South Florida

Where is Bum Farto? These Florida fugitives vanished through the years

Former Key West Fire Chief Joseph Farto. He was born in a house behind old Fire Station No. 1.
Former Key West Fire Chief Joseph Farto. He was born in a house behind old Fire Station No. 1. Miami Herald File

South Florida is known for its fugitives.

Cocaine cowboys. Healthcare cons. Wayward politicians.

And Bum Farto.

Where is Bum Farto, anyway?

Farto has never been found, but others have. This year, one of Miami’s long-sought cocaine fugitives was captured and faced trial.

Here is a look back through the archives at Florida’s infamous fugitives through the years.

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THE FIRE CHIEF

Published May 21, 1986:

Ten years after he disappeared, Joseph “Bum” Farto — the Key West fire chief as famous for his red leisure suits and rose-colored glasses as his cocaine conviction — has been declared dead.

For probate purposes, that is.

Though his estate now will be divided, Farto isn’t dead in the hearts of law enforcement officers, who still plan to prosecute him if he’s ever found alive.

“As far as the state of Florida is concerned,” State Attorney Kirk Zuelch said Tuesday, “there is a warrant outstanding for his arrest for failing to show up for sentencing. If he is ever found, we will proceed with our case.”

Convicted in February 1976 of selling cocaine to undercover agents at the city fire station, Farto jumped 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 became legend.

Entrepreneurs produced T- shirts saying “Where is Bum Farto?” and “The Answer is Bum’s Away.”

Circuit Judge Helio Gomez’s declaration Monday 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 also can collect his city pension — about $4,000 to $5,000, said her attorney, John Spottswood Jr.

The money is important, Mrs. Farto said, because at age 68 she survives on a $231 monthly check from Social Security. She supplements that by baby-sitting and baking cakes and pastries in her United Street home, Spottswood said.

“You can’t imagine what I been through,” she said. “No one knows.”

She and Farto were married 21 years when he disappeared. They had no children. Farto has two sisters, Juanita Veliz of Key West and Maria Bowden of Miami.

Mrs. Farto said she hasn’t heard from him. If alive, Farto would be 66. At the time of his disappearance, he faced a maximum prison term of 31 years.

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American fugitive financier Robert Vesco, center, arrives to court in Havana, Cuba Aug. 2, 1996,. JOSE GOITIA CP

THE FUGITIVE FINANCIER

Published June 10, 1995:

Reacting cautiously to an overture from Havana, the Clinton administration confirmed Friday that it is providing Cuban authorities with criminal information about fugitive financier Robert Vesco in hope of extraditing him to the United States.

But U.S. officials denied that Cuba’s apparent willingness to hand over the indicted investor was the result of negotiations or would lead to an immediate improvement in U.S.-Cuban relations.

The guarded response came amid what many Cuba-watchers say are efforts by Cuban President Fidel Castro to reduce hostility with the United States and recast Cuba as a responsible neighbor in American eyes.

“The Cubans have decided to show they can be reasonable,” said Otto Reich, a Cuban American who has served as U.S. ambassador to Venezuela. “This is a major move on their part. It’s part of a charm offensive.”

Cuba’s apparent arrest of Vesco last week follows a May 2 agreement between Washington and Havana to curb illegal immigration from the island, and the release in Havana weeks later of several political prisoners.

In Miami, Spanish-language radio buzzed Friday with speculation on what the latest Cuban move — which officials on the island have yet to confirm — could mean for relations between the two countries.

“It has captivated public attention,” said Tomas Regalado, news director at Radio Mambi. “Many people suspect there is a pattern of events going on leading to a normalization of relations.”

But administration officials minimized the gestures as far short of the political and economic reforms they say are necessary for improved relations.

“These are all freebies,” said one senior policymaker on Cuba. “It doesn’t change the power structure of the country. They’re significant freebies, but they’re still freebies.”

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Robert Vesco AP

Vesco was for years reportedly a valuable asset to the Castro government, allegedly helping negotiate fly-overs of Cuba by Colombian cocaine traffickers, and helping Cuban efforts to bypass the U.S. trade embargo.

His sudden arrest, after years of living in luxury in Havana, fueled speculation that he had run afoul of the Castro government, run out of money or simply become more valuable as a sacrifice to the United States.

Still, some skeptical observers wondered why Cuba would turn over Vesco now.

“Cuba would be running a big risk by repatriating him,” said Damian Fernandez, a Cuba expert at Florida International University. “This man knows a lot. It would not be characteristic of Cuban behavior.”

