‘Bum’ Farto: Florida Fire Chief-Turned-Criminal Is Still One Of The State's Biggest Mysteries

If you ever find yourself in Key West, you may see people wearing T-shirts with an unusual slogan: “Where is Bum Farto?” It isn’t a juvenile flatulence joke, though — it’s a reference to a local legend who went from flamboyant fire chief and beloved community eccentric to a criminal who seemingly dropped off the face of the Earth. In fact, the true nature of exactly what became of him is still one of Florida’s most compelling and elusive mysteries. Allow us to enlighten you!

Farto’s childhood

The man who would become immortalized as “Bum Farto” was born José Farto on July 3, 1919, in Key West. His father Juan was a Spanish-born restaurant owner who came to Florida via Cuba in 1902; his mother, Juana Diaz, hailed from the Canary Islands.

Farto grew up in Old Town with his two older sisters, and his family life centered around Juan’s Victoria seafood restaurant. Yet it was what resided next door to the restaurant that truly fascinated the young man.

“The Little Bum”

You see, beside the restaurant and across the street from the family home was the local fire station. The young Farto came to idolize the firemen who worked within its hallowed walls. In fact, his unusual nickname stemmed from there, at least according to a pal who spoke to The Miami Herald in 1976.

That friend revealed, “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.’ He was always bumming things — asking for favors, like little kids do.”

Farto becomes a volunteer firefighter, but also drives an ambulance

When Farto’s father passed away in 1937, he left school and began working for the WPA’s National Youth Administration. Yet, the siren song of the fire alarms he’d heard so regularly as a boy proved too alluring to ignore, and in 1942 he became a volunteer firefighter.

He would ride on the back of the fire trucks and polish the brass, all while also working as an ambulance driver at the local funeral parlor. He eventually wound up marrying Macie, the sister-in-law of his boss at the funeral home.

Farto sees some things you can’t un-see

According to Keys Weekly’s David Sloan, Farto saw a lot of action as an ambulanceman. He wrote, “He transported R.F. Walker from the scene of a motorcycle accident as the submarine mechanic slowly died from injuries that included a crushed chest and a leg ‘virtually hanging by shreds.’”

He added, “Bum was on the scene of the 1951 mid-air crash of a commercial craft and a Navy plane in the waters off the Southernmost Point. The bodies he transported had been sliced in two by the plane’s seatbelts.”

If someone needed help, Farto was there

As Sloan put it, “There is no telling how this carnage affected Bum as a young man. But people who worked with him will all tell you that if someone needed help, Bum was there.” By 1964 that desire to help people and his obsession with firefighting finally aligned.

You see, this was the year Farto landed the job it seemed his whole life had been building towards: he became Fire Chief of the No. 1 Fire Department. With that appointment, a local legend was born.

A colorful character

To say that Farto was a character would be a gross understatement. The man wore bright-red leisure suits, with red-tinted glasses. He drove a lime-green Ford Galaxy, and he would often strut around like a peacock wearing gold chains, gold rings, and the pièce de résistance, a tie pin in the shape of a gold double-headed fire axe.

Many believe Farto wore so much red and gold because it reflected the shiny red and brass fire engines he loved so much. But in truth that’s only part of the story.

Santería

In reality, Farto was a devoted practitioner of the Santería religion. Popular in his homeland of Cuba, it mixes elements of Catholicism and African traditions. The fire chief was a particular fan of Chango, the Santerían lord of lightning and fire, and according to Sloan, he may have based his look — and some personality traits — on him.

The local journalist wrote, “Chango is a libertine and a fast talker who will seduce you with his charm. He wears red pants, a red satin shirt and a gold crown.”

El Jefe

Sloan added, “Chango also carries a double-headed axe to remind people of his swift justice. It is the same axe Chief Farto wore pinned to his tie.” On top of that, “Chango is hard-working, proud, fierce, and charismatic.”

He continued, “He likes to be the center of attention, and to be acknowledged as a leader who answers to no one.” This is likely why Farto had “El Jefe” — “The Chief” — emblazoned on his license plate. He wanted people to know he was the boss.

Did Farto practice voodoo?

Unfortunately, some of Santería’s practices could look pretty unusual for the average Floridian; this led to many locals problematically thinking Farto dabbled in witchcraft and voodoo. Of course, to the uninitiated it did look strange when Farto would turn up to support his favorite baseball team, the Fighting Conches.

