Key West Fire Chief Joseph “Bum” Farto disappeared on 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. Bum 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 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 history of Key West. Share your Bum Farto tips and stories at www.findbumfarto.com.
The sirens of Greek mythology sing a song so sweet and seductive, it lures sailors from their intended course and delivers an early doom upon jagged rocks. The stories of the sirens inspired the name for a tonal device Baron Charles Cagniard de la Tour created in 1819. His device found a home atop fire engines and ambulances around the world and sang a song so seductive that Joseph “Bum” Farto could not resist.
Joe’s life changed when his father died in 1937. He quit school and did some work with the WPA’s National Youth Administration while his older sister Maria stole the social spotlight doing dance performances with Isabel DePoo.
Farto became a volunteer fireman in 1942, and spent his first few years polishing brass and riding on the back of the truck. Around the same time he started working with the Lopez Funeral Home as an ambulance driver under the direction of Benjamin “Big-Hearted Benny” Sawyer. Bum married Sawyer’s sister-in-law, Macie, in 1946.
Through the 1940s, newspaper accounts paint a picture of Bum Farto as a hero — a man who apprehended a parking meter vandal, extinguished a fire set beneath the sleeping roost at Fire Station No. 1, and witnessed countless tragedies while serving as an ambulance driver.
Farto collected the remains of Lelanette Roberts after she was found murdered on one of the Saddlebunch Keys. He transported R.F. Walker from the scene of a motorcycle accident as the submarine mechanic slowly died from injuries that included a crushed chest and a leg “virtually hanging by shreds.” Bum was on the scene of the 1951 mid-air crash of a commercial craft and a Navy plane in the waters off the Southernmost Point. The bodies he transported had been sliced in two by the plane’s seatbelts.
There is no telling how this carnage affected Bum as a young man. But people who worked with him will all tell you that if someone needed help, Bum was there. He couldn’t say no. Perhaps this is the siren that led his ship to the jagged rocks…