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.
Tales of fires set to distract authorities so illegal drug shipments could be unloaded have ingrained themselves in Key West’s checkered lore. Now a classified government document obtained during our current search for Bum Farto fuels new suspicions about a 1965 Halloween fire.
It also threatens to solve the greatest bank heist in the history of Key West:
Bank manager Joe Pinder locked the doors of Florida National Bank at Front and Duval streets at 6:30 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 30. The following day, an empty home at 209 Simonton St. caught fire at 3:35 p.m. and burned until 6 p.m. Pinder returned to the bank just before 7 a.m. on Monday, Nov. 1 and learned burglars had used heavy machinery to break into the vault through the bank’s roof and raided 90 safe deposit boxes. The daily newspaper reported, “The city was abuzz with reports that the house was purposely set afire as a possible ‘diversionary tactic’ by weekend robbers.” The FBI investigated, but the bank heist was never officially solved.
Dr. Herman Moore was one of the robbery victims. He unsuccessfully sought files from the FBI and wrote about his experience in a 1992 newspaper column.
“The secrecy of the FBI in this case is mystifying. … You have a feeling there has been a serious cover-up in the case. … The only sensible explanation for the FBI’s failure to release more documents in this case is that the names of locals suspected at the time would be detailed. … It is said that the FBI knew the names of the felons, but had insufficient proof to seek an indictment,” Moore wrote.
We obtained the files Dr. Moore was seeking as part of our Bum Farto investigation. They contain 11 classified pages on the Florida National Bank robbery, including an interview with Key West policeman-turned-mobster Sam Cagnina. Cagnina names former City Commissioner Terry Lee Garcia as one of three people inside the bank. Garcia and Cagnina had been arrested the previous year for an armored car robbery. Garcia was found not guilty.
The FBI files also name Key West Police Chief Armando Perez as part of the burglary team. The investigative report states he was serving as a lookout to “protect the burglars from a surprise apprehension” and “keep drunks and citizens away from the bank area.”
The FBI file alludes to a Miami mortgage banker as having been a second person inside the bank and it pegs alleged mobster Joe Bedami as the heist’s mastermind. “Bedami told Cagnina he was responsible for the major planning. … Bedami stated that he was in the bank during the burglary,” the FBI report states. “Bedami is an arsonist. … Bedami also hires other individuals to perform arson crimes.
“Cagnina stated that Perez, Garcia, Bedami and himself all came from the Tampa, Florida area, and have all been friendly for years,” the report states. (The FBI bank heist pages were part of a more extensive document investigating the Tampa mafia.)
The names of the suspects Herman Moore sought all appear in the document. It seems the FBI was looking for evidence of money laundering among suspects of the bank heist and the Miami mortgage banker. Three names appear in addition to those mentioned by Cagnina. At the top of the list is Tampa mob boss Santo Trafficante. At the bottom of the record is Bum Farto.
The FBI found no evidence of money laundering in Miami, and the case remains officially unsolved. Still, Bum Farto was on the FBI’s radar, and the big guns on both sides of the law were watching.