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.
Did you hear the one about the man who was buried alive? It was a grave mistake, or so the old joke goes. Most mistakes are not deadly, but some of them stick with us. When a single mistake overshadows a thousand good deeds, it is tragic. When that mistake shapes your legacy, it’s something even worse. Ask someone what they remember about Bum Farto, and the response will probably include drugs, a Hoffa-style departure, or his Key lime-yellow Ford Galaxy 500 LTD with mirrored tint, chrome hubcaps and an “El Jefe” plate letting everyone know he was “The Chief.” Unfortunately, these elements of Bum Farto’s story only scratch the surface of a city leader who was loved, honored and respected on an island where all of those things are hard-earned.
Bum was promoted to Key West Fire Chief in 1964, taking over the four-truck, 40-man department from Charles Cremata. Farto wasted no time building a dedicated team and modernizing the department. Bunker coats with improved heat resistance, the latest gas masks, and self-contained tanks provided superior protection for his men. The fire department created a system that turned traffic lights near the station green with the push of a button, along with a hotline button to Farto’s home phone that required no dialing. “I answer all fire calls,” Farto told reporter Mike Powers in a 1966 Miami Herald article.
Farto was chief during a time when arson was common. He fought some of the most significant fires Key West has seen, including the First Baptist Church on Eaton Street, AME Zion Church on Whitehead, Curry & Sons, and the Convent of Saint Mary’s. Chief Farto introduced fire prevention education to the community, set up systems that helped lower fire insurance premiums, and brought training incentives to the department. The department was Farto’s life, and he let his men know how important they were to him by introducing 10-year, 15-year, and 20-year service award pins. A newspaper feature described Bum’s well-polished station, a chief’s office decorated with several pictures of John F. Kennedy, and a small sign taped neatly to the bookcase that read: Ulcer Dept. The article points out that, “Next to LaGuardia, (Farto) is history’s greatest fireman-fan.”
On Sept. 2, 1975, Farto ordered the replacement of all foam mattresses in county jails because they would release dangerous cyanide gas if burned. He also ordered emergency exits and fire escapes to be installed at the Key West jail, knowing little that he was under investigation from several arms of the law. Farto found himself sitting on one of those mattresses when he was arrested just seven days later on Sept. 9, 1975.
Joseph “Bum” Farto made the mistake of selling drugs to an undercover agent and rewrote his legacy in that split second. Gone were historic buildings still standing because of his actions. Gone were the lives he saved. Gone were the accolades that came with running the best fire department Key West had ever seen, and gone were the actions of a brave firefighter who spent more than half of his life putting the lives of others before his own.
One mistake sent the legacy of a champion fire chief up in flames. But was it a grave mistake? Only time would tell.