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


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


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.


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