Before Thornton fell from the sky and realized what author Sally Denton described as “the dark side of the American dream” in a Washington Post article, another failure during his fateful mission would prove to have a much greater legacy. long. When Thornton was forced to parachute about 200 pounds of cocaine over Georgia after realizing the load was too heavy for the plane, an American black bear grabbed one of Thornton’s duffel bags. drugs shipped and started eating coke. Three months later, after authorities discovered a 175-pound bear had died of what the coroner described as a stomach “literally filled to the brim with cocaine,” the animal was given a new name in the popular culture: “Cocaine Bear”.
“The bear got there before we could, and he tore up the duffel bag, gave him cocaine and overdosed him,” Gary Garner, an official with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, said at the time. , according to UPI.
Kenneth Alonso, the state’s chief medical examiner, who performed the autopsy, added: “No mammal on the planet could survive this.”
But a new movie inspired by the true events poses a counterfactual: What if the bear had survived and gone into a bloody bender? “Cocaine Bear,” a dark comedy set to premiere Friday in theaters nationwide, is a highly fictionalized tale, in which the titular 500-pound American black bear eats a duffel bag of cocaine and goes on a rampage in Georgia, forcing tourists to strip together to survive an apex predator who jumped on coke. The film was met with much anticipation by moviegoers after the trailer went viral late last year, racking up over 16 million views on YouTube.
Jimmy Warden, who wrote the screenplay, told The Washington Post that while it was fun to reinvent 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
“Everything I read about Andrew Carter Thornton was more interesting than the last thing I 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 the drug trade and made a big bear 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 military, where he became a paratrooper for the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, NC Thornton, known to those close to him as Drew, later received a Purple Heart for his service in the 1965 U.S. invasion of the Dominican Republic, 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 the second time in 1966. When he joined the narcotics squad of the Urban Lexington-Fayette County Police Department, a Drug Enforcement officer Administration with whom he had worked told Denton that he was a “paramilitary type personality” in the mold of James Bond, “an adventurer driven by rushes of adrenaline”.
Thornton’s stint in the drug trade 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 drug and gun syndicate that authorities estimated in 1980 had more than 300 members and $26 million worth of boats and of planes.
Betty Zairing, Thornton’s ex-wife, said at the time that Thornton “believed he was an ‘impeccable warrior,'” a term penned by mystical author Carlos Castaneda.
“He was a philosophical warrior, incredibly disciplined, extremely witty and loyal, 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 25 people charged with stealing weapons from the China Lake Naval Weapons Center in Fresno, California, and conspiring to smuggle 1,000 pounds of marijuana into the United States for trade. against drugs in Colombia, reported the Associated Press. . The felony charges against Thornton were dropped after he failed to contest a drug misdemeanor charge, and he was sentenced to six months in prison.
Then, on September 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 lied to him about flying to the Bahamas when they were actually picking up 400 kilograms of cocaine to smuggle to the UNITED STATES.
After being forced to dump hundreds of pounds of cocaine to lighten the plane’s load, Leonard said Thornton said a few words to him before they reluctantly parachuted from the plane: “Just do what I tell you, and I will bring you out.”
Around 8:30 a.m. on September 11, 1985, Fred Myers got up to shave at his home in Knoxville when he looked out the window and saw a body tangled in a parachute. When Thornton was found with a broken neck after his parachute failed to open, he had on him $4,500 in cash, two pistols, two knives, ropes, food and more than 70 pounds of cocaine, according to the 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 taxi to meet Thornton’s girlfriend, as Thornton had told him to. 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 New York Times article reported that an American black bear in Georgia overdosed on cocaine in the botched drug bust. of Thornton. Alonso, Georgia’s chief medical examiner, told reporters the bear was found “in a very decomposed state” in the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest, surrounded by several plastic bags that authorities said contained approximately 75 pounds of cocaine.
“All that’s left is bones and big skin,” GBI’s Garner said of the bear.
Alonso told UPI that the bear, which was about 3 or 4 years old, likely died within 30 to 45 minutes of acute cocaine poisoning, noting that the animal had suffered a brain hemorrhage, respiratory failure, hyperthermia, renal failure, heart failure and stroke.
“The bear ingested substantial amounts of cocaine,” Alonso said, suggesting to The Associated Press that the bear was not about to eat the 75 pounds of drugs that were in the area. “He probably ingested two, three or four grams of cocaine. It could have been more. »
Since then, the bear and the man, forever linked by cocaine, have been remembered differently. The Kentucky for Kentucky Fun Mall in Lexington alleges a taxidermied bear is on display is the same known as “Cocaine Bear” or “Pablo Escobear”. The mall claimed in a 2015 blog post that the teddy bear once belonged to country music star Waylon Jennings before becoming a sight for shoppers. But Shooter Jennings’ manager, Waylon’s son, debunked the claim last December, telling WAVE in Louisville that “Waylon Jennings has never owned a taxidermy bear of any kind.”
As for Thornton, he became almost an afterthought in his own story. Warden told the Post that the man responsible for “Cocaine Bear” is not introduced after the first 10 minutes of the new movie. While those close to Thornton guessed he would have been proud of his infamous end — “He would have loved the concept of warriors falling from the sky,” his ex-wife told the Post in 1985 — others disagreed. didn’t pay attention. 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 for smuggling marijuana, told the AP at the time. “I hope he had a hell of a shot (of cocaine).”