After all, they would watch him perform good-luck rituals right there on his fender to help the team win. It was also known that he threw parties for the Santerían saints and had altars in his home.

Farto was a great fire chief

Okay, so he was a bit eccentric, but was Farto a good fire chief? Well, the answer is an enthusiastic “yes” — at least according to Sloan. In fact, he thinks it’s sad that his reputation will forever be clouded by the mystery and scandal of his later years, instead of all the good he did.

For instance, the new boss modernized his fire department almost as soon as he became chief by buying “bunker coats with improved heat resistance, the latest gas masks, and self-contained tanks…[which] provided superior protection for his men.”

Farto answered all fire calls personally

The chief also installed a system which allowed him to change the traffic lights nearest to the station green with only the press of a button. This, naturally, allowed the firefighters to get to their calls more quickly.

The station’s phone was also fitted with a speed dial button that called his home line. As he told The Miami Herald in 1966, “I answer all fire calls,” and he meant it — if you called the fire department, Farto would be part of the crew that came to your rescue.

Ahead of his time

Teaching fire safety to local communities is standard practice these days, but Farto was implementing it in Key West back in the ‘60s. He also took good care of his men and wanted them to be incentivized to give their best, so he rewarded them with ten-, 15-, and 20-year service pins they could wear with pride.

Over the years, Farto’s excellent department fought some legendary fires in the local area, including devastating blazes at the Convent of St. Mary’s, First Baptist Church, and AME Zion Church.

A fire-safety pioneer

Heck, Farto’s innovations didn’t just end in his station and the local community: he also helped transform Florida’s county jails. On September 2, 1975, he sent out an edict that all the foam mattresses in jails should be replaced, after he’d learned that they gave off cyanide gas when set on fire.

He also insisted the Key West county jail installed fire escapes and emergency exits, which tells you a lot about how little attention fire safety was paid in those days!

A legacy rewritten

Yet as Sloan lamented, Farto’s latter life brushes with the law totally reframed this golden legacy. He wrote, “Gone were historic buildings still standing because of his actions. Gone were the lives he saved.”

He continued, “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.” But what exactly did the chief do that tarnished his reputation so much?

Alleged financial irregularities

Well, for starters, in November 1968 City Commissioners suspended Farto from his position as fire chief. They cited “alleged irregularities in the fire department,” including Farto supposedly encouraging two employees to take out $600 loans for him, with the caveat that he’d make it worth their while with overtime payments.

He also allegedly neglected to give his captain a $20 daily payment for a work trip to Miami, destroyed a logbook, and cashed a $90 hospitalization check in another firefighter’s name.

Farto wriggles free — this time

At a lengthy hearing, Farto was cleared of his charges, although it was revealed he’d told one of the testifying firefighters that he would fire them for speaking out. Farto accused the commissioners of having an axe to grind with him, while they had felt the case should be kicked up to the grand jury.

Why? Well, because the hearing was chaired by Farto’s own nephew! Regardless of this conflict of interest, though, Farto managed to get off scot-free — but those in power were now watching him like a hawk.

The beginning of the end

Farto’s true downfall arguably began in 1971, though — ironically, with a lawful act! Allow us to explain: on May 14 he responded to a fire call at the apartment of one Terrel Spence, whose pillow had been set alight.

Farto put out this small fire, and as he was about to leave, he noticed a box of marijuana cigarettes in Spence’s room. He must have felt like an upstanding citizen that day, because he called the police and Spence wound up arrested for possession.

Turning to drugs in tough times

Now, Farto calling in the law in this scenario seems strange if you believe some of the rumors which had been circulating at the time. You see, after a naval base withdrew from Key West in the ‘60s, the local economy took a nosedive, and many people had to seek new ways to make money.

This seemingly prompted quite a few previously upstanding locals to turn to selling drugs — allegedly including Farto, who supposedly had been spotted selling them right outside his fire station in broad daylight!

Operation Conch

At this time, the culture of Key West was one which didn’t see some light drug-dealing as much of a problem — in fact, it was generally viewed as comparable to shrimping! But Johnny Law most definitely still saw it as a huge threat to the fabric of society.

So, the DEA, Dade County Organized Crime Bureau, and Florida Department of Criminal Law Enforcement (FDCLE) teamed up to investigate the island. The combined effort was known as Operation Conch, and Farto was well and truly on its radar.

