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Key Weird Series: The Mysterious Disappearance of Key West's Infamous Fire Chief, "Bum" Farto

Posted on: March 30th , 2021 | History
Key Weird Series: The Mysterious Disappearance of Key West's Infamous Fire Chief,

Key West has an eclectic weirdness of its own, celebrated by its locals and visitors alike with dedicated enthusiasm. Find out what makes Key West ‘Key Weird’ in this latest installment which delves into the details of the Florida fire-chief-turned-fugitive.

The vanishing of Key West’s own Joseph “Bum” Farto is one of those unexplainable incidents that continues to hold a place of fascination in the public consciousness. Have you seen Bum Farto? Dive into the decades-old cold case of the mysterious disappearance of Key West’s infamous fire chief.

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Joseph Farto was born in Key West on July 3, 1919 to Juan Farto, a Spanish immigrant with a most unfortunate surname and proprietor of the Victoria restaurant. Joseph grew up across the street from Key West’s fire station and developed a reputation for soliciting change from the firemen, earning the nickname, “Bum”. Bum himself became the fire chief in 1964.

The beloved fire chief was known for his trademark red leisure suits, flashy gold chains, and (literal) rose-colored glasses. Bum drove a luxury lime-green car, with ‘El Jefe’ or, ‘The Chief’ scrawled on the license plate. The overstated man got himself into trouble for things like misusing department funds and threatening a fireman for cooperating with the investigation, but it wasn’t until 1976 that Bum would cause major waves in the community and forever go down in Key West history.

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The fire chief was busy earning extra cash by narcotrafficking. Bum was caught after being photographed outside the fire station dealing to an undercover agent as part of the “Operation Conch” investigation led by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, Florida Department of Criminal Law Enforcement, and Dade County Organized Crime Bureau. Convicted and facing a maximum prison sentence of over 30 years, Bum jumped bail and left Key West. Nearly two months later, his car was found parked in Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood. Bum Farto would never be seen or heard from again.

Conspiracy-tinged rumors swirled around Key West following Bum’s disappearance. Some believed he escaped to Costa Rica or Spain, while others assumed he was done away with by the Mafia or Colombian kingpins to prevent him from implicating them. Even further, some believed his dedication to the Santería religion may have been involved.

Although Bum was eventually declared deceased, the legend remains (as does his arrest warrant!). Even Jimmy Buffett sported a “Where is Bum Farto?” t-shirt during concerts, a fabled object now considered a collector’s item.

The admired Key West local would have celebrated his 101st birthday this past July.

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Want to walk in the adorned and adored Bum Farto’s legendary footsteps? Visit the world-famous Sloppy Joe’s, the former site of the Victoria restaurant, and the scene where Bum was caught in the act, the Key West Fire Station. Key West Fire Station No. 3 sits on the corner of Kennedy Drive and Flagler Avenue, only a mile from 24 North Hotel.

Interested in the weird side of Key West? Come see the island’s unique charm for yourself! Finally, don’t forget to check out exclusive deals at 24 North Hotel, which offers free shuttle service to and from Old Town all day long. Read more.

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