U.S. Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, a Miami Republican and a leading critic of the administration’s Cuba policy, said he believes the Vesco offer came out of negotiations, despite the administration’s denials. He suggested that Castro intends to send Vesco to U.S. authorities with some kind of scripted message.

“Castro is no imbecile,” Diaz-Balart said. “He is not going to send Vesco here unless Vesco is going to say something that is in Castro’s interest. He’s not going to air the dirty laundry.”

While Cuba has not formally offered to hand over Vesco, State Department spokeswoman Christine Shelly said that intention was implicit when Cuba first contacted U.S. diplomats last week to ask for details of the outstanding charges against him.

The United States would promise nothing in return for Vesco’s extradition, Shelly said. Vesco has been under indictment since 1989 for alleged cocaine smuggling. He was also indicted in 1973 on charges of looting $224 million from Investment Overseas Services, his mutual fund company.

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Joe Gersten Miami Herald File / 1992

FROM THE TOP TO DOWN UNDER

Published Dec. 25, 2002:

Taking pity on one of Miami-Dade County’s most intriguing political outcasts, Australia’s top immigration official granted a visa to former County Commissioner Joe Gersten that will allow him to stay in that country permanently.

The Sun Herald newspaper of Sydney reported Sunday that Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock granted Gersten residency earlier this month, protecting him against deportation to face a civil contempt charge in Miami.

“I feel as though a huge weight has been lifted off my shoulders,” Gersten, 53, told the Sun Herald. “I can get up in the mornings now without having a gut-wrenching feeling in my stomach about when they’re going to deport me.”

Gersten’s earlier attempts to gain such status by claiming he was a political refugee were thrown out by the country’s High Court.

Ruddock intervened on Gersten’s behalf, the Sun Herald reported, after friends of the former Miami-Dade official flooded his office with letters of support.

“I guess America’s loss is Australia’s gain,” said Richard Sharpstein, Gersten’s friend and former attorney. “Australia has not had as colorful a character since Crocodile Dundee.”

Sharpstein said he last spoke to Gersten when the former commissioner called him about four months ago.

“He’s very happy in Australia. He wants to stay there. He has no desire to come back, even though he very easily could have taken care of his problems,” Sharpstein said.

Gersten fled to Australia in 1993 after his lawyers were unable to quash an arrest order against him on civil contempt charges.

Miami-Dade prosecutors wanted to question the commissioner about the theft of his baby blue Mercedes-Benz and allegations that it was stolen while he was having sex with a prostitute at a crack house off Biscayne Boulevard.

The allegations surfaced during Gersten’s County Commission reelection campaign. FBI documents obtained by The Herald indicated Gersten was also under investigation in connection with bond deals at Miami International Airport. Gersten presided over the county’s aviation committee.

No charges were ever filed.

Gersten, a lawyer now practicing in his adopted country, missed his father’s funeral in 1995 and his mother’s funeral this year.

Gersten’s plight generated little sympathy until April 2001, when U.S. Rep. Dan Burton, an Indiana Republican, released a report alleging Gersten was the victim of prosecutorial misconduct by Janet Reno, a former Miami-Dade state attorney.

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Gustavo Falcon has pleaded guilty to drug trafficking in Miami federal court. Orange County Corrections TNS


THE COCAINE COWBOY

Published Feb. 2, 2018:

Gustavo Falcon, a “Cocaine Cowboy” who hid from the feds for 26 years, finally pleaded guilty Thursday to drug trafficking in Miami federal court — where his older brother, Willie, and his partner, Sal Magluta, met their demise long ago.

The younger Falcon, now 56, was arrested last April by U.S. marshals who captured him in Orlando after he took a long bike ride with his wife. Falcon, initially suspected of being in a foreign country such as Mexico or Colombia, was arrested on April 12 in the Kissimmee area where he had been living with family members under fake names since the late 1990s.

Falcon was indicted along with his older brother, Magluta and other associates back in 1991 on charges of smuggling tons of cocaine into the United States, ending an era that was captured for better or worse on the slick TV drug drama, “Miami Vice.”

But Falcon disappeared instead of standing trial with “The Boys,” the nickname for Willie and Sal, who beat the criminal justice system by bribing three jurors to win acquittals in the mid-1990s.

After that travesty, prosecutors retried them on drug-related money-laundering charges and sent them to prison for decades.

