by Dennis Reeves Cooper…….
If you are a longtime reader of Key West The Newspaper, you know that, after 18 years of publishing The Blue Paper, I retired last November. Since that time, I have been finishing up several personal projects– like sorting out 18 years of back issues to donate to the history department at the library. I also have a Peace Corps application pending. I have at least one more adventure left in me.
So while I am waiting to go to Africa or somewhere, I told Naja and Arnaud Girard that I would be happy to make some editorial contributions to their new on-line venture. Those contributions might be news stories or opinion pieces, if I get pissed off about something. But I have to tell you, as a retired guy, I don’t get anywhere near as pissed off at politicians and police as I used to.
Another thing I might do for the Blue Paper while I’m waiting to take off on my new adventure is to re-publish some of the more interesting stories we published over the years. That’s what I have done this week. Back in 1995, the now-famous Mark Howell and David Mock researched and revisited the so-called Bubba Busts of 1975 and 1985. (As you may know, Mark Howell now edits Solares Hill.)
Their story originally appeared in Key West The Newspaper on February 17, 1995. It was updated and re-published on July 25, 2003, adding info about the 1995 Bubba Bust.
Anyone who looks back over Key West history for the last 20 years or so will note that, about the middle of every decade— almost like clockwork— the feds swoop down and make what has come to be called a “Bubba Bust.” It happened in 1975, 1985 and again in 1995.
Those swept up in those roundups have included a Key West mayor, a city commissioner, a city attorney, a fire chief, a deputy police chief, as well as a miscellaneous assortment of other cops, government employees, local mobsters and even a school bus driver, charged with selling drugs out of his yellow bus.
The most recent Bubba Bust, in 1995, was probably the least colorful. Then-Mayor Dennis Wardlow and prominent local attorney John “Mad Dog” Bigler were both— after a long investigation by the FBI— indicted on charges of bribery and conspiracy. Wardlow said Bigler paid him $100 per week for public relations advice. But federal prosecutors said Bigler was paying Wardlow for his influence as mayor to advantage Bigler’s business interests.
Wardlow would be acquitted, only to be found guilty on the same charges by the Florida Ethics Commission. He paid a heavy fine, which included all the money he had received from Bigler.
Bigler avoided trial by agreeing to give up his license to practice law. Then, reportedly, he left the country.
Also in 1995, then-City Commissioner Emery Major was indicted in a separate bribery case. He was subsequently removed from office. He avoided going to jail by agreeing to cooperate with prosecutors. Sitting in a bar before the indictment came down, he was heard loudly proclaiming, “If they come for me, they better bring a bus!”
Ten years earlier, the Bubba Bust of 1985 netted Deputy Police Chief Raymond “Tito” Casamayer Jr and two of his veteran detectives. A 28-year veteran of the force, the charismatic Casamayor favored flashy cars and chunky gold jewelry. Prosecutors said that he was also given to receiving substantial amounts of cocaine delivered to his City Hall office in Burger King and Chicken Unlimited boxes.
Casamayor was sentenced to 30 years in prison, but was paroled after serving slightly more than 10 years.
The Bubba Bust of 1975 was, by far, the most dramatic of them all. On September 9 of that year,— the infamous “handcuff day”— 19 Key Westers were arrested on drug charges. Among those arrested were then-City Attorney Manny James (the son of then-Police Chief Winston “Jimmy” James) and then-Fire Chief “Bum” Farto.
The raid was conducted by agents from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the Dade County Organized Crime Bureau. Planning had begun almost a year earlier after investigators discovered a close-knit drug smuggling network in Key West that operated with little or no interference from local law enforcement. Fearing the possibility of leaks, the task force purposely kept the local sheriff, police chief and city attorney in the dark about the pending raid.
The purpose of “Operation Conch,” as the raid was called, was to “take the first step in the wholesale cleanup of the City of Key West.” One detective noted that buying drugs in Key West was “as easy as walking in and ordering a meal and cocaine was as common as key lime pie.”
Task force leaders, however, knew they had their work cut out for them— and they knew it would be dangerous. Early on, one of the task force’s informants, Titus Walters, was found dead in a bathtub, shot twice in the head and injected with a mixture of drain cleaner and battery acid.
On handcuff day, the out-of-town strike force booked multiple motel rooms under the guise of holding a karate match.
One of the first Key Westers to be busted was flamboyant Fire Chief “Bum” Farto, 56 at the time, after he dropped his kids off at the high school. He was driving his eagle-emblazoned, customized lime-green sedan and wearing his trademark rose-tinted glasses, He was hadcuffed from behind and searched while held against the car, then charged with narcotics trafficking.
Agents cruised around the city in unmarked vehicles and took every one of their targets by surprise.
Then-City Attorney Manuel (Manny) Winston James, 33 at the time, was reportedly arrested while in a car with convicted bolita gambler Mae Arnold, who was sitting on a stack of numbers tickets when agents stopped them.
Both James and Mr. Arnold were handcuffed from behind, then taken to the Key Wester Motel, which served as a preliminary processing center before everyone was booked into the county jail on $25,000 bond each.
Also arrested and charged with dope trafficking were bail bondsman Manuel Currito Ortega and already-convicted gambler Artemio (Artie) Crespo, described by arresting agents as “heavy in the Key West social structure,” who had just been acquitted the night before on weapons charges — thanks to the work of his attorney at that trial, Manny James.
James (Mustache) Roberts, who was wandering around in the crowds that converged on Whitehead Street in front of the courthouse on the morning of September 9, was arrested by two agents when someone in the crowd suddenly called out his name. This seemed to confirm the rumors that agents had been recruiting locals and night people as “spotters.”
In all, 30 federal and state agents made 19 arrests between 8am and mid-afternoon in a series of coordinated raids.
Even while arrests were still being made, then-Mayor Sonny McCoy called the city commission into emergency session to suspend both City Attorney James and Fire Chief Farto. They named Joe Allen Jr. as acting city attorney and Jack Spottswood as his assistant.
Farto would be convicted of drug dealing after he confessed that he had received deliveries of drugs at the fire station on Kennedy at Flagler and, then, sold the stuff out of his official car. He also named Manny James as his contact.
But James would never go to trial here. The prosecution simply could not make a case. James told Key West The Newspaper in 1995 that the reason he was not prosecuted was simple: He didn’t do the crime. And, in fact, the city commission would subsequently rescind his suspension, putting him back into the city attorney’s chair.
And Bum Farto would never be sentenced. He simply disappeared. Farto had told his wife that he was going to Miami to visit friends. The car he had rented was eventually found on a street in Miami’s Latin section. But Farto was nowhere to be found. Some say that he is still alive and living in Costa Rica with a new 16-year-old girlfriend supplied by gangster friends each year. Other say he was long ago “food for the fishes.”
Manny James would eventually spend nearly a decade in prison on unrelated drug charges. But this arrest and conviction was all a mistake, James told KWTN, a case of guilt by association.
Five years later, not much had changed in Key West, according to a series of probing investigative reports published in the Miami Herald in March 1980. Writing about drug smuggling in Key West, reporter Carl Hiaasen wrote: “The cops can’t stop it, the prosecutors don’t prosecute it, and the people of this historic island have accepted it with nonchalance.”