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 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.
Nineteenth-century coal miners released canaries in their mines to detect deadly gases. An agitated canary served as a warning that danger was in the air. A dead canary signaled it was time to get the hell out of the mine. Bum Farto’s canary was a Tampa gangster named Joe Bedami Sr.
Joe Bedami was born into a Tampa mafia family in 1927. His father had come from Sicily, Italy and ran bolita rackets, while Joe developed a reputation for arson, robbery and murder-for-hire. He was a suspect in the slaying of Charlie Wall, the organized crime rival of Tampa mafia boss Santo Trafficante. Wall’s throat had been slit. He was beaten with a baseball bat and stabbed 10 times. According to FBI reports, Bedami also masterminded the 1965 Key West bank heist and arson that landed Bum Farto on the FBI’s watch list.
By 1967, Bedami was on trial for the 1966 arson of the H&S department store in Lakeland, Florida. His outlook was grim, and the prosecution faced delays when key witnesses became ill or disappeared. Bedami further delayed things by claiming an injury from falling out of a tree. When the court was back in session, Joe was a no-show. He was last reported heading to a barbecue, and was never seen again.
Tampa buzzed with the question, “Where is Joe Bedami?” Some said the mafia murdered Bedami because he knew too much. Others believed he escaped the country with millions of dollars in securities stolen during the Key West bank heist.
A classified FBI report states: “One of Joe Bedami’s close associates from the Key West, Florida, area named Terry Lee Garcia had spent several days in Tampa attempting to develop information as to the reason for Bedami’s mysterious disappearance.”
Garcia was a former Key West city commissioner, a 1965 bank robbery suspect and a close friend of Bum Farto. Garcia’s and Bedami’s families attempted to contact Santo Trafficante for answers. Trafficante assured Bedami’s family he had “no personal knowledge” of Bedami’s fate.
Bedami’s attorney, Henry Gonzalez, told the Tampa Tribune, “I have every reason to believe he is dead.”
Seven years later, the attorney’s nephew, Anthony Gonzalez, who was by then also an attorney, represented Bum Farto and Manny James after their arrest for alleged drug trafficking in Operation Conch. Numerous parallels exist between the 1968 disappearance of Joe Bedami and the 1976 disappearance of Bum Farto. Both men were suspects in the 1965 Key West bank heist. Both men had ties to the Tampa mafia. Both men were under investigation by the FBI. Both men were facing up to 30 years in prison. Both men were close associates of Terry Lee Garcia. And both men disappeared without a trace.
Bedami’s disappearance was the canary warning Bum Farto to get the hell out of the mine, but escape can be challenging once you’re in too deep. As one source close to Bedami commented: “If the FBI can’t locate you, you’re pretty far gone.”
Far gone, for sure. The question is, “Where?”