Sal Magluta, convicted at trial, is serving a life sentence at a Supermax prison in Colorado.

Willie Falcon, who pleaded guilty and served a 20-year sentence, was released from prison last June but is now fighting a deportation order to his native Cuba because he never became a U.S. citizen.

On Thursday, Gustavo Falcon pleaded guilty to one charge of conspiring to possess with intent to distribute cocaine in a multiple-count indictment prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorney Christopher Clark and others.

In a statement filed with his plea agreement, Falcon was held accountable for arranging a 400-kilo shipment of Colombian cocaine from Southern California to South Florida in late 1989.

Prosecutors said he was responsible for tractor-trailer shipments totaling 3,000 kilos of cocaine that were stored at an associate’s South Florida home through the early 1990s.

But those drug shipments represented a fraction of the “extraordinarily prolific cocaine-trafficking organization” led by Willie Falcon and Magluta, Clark said in court.

A pair of red day-timers used by Magluta as cocaine ledgers, which were seized on October 15, 1991, from one of his properties, showed the “reach” of the organization, he said.

Between January 1990 and October 1991, the red day-timers reflected the distribution of 8,921 kilos of cocaine — almost nine tons — for a total price of $142,509,800.

Despite the legendary status of the Falcon-Magluta syndicate, Gustavo Falcon’s change of plea before U.S. District Judge Federico Moreno seemed anti-climactic after years of life on the lam. Falcon, represented by defense attorney Howard Srebnick, faces up to 20 years in prison at his April 11 sentencing.

But because he agreed to plead guilty instead of going to trial, Falcon could end up receiving between 11 and 14 years in prison under federal sentencing guidelines — if Moreno sticks to that range.

“I have no idea what I’m going to do because I don’t know where you fit in,” said Moreno, who presided over the initial trial of Willie Falcon and Magluta.

One significant concession that Srebnick obtained in his client’s plea deal is a guarantee that prosecutors won’t charge Gustavo Falcon for being a fugitive from justice for 26 years or his wife and their two grown children with harboring him.

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Chiong, Luis (USMS)

Beginning last April, deputy U.S. marshals had been watching Gustavo Falcon’s rental home in Kissimmee, just south of Orlando.

They spotted him and his wife as they went on a 40-mile bicycle ride on the morning of April 12 — sometimes losing the couple, then finding them again because bike helmets and sunglasses made it difficult to identify the fugitive.

Eventually, the deputies nabbed him at an intersection in Kissimmee that afternoon.

The U.S. marshals got a big assist in the high-profile fugitive case from the Miami-Dade Police Department, which was running fake names and addresses on Florida databases that Gustavo Falcon had used over the years.

Falcon had obtained fake driver’s licenses for himself, and his wife, Amelia, in September of 1991, Golden said. The parents went by the names of Luis Andre Reiss and Maria Reiss, he said.

In addition, Falcon had obtained fraudulent Social Security cards for himself and his wife. Falcon and his family were renting a Kissimmee home on Cavendish Drive, which the marshals had under surveillance.

Golden said deputy marshals from Miami and Orlando spotted Falcon and his wife for the first time as they were departing on the bike ride and arrested them a few blocks from their rented home.

Gustavo Falcon was last seen in South Florida shortly before he and several other defendants were named in the initial indictment charging brother Willie and partner Sal with conspiring to import and distribute 75 tons of cocaine worth $2 billion between 1978 and 1991.

Willie and Sal, both Miami Senior High School dropouts, were recognized as kingpins among the Cocaine Cowboys who turned South Florida into a deadly hub of drug trafficking in the 1980s.

The partners, who grew up in Miami’s Cuban-American community, used their ocean-racing speedboats to haul loads of Colombian cocaine from the Caribbean to the shores of South Florida.

But the feds’ “criminal enterprise” case against Willie and Sal went terribly awry. In 1996, Falcon and Magluta were acquitted of all drug-trafficking charges — but there was a sinister explanation for the shocking outcome that would soon surface after the trial.

The U.S. attorney’s office and FBI would discover that Falcon and Magluta had bought off three jury members, including the foreman, to win their case. In the aftermath, prosecutors Pat Sullivan and Michael Davis stepped up the investigation, targeting not only The Boys but even more of the associates in their network, including family members and lawyers.

Magluta, always recognized as the mastermind of the organization, was retried and convicted of drug-related money-laundering charges in 2002. Magluta, 63, was sentenced to 205 years in prison, which was reduced to 195 years in 2006.

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