protection from future storms.
Farto’s father was a restaurateur. Born in Budiño, Spain, Juan Farto had emigrated to Key West through Cuba in 1902. He married Juana Diaz of the Canary Islands in 1909 and, according to the 1910 census, worked as a chef on a P&O steamship that was based in Key West. José was the youngest of the couple’s three children, with sisters Juanita (b. 1909) and Maria (b. 1915). The Fartos grew up in Old Town, first on Fitzpatrick Street, and then on Greene Street in a home beside the family business.
Juan Farto opened the Victoria Restaurant on Duval Street in 1917. The establishment had 70 seats and advertised “seafood a specialty” and “meals served at any time.” The restaurant’s location next to Fire Station No. 1 proved instrumental in determining young José Farto’s future career. It also set the stage for the saints José would call upon for protection from storms of his own.
Juan Farto died in 1937, and his Victoria Restaurant property sold for $2,500 to a man named Joe Russell. Russell relocated his bar from across the street and brought a new legacy to the location by serving drinks to Ernest Hemingway. The building where young José “Bum” Farto grew up has been known as Sloppy Joe’s Bar ever since.