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 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.
There was only one “El Jefe” born in Key West, and his name was Joseph “Bum” Farto.
But in December 1955, another “El Jefe” stirred things up in the island city when he arrived to garner support for a planned takeover of the Batista regime in Cuba. His name was Fidel Castro, and he came to Key West to paint the town red.
Bum Farto saw this as a call to action.
Key West is closer to Cuba than it is to a Walmart. That’s the easiest way to tell visitors about Key West’s unique location, but it tells an incomplete story.
The people of Cuba shaped the island of Key West. Yet, today’s marketed Cuban culture is reduced to cigars, pressed sandwiches and strong coffee, sweeping the significant political impacts, social contributions and struggles of Key West’s Cuban people under the rug.
Key West provided a well-worn trail for hopeful Cuban leaders. Jose Marti campaigned on the island in 1892. Police officer Bienvenido Perez was seriously injured leading a motorcade for Fulgencio Batista in 1938. Fidel Castro sought to walk in the steps of Marti in 1955, but Castro’s trip did not go as planned. By the time he arrived, Officer Bienvenido Perez was Police Chief Bienvenido Perez. Perez and Batista became fast friends after the motorcycle accident, and Castro was not welcome in Perez’s Key West. Castro supporters attempted to set up speaking engagements for the revolutionary at several locations in town, but the owners of promised venues backed out as word of the police chief’s loyalties spread through the city. Castro spoke at the dog track on Stock Island. His friend, Dr. Julio dePoo, arranged the last-minute engagement, but even a prominent Key West doctor such as dePoo could not keep Castro safe.
Local sources say Chief Perez arrested Fidel Castro, but Bum’s friend, bondsman Ismael “Terry Lee” Garcia, bailed the future dictator out of jail. The sources say Castro skipped town without paying his bond, and Terry Lee Garcia hunted him down in the mountains of Cuba. By all accounts, Terry Lee Garcia collected. Castro rose to power in 1959, and tensions flared on both sides of the Florida Straits.
Castro teamed up with communist Russia, and the threat of a third World War loomed. It was a move that turned most of his Key West supporters against him.
The CIA set up secret bases with Brigade 2506 and other anti-Castro groups throughout the Florida Keys and Key West. The U.S. government, under the presidency of John F. Kennedy, leased the Casa Marina hotel from Jimmy Hoffa’s associates to house soldiers for an impending war. Meanwhile, the Bay of Pigs disaster and The Cuban Missile Crisis created a steady stream of Cuban exiles crossing the Florida Straits to Key West as they escaped their own “El Jefe” and the threat of communism known as the “red scare.”
An “El Jefe” cloaked in the red of communism sent thousands of exiles across the Florida Straits, but according to sources, Bum Farto greeted countless hundreds of them. Bum was Key West’s “El Jefe,” cloaked in the red of his leisure suits and armed with a dedication to help Cubans suffering under Fidel Castro’s rule.
With his friend Arturo Cobo, Bum Farto became an unofficial welcome wagon for Cuban exiles. He provided food and hydration, helped relay news of their safe arrival to family members and arranged for medical assistance through his hospital connections. Bum helped the exiles find jobs. He helped them start a new life. Bum Farto was life support to strangers in a strange land.
People love to throw stones at Bum Farto and label him a two-bit drug pusher, but those stories discount a passionate freedom fighter who earned the name “El Jefe” on and off his job as fire chief.
But Castro’s Cuba wasn’t the only threat lurking for Bum Farto. Another danger was brewing for him, but this time it was coming from the chambers of Key West’s City Commission.