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 Keys 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.

Can a smoldering pillow change your life forever? It can if you are sleeping on it and don’t wake up, but Bum Farto was wide awake when he answered a report of smoke emerging from the Key West apartment of Terrel Spence on May 14, 1971. The chief extinguished Spence’s smoking pillow, but on his way out the door, Farto noticed an open box in Spence’s room that contained five cigarettes. Farto suspected these cigarettes contained marijuana and called in the law. Detectives arrived and Spence, 22, was arrested for illegal possession of marijuana. But Bum Farto wasn’t the only person reporting the presence of drugs in Key West that year.

Florida Department of Law Enforcement Special Agent Larry Dollar poses with confiscated counterfeit logos. (Peter Paolicelli / South Florida Sun Sentinel, 1989.)

Around the same time, Detectives Charles Major Jr., Lawrence Meggs and David Stewart of the Monroe County Sheriff’s Department launched a secret investigation into local drug trafficking operations. Corruption was so rampant in town that they didn’t even tell their boss, Sheriff Bobby Brown. Instead, they took the years-long collection of evidence off-island to Special Agent Larry Dollar at the Florida Department of Criminal Law Enforcement. Larry set his sights on Bum Farto, and the Dollar dance began.

Dollar came to Key West in 1975, claiming to be a cousin of Titus Walters. Sources say Bum knew Titus through youth sports, and though Titus had a string of arrests and an alleged heroin habit, Bum felt he had no reason to distrust him. Titus was acting as a confidential informant when he introduced Dollar and Farto in late July 1975. When they met, Dollar offered Farto a gold ring set with diamonds in exchange for an ounce of cocaine. Farto told Dollar he would contact Key West’s city attorney, Manny James, for the drugs. A month passed, but Farto failed to obtain cocaine for the undercover agent.  

By late August, Dollar was anxious for a transaction to go down. Farto loved gold and didn’t want to lose the deal on the ring, so he arranged a meeting with Dollar at the city’s central fire station on Simonton Street. Bum explained that he could not get the cocaine yet, and gave Dollar a bag of marijuana as a gesture of good faith. Court records indicate Manny James was in the Bahamas at the time.

Miami Herald headline reporting Larry Dollar’s undercover sting.

On Sept. 3, 1975, Farto called Dollar to meet him at the city Fire Station on Kennedy Drive, saying he “knew a man at the station who sold cocaine.” Dollar arrived at the station, and Farto passed him a small plastic bag containing a white powder. Two days later, they met at the same station. An undercover FDCLE agent snapped photographs as Farto handed Dollar a second bag of white powder, and Dollar gave Farto the gold and diamond ring. Dollar called in the D.E.A., and arrested Farto, 56, outside of his home four days later.

Those who believe in karma might see Farto’s arrest as poetic justice, a karmic twist on the day in ‘71 when Farto had Terrel Spence arrested for a small amount of marijuana.

Key West isn’t fond of snitches. That’s a lesson some people would learn the hard way. 

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