The strange true story behind Cocaine Bear and Andrew Thornton


Andrew C. Thornton II, whose life was once filled with privilege and promise, decided that now was the time to parachute from a twin-engine plane in the dead of night to smuggle the $15 million worth of Colombian cocaine that was strapped to his body into the United States.

A Kentucky blue blood who had been a narcotics officer, Thornton thought he had found his calling as the leader of a local drug-smuggling ring. Now he was in the middle of his most ambitious drug run yet. But when Thornton opened his parachute too late on Sept. 11, 1985, the free fall from thousands of feet sent him crashing into a backyard in Knoxville, Tenn., instantly killing the 40-year-old, who was wearing a bulletproof vest, night-vision goggles and Gucci loafers.

Before Thornton fell from the sky and realized what author Sally Denton described as “the dark side of the American Dream” in an article for The Washington Post, another failure during his fatal mission would prove to have a much longer legacy. When Thornton was forced to dump about 200 pounds of cocaine by parachute over Georgia after realizing the load was too heavy for the aircraft, an American black bear got hold of one of the duffel bags of dispatched drugs and started eating the coke. Three months later, after authorities discovered that a 175-pound bear had died of what the coroner described as a stomach “literally packed to the brim with cocaine,” the animal was given a new name in popular culture: “Cocaine Bear.”

“The bear got to it before we could, and he tore the duffel bag open, got him some cocaine and OD’d,” Gary Garner, an official with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, said at the time, according to UPI.

Added Kenneth Alonso, the state’s chief medical examiner, who performed the autopsy, “There isn’t a mammal on the planet that could survive that.”

But a new movie inspired by the true events poses a counterfactual: What would have happened if the bear had survived and gone on a bloody bender? “Cocaine Bear,” a dark comedy that premieres Friday in theaters nationwide, is a highly fictionalized account, in which the titular 500-pound American black bear eats a duffel bag of cocaine and goes on a killing rampage in Georgia, forcing tourists to band together to survive an apex predator hopped up on coke. The movie has been met with much anticipation from moviegoers after the trailer went viral late last year, racking up more than 16 million views on YouTube.

Inspired by the 1985 true story of a drug runner’s plane crash, missing cocaine and the black bear that ate it. (Video: Universal Pictures)

Jimmy Warden, who wrote the screenplay, told The Post that while it was fun to reimagine the bear’s story, he was initially drawn to Thornton and the circumstances surrounding his death, which resulted in what the screenwriter described as “the perfect setup” for the film.

‘Cocaine Bear’ is based on a true story: Pablo Eskobear, who overdosed

“Each thing I had read about Andrew Carter Thornton was more interesting than the last thing that I had read about him,” Warden said. “What I love about this story is how plausible the inciting incident is because it actually happened.”

Long before he turned to drug smuggling and made a bear very famous, Thornton lived the high life. Raised on a thoroughbred horse farm in Bourbon County, Ky., he dropped out of college after one semester to join the Army, where he became a paratrooper for the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, N.C. Thornton, known to his loved ones as Drew, was later awarded a Purple Heart for his service during the U.S. invasion of the Dominican Republic in 1965, Denton wrote for The Post in 1985.

From 1985: Drew Thornton’s Last Adventure

But Thornton’s life took a turn after he dropped out of college for a second time in 1966. When he joined the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Police Department’s narcotics squad, an agent with the Drug Enforcement Administration with whom he had worked told Denton, he was a “paramilitary-type personality” in the mold of James Bond, “an adventurer driven by adrenaline rushes.”

Thornton’s shift to smuggling drugs began when he became increasingly paranoid and resigned from the police department in 1977 to join a smuggling ring in Kentucky. The ring was linked to a larger group called “The Company,” a syndicate running drugs and guns that authorities estimated in 1980 had more than 300 members and $26 million worth of boats and planes.

Betty Zairing, Thornton’s ex-wife, said at that time that Thornton “believed he was an ‘impeccable warrior,’” a term penned by mystical author Carlos Castaneda.

