Bum Farto was Key West’s fire chief. Until he was caught in a drug deal and convicted. Then he disappeared and was never found.
Joseph “Bum” Farto became a Key West legend after the 1975 sting. When he disappeared the following year, the fugitive quickly became a slogan on T-shirts, which asked, “Where’s Bum Farto? “
Now Bum Farto is back – but this time as a musical in the southernmost town.
While the real Bum Farto is a fugitive declared dead decades after his disappearance, his story is on stage at the San Carlos Institute Theater on Duval Street. It opened on October 13 and will run until October 27.
But it is not a serious drama or a tragic opera.
The folks behind ‘Bum Farto-The Musical’ tout it as a ‘hilarious true-crime musical’ [that] tells the story of a ring, a sting, and an infamous Key West fire chief who tempted fate and federal agents in a 1975 drug raid known as Operation Conch.
As for the main man, Tybalt Ulrich plays Farto, “the flamboyant, drug-dealing, scarlet-clad fire chief who had a thing for gold bling.”
If you are going to
Tickets start at $35 for the show at the San Carlos Institute, 516 Duval St. in Key West, and are available at bumfartothemusical.com.
The story of Bum Farto
So who was Bum Farto, and what led to his mysterious disappearance?
Below are selections from the Miami Herald archives:
Published in 1986
Ten years after his disappearance, Joseph “Bum” Farto – the Key West fire chief as famous for his red casual gear and rose-colored glasses as he was for his cocaine conviction – has been pronounced dead.
For probate purposes, that is.
Although his estate is now divided, Farto is not dead in the hearts of law enforcement, who still plan to prosecute him if he is found alive.
“As far as the State of Florida is concerned,” State’s Attorney Kirk Zuelch said Tuesday, “there is a warrant for his arrest for failing to appear for sentencing. he is found, we will continue our business.
Convicted in February 1976 of selling cocaine to undercover officers at the city fire station, Farto skipped bail. He drove a rental car from Key West to Miami and disappeared.
Rumors abounded that the fugitive was alive and well in Costa Rica or Spain. Some said he was killed by other drug dealers.
As late as 1984, FBI agents said they fully expected to apprehend him, according to court records. In Key West, Farto has become a legend.
Entrepreneurs produced T-shirts saying “Where’s Bum Farto?” and “The answer is Bum’s Away.”
Circuit Judge Helio Gomez’s Monday statement that Farto is dead allows his wife, Esther, to administer his estate.
According to court records, Farto left about $2,000 in insurance policies. His wife can also collect her city pension — about $4,000 to $5,000, said his attorney, John Spottswood Jr.
Money is important, Ms. Farto said, because at 68, she survives on a $231 monthly check from Social Security. She supplements that by babysitting and baking cakes and pastries in her United Street home, Spottswood said.
“You can’t imagine what I went through,” she said. “Nobody knows.”
She and Farto had been married for 21 years when he disappeared. They had no children. Farto has two sisters, Juanita Veliz from Key West and Maria Bowden from Miami.
Ms. Farto said she hadn’t heard from him. If he were alive, Farto would be 66 years old. At the time of his disappearance, he faced a maximum prison sentence of 31 years.
A push for death
Published in 1984
The wife of former fire chief Joseph (Bum) Farto – Key West’s most infamous fugitive, who left town in 1976 three days after his drug trafficking conviction – wants her husband declared legally dead .
Esther Farto, 65, filed paperwork Wednesday night at the Monroe County Estates Division to clear up the legal issue of Farto’s fate. She wants to settle her estate and may be eligible for pension and insurance benefits.
But eight years after the former fire chief was convicted of selling cocaine and marijuana to an undercover officer in the infamous ‘Operation Conch’ investigation, the Bum Farto mystery remains.
And authorities are unwilling to admit they won’t eventually catch Farto, whose disappearance created something of a cult following on the island when shop owners produced T-shirts saying “Where’s Bum Farto? ” and “The answer is far from Bum” and “Bum Farto is alive and well and lives in Spain.”
“As far as the State of Florida goes,” Monroe County State’s Attorney Kirk Zuelch said Thursday, “there are still warrants” for Farto’s arrest.
Under Florida law, a person must be missing for five years before proceedings to pronounce the missing person dead can be initiated.
According to court documents, Farto “has not been seen or heard from” since February 16, 1976, when he left his home in a rental car later found in Miami.
At the time of his disappearance, the flamboyant Farto was awaiting sentencing and facing a maximum prison sentence of 31 years.
Rumors immediately surfaced that Farto had been killed by other drug dealers. Other people said that Farto was partying in Latin America or Spain.
Ms. Farto “contacted all known relatives, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Monroe County, Florida Sheriff’s Department, and the Key West Police Department and State’s Attorney’s Office, and none of the agencies above was unable to provide any information on Joseph A. Farto, or on whether
Farto is alive or dead,” the three-page document reads in part.
Ms. Farto “has no other means available to her to determine the whereabouts of Joseph A. Farto, and therefore presumes that he is deceased.”
Key West attorney John Spottswood is handling the unusual lawsuit for Ms Farto, who married her missing husband in 1955 and can receive pension and insurance benefits if her husband is pronounced dead. Farto also has two surviving sisters.
“We had to wait for the statute to be executed, No. 1,” before filing the paperwork, Spottswood said. “And #2, the FBI maintained that he was a fugitive and was going to be apprehended momentarily. Well, momentarily lasted two years.
According to court documents, Farto has two $1,000 insurance policies as assets in his estate. Spottswood said he would determine what benefits might accrue to Ms Farto.
“There are a lot of things that are available,” he said.
This story was originally published October 14, 2022 11:09 a.m.