The Legend of ‘Bum’ Farto, the Key West Fire Chief-Turned-Drug Dealer Who Vanished

When the heat from the DEA got to be too much, Key West's flamboyant fire chief disappeared.
The legend of Bum Farto lives on.
The legend of Bum Farto lives on. / CSA Images via Getty Images

Stroll through the island of Key West in Florida in the late 1970s and you were likely to come across a puzzling fashion trend: People sporting a $5 novelty t-shirt emblazoned with the words Where Is Bum Farto?

Tourists may have been confused, but locals understood. Farto—his real name—was a figure of considerable infamy in the region. On the surface, he was a respected city official who headed up the fire station and cheered on the high school baseball team. He was also a noted eccentric with an alleged fondness for witchcraft and a proven fondness for dealing drugs.

In 1975, when Farto was no longer able to keep up his veneer of respectability and became ensnared in an undercover drug bust, it seemed to be the end. But the clever fire chief had one more trick up his sleeve: Farto would soon vanish into thin air.

The King of Key West

Bum was born Joseph Farto in Key West on July 3, 1919. The island city is a minor paradise, with coral reefs and snorkeling, beaches and dolphin sightings. But Farto, who was of Spanish descent, wasn’t lured by the ocean. His childhood fascination was the fire station directly across the street from his house.

“He used to hang around the old No. 1 fire department on Greene Street all the time and the firemen started calling him ‘the little bum,’” one friend told The Miami Herald in 1976. “He was always bumming things—asking for favors, like little kids do.”

The name stuck. Bum Farto grew up and married a woman named Esther in 1955; the couple had no children. Though Farto held other jobs, including one at a funeral home, it seemed inevitable he would wind up at the fire station. And so he did, first operating fire hoses before being named fire chief in 1964.

Chief Farto cut a striking figure, even by the colorful standards of Key West. He favored bright red leisure suits and rose-tinted glasses; his Ford Galaxy was lime green. On either his license plate or painted directly on the car—accounts vary—were the words El Jefe, or “The Chief” in Spanish.

Farto had good reason to feel emboldened. In 1966, a city commission recommended he be removed as fire chief due to alleged misappropriation of city funds. But a civil service board overturned the action, ensuring Farto would remain in his role after a 30-day suspension.

Among those on the board: Farto’s nephew.

Farto was also keen on Santería, a religion popular in Cuba that blended Catholic practices with African traditions. To non-practitioners, Santería's rituals and offerings may seem unorthodox. For some Key West residents, it led to a belief that Farto dabbled in voodoo or witchcraft, particularly when he showed up to the baseball games of the Fighting Conches to perform elaborate rituals on the fender of his car. They were, he said, for good luck.

Farto did indeed have some good fortune. Naval forces withdrew their presence at a nearby base in the 1960s, damaging the local economy. Some in Key West, including Farto, soon turned to alternative methods of drawing income. Perhaps being a fire chief had been his childhood dream, but it couldn’t keep him rolling in money. For that, he decided to take a second job: drug dealer.

Side Hustle

As locals explained it, selling drugs circa the 1970s in Key West was not exactly stigmatized behavior. Dealing marijuana and even cocaine was comparable to shrimping. And so Farto could be seen idling on the bench outside his fire station, trading drugs for money without any particular concern for getting caught.

But what may have been culturally acceptable in Key West at the time was still illegal. When Florida Governor Reubin Askew was informed of the island’s indifference to the drug trade, he ordered an investigation. Eventually, with the involvement of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), the Dade County Organized Crime Bureau, and the Florida Department of Criminal Law Enforcement, Operation Conch was born.

Authorities had a willing informant in Titus Walters, who knew Farto was handling weed and cocaine. Walters, at the behest of the agencies, introduced Farto to undercover agent Larry Dollar. Walters told Farto that Dollar was his cousin and that he was looking to get some cocaine; Dollar offered Farto a gold diamond ring in exchange for an ounce of powder.

At first, Farto demurred, saying he’d have to source the cocaine. And soon a new wrinkle appeared: Walters, the informant, was found dead in his bathtub, shot twice in the head. An autopsy would later find that someone had injected Walters with heroin and drain cleaner. (A dealer named Bobby Marion Francis was later convicted of killing Walters.)

Incredibly, this violence didn’t deter Farto from his illegal activity; he finally procured some cocaine for Dollar. Unbeknownst to Farto, he was photographed handing off the drugs to the agent. A few days later, on September 9, 1975, cars boxed him in at his home. He was arrested on counts of drug distribution along with 17 other defendants. Worse, the lime-green Ford was towed away.

Bum Rush

Farto’s situation appeared dire. Though he was free on bond—paid for by a fellow defendant, with another defendant, Manny James, serving as his attorney—his trial in February 1976 was remarkably uncomplicated: A jury found him guilty after 30 minutes of deliberation. He was guilty of one count of selling marijuana and two counts of selling cocaine. News accounts pegged Farto as looking at anywhere from 15 to 31 years in prison.

Days later, Farto told his wife Esther that he had some business to conduct in Miami. With his city vehicle confiscated, he rented a Pontiac LeMans and headed north on U.S. 1.

A few weeks later, the LeMans was found abandoned in Miami. There was no sign of Bum Farto.

As the weeks turned into months, Farto’s evasive action—and a possible lengthy prison sentence—made him something of a local legend. The “Where Is Bum Farto?” t-shirts appeared, with one shop selling over 800 of them. As the months turned to years, singer Jimmy Buffett even donned a Farto shirt.

Farto’s motive for running was obvious. Where he ran to, however, was open to debate. Some believe he went to Spain, or perhaps Central or South America. Or perhaps drug dealers dropped him somewhere in the middle of the ocean in a kind of early retirement plan.

“I think he’s wiped out because he knew too much,” one local said in 1976. “Probably dumped overboard [from] some shrimp boat.”

Some believed Farto’s drug dealing was overstated. Tom Hambright, a Key West historian, told The Florida Keys Keynoter in 2015 that Farto “wasn’t a player” in the drug trade. Indeed, Farto had difficulty getting his hands on cocaine for the undercover agent.

The only real evidence that Farto may have successfully fled the country came in 1980, when reports emerged out of Costa Rica that Farto had been seen at the U.S. Embassy renewing his passport. Authorities showed Farto’s photo to residents of Golfito. Six of them recognized Farto and believed he had been living in Costa Rica until 1979, when the FBI began pressuring the country to oust American fugitives. Whether Farto was actually there or where he went next is unknown.

In 1986, Farto’s wife, Esther, successfully had her estranged husband declared legally dead so she could pursue insurance claims. But in Key West, his legend still persists: A musical based on his life premiered on the island in 2022, and at the Key West Firehose Museum, visitors can view Farto’s desk and a few of his uniforms.

Once, a Key West resident reported seeing Farto’s attorney, Manny James, strolling down the street in the late 1970s. He sported a Bum Farto t-shirt, though it was a little different from the others. Instead of asking “Where Is Bum Farto?” it made a proclamation: “Bum Is Alive and Well in Spain.”