“He was a philosophical, incredibly disciplined, extremely spiritual and loyal warrior, with his own code of ethics, who thrived on excitement,” Zairing told Denton, author of a 1990 book about Thornton, “The Bluegrass Conspiracy.”

In 1981, Thornton was among the 25 people accused of stealing weapons from the China Lake Naval Weapons Center and conspiring to smuggle 1,000 pounds of marijuana into the United States to be traded for drugs in Colombia, reported the Associated Press. The felony charges against Thornton were dropped after he pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor drug charge, and he was sentenced to six months in prison.

Then, on Sept. 9, 1985, Thornton hopped on a plane to Montería, Colombia, for the smuggling mission of his life. Bill Leonard, his karate instructor-turned-bodyguard, later told the Knoxville News Sentinel that Thornton had lied to him about flying to the Bahamas when they were actually picking up 400 kilograms of cocaine to smuggle into the United States.

After they were forced to dump hundreds of pounds of cocaine to lighten the plane’s load, Leonard said Thornton spoke a few words to him before they reluctantly parachuted out of the plane: “Just do what I tell you, and I’ll get you out.”

About 8:30 a.m. on Sept. 11, 1985, Fred Myers got up to shave at his home in Knoxville when he looked out his window and saw a body tangled up in a parachute. When Thornton was found with a broken neck after his parachute did not open, he had on him $4,500 in cash, two pistols, two knives, ropes, food and more than 70 pounds of cocaine, according to police.

“I’ve never had a landing in my backyard before,” Myers, then an 85-year-old retired engineer, told UPI. “He was dead.”

Leonard survived the landing and took a cab to meet up with Thornton’s girlfriend, as Thornton had told him to do. Leonard was never charged with a crime, according to the Associated Press.

But new questions arose months later, in December 1985, when a three-sentence item in the New York Times reported that an American black bear in Georgia had overdosed on cocaine from Thornton’s botched drug drop. Alonso, Georgia’s chief medical examiner, told reporters the bear was found “in a very badly decomposed state” at Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest, surrounded by several plastic bags that authorities estimated had held about 75 pounds of cocaine.

“There’s nothing left but bones and a big hide,” GBI’s Garner said of the bear.

Alonso told UPI that the bear, which was about 3 or 4 years old, probably died within 30 to 45 minutes from acute cocaine intoxication, noting that the animal had suffered cerebral hemorrhaging, respiratory failure, hyperthermia, renal failure, heart failure and stroke.

“The bear ingested substantial quantities of cocaine,” Alonso said, suggesting to the Associated Press that the bear did not come close to eating all 75 pounds of the drug that were in the area. “It probably ingested two, three or four grams of cocaine. It could have been more.”

Since then, the bear and the man linked forever by cocaine are remembered differently. The Kentucky for Kentucky Fun Mall in Lexington alleges that a taxidermized bear on display is the same one known as “Cocaine Bear” or “Pablo Escobear.” The mall claimed in a 2015 blog post that the stuffed bear was once owned by country music star Waylon Jennings before it became a spectacle for shoppers. But the manager for Shooter Jennings, Waylon’s son, debunked the claim last December, telling WAVE in Louisville that “Waylon Jennings never owned a taxidermy bear of any kind.”

As for Thornton, he’s become almost an afterthought in his own story. Warden told The Post that the man ultimately responsible for “Cocaine Bear” is not featured after the first 10 minutes of the new movie. While Thornton’s loved ones guessed that he would have been proud of his infamous end — “He would have loved the concept of the warriors who fall from the sky,” his ex-wife told The Post in 1985 — others didn’t pay much mind to what Thornton might have thought in his final moments.

“I’m glad his parachute didn’t open,” Brian Leighton, an assistant U.S. attorney in Fresno who once prosecuted him on the marijuana trafficking charge, told the AP at the time. “I hope he got a hell of a high out of that [cocaine].”