Titus and his “cousin” Larry

In 1975 Farto’s pal Titus Walters — whose acquaintance he’d made thanks to local youth sports leagues — introduced the fire chief to his cousin, Larry Dollar. Only, here’s the thing: Dollar wasn’t Walters’ cousin at all.

He was actually an undercover FDCLE agent, and Walters — who had a debilitating heroin addiction and a series of drug-related arrests to his name — was working as his confidential informant. Dollar had set his sights on bringing Farto down, and Walters was going to help him do it.

The trap is set

At this first meeting, Dollar set his trap — he knew Farto loved gold, so he offered him a set of rings if he was able to provide 1 ounce of cocaine in return. Farto told Dollar he’d have to contact his lawyer friend Manny James to get the drugs, but after a month, the cocaine still hadn’t materialized.

Farto still wanted those rings, though, so he invited Dollar to meet him at the fire station, where he handed over a small bag of marijuana to show he’d be good for the cocaine eventually.

Farto seals his fate

Farto selling marijuana wasn’t the huge bust Dollar was truly after, so he bided his time a few weeks longer. Then, in September 1975 the chief told Dollar he knew of someone at the fire station who was a cocaine dealer.

Over the course of two different visits, the fire department boss gave Dollar two small bags of powder, and received his gold rings in return. All the while, Dollar’s undercover colleague was taking pictures of the transaction taking place. Only four days later, Farto found himself in handcuffs outside his house.

Poetic justice

As Sloan put it, “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.”

Indeed, on the day of his arrest — along with 17 other Key West denizens — this “karma” saw Farto’s beloved lime-green Ford Galaxy taken away by the police. It was quite the fall from grace for “El Jefe.”

Facing a long sentence

Farto’s trial was set for February 1976; in the meantime his bond was paid by a fellow defendant. Somewhat absurdly, James — who was also facing drug distribution charges — acted as his counsel for the trial.

In the end, the jury’s deliberations lasted a scant 30 minutes. Farto was found guilty on two counts of selling cocaine and one of selling marijuana. It meant he was staring down the barrel of anything from 15 to 31 years in the clink.

Farto disappears 

This is where things get weird, though. A few days after the trial ended, Farto informed his wife that he had business to attend to in Miami. He hired a Pontiac LeMans and headed for the Magic City. Then, a few weeks later, the vehicle was discovered abandoned in Miami.

Mysteriously, Farto wasn’t with it — in fact, he had seemingly vanished into thin air. Over the coming months, this disappearance under such strange circumstances turned him into a Key West folk hero.

Where is Bum Farto?

As mentioned earlier, it soon became common to see people walking the streets of Key West wearing shirts bearing the question, “Where is Bum Farto?” One store even reportedly managed to sell 800 of the things!

The longer the disgraced fire chief stayed gone, the bigger his legend became. It even eventually went nationwide, with iconic singer Jimmy Buffet wearing one of the T-shirts at a gig. In all seriousness, though, it did beg the very real question: where had Farto gone?

Theories abound

Naturally, a lot of people believed Farto had been killed, perhaps by rival drug dealers or corrupt officials in Key West. One resident theorized, “I think he’s wiped out because he knew too much. Probably dumped overboard [from] some shrimp boat.”

Yet there was also the theory that Farto had managed to spirit himself out of the country. Maybe he had started a new life lying low in Spain or his native Cuba? He would’ve had to leave his family behind, of course, but would that have been preferable to a life in prison?

The mystery deepens

In 1980 a lead potentially emerged — from Costa Rica, of all places! Rumors began to circulate that Farto had been spotted at that country’s U.S. embassy, as he was supposedly renewing his passport.

Fascinatingly, local authorities actually showed a photograph of Farto to people in the area, and six of them said they recognized him as a man who had been living there since 1979. He wasn’t found, though, and in 1986 his wife had him declared legally dead. This allowed her to claim on his insurance policies.

Bum Farto — The Musical

Fittingly, Farto’s story is still talked about to this day: and in 2022, he even became the star of a musical! It was the brainchild of local theater maven Dr. Pamela Stephenson Connolly, and she spoke to Florida Weekly about her opus.

Connolly revealed, “When I heard that he wore bright-red leisure suits and drove around town in a lime-green Ford Galaxy with a Santeria shrine on the hood and a license plate that read “El Jefe” — I was hooked. Only a musical would do him justice.” Perhaps this marks the beginning of a renaissance for one of Key West’s most eccentric legends?