'Cocaine Bear' Is Inspired by a True Story That May Be Even Wilder Than the Upcoming Elizabeth Banks Film

Turns out, a bear ingesting 40 containers of cocaine is not the craziest part of this story.

The upcoming Elizabeth Banks-directed blockbuster “Cocaine Bear” may sound like some sort of made-up Hollywood script, cut from the same cloth as “Snakes on a Plane” or “Anaconda,” but the film's core premise—a bear consuming an obscene amount of the illegal substance—is inspired by a true event.

The true story might even prove stranger than the fiction it has inspired.

This is the wild backstory of what is sure to be 2023’s craziest movie.

How a Drug Smuggling Operation Led to a Black Bear's Death

Andrew Carter Thornton II seemed to be a standup patriot who served his country. As a paratrooper in the 101st Airborne division of the Army, he received a Purple Heart. In 1968, he joined the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Police Department in Kentucky while attending college at night at Eastern Kentucky University. After graduating in 1971, he got his law degree at the University of Kentucky College of Law.

But during his tenure as a police officer, he began drug smuggling. 

He resigned from the force in 1977, and four years later, Thornton found himself in serious trouble. He was one of 25 men who were believed to have stolen weapons from the China Lake Naval Weapons Center and of conspiring to smuggle 1,000 pounds of marijuana into the United States, the Los Angeles Times reported at the time. 

The 25 men were linked by news reports to a larger suspected dope and gun-running syndicate known as “The Company” according to the Times.

Thornton wasn’t charged in the China Lake weapons case but was indicted in Fresno, California, on one count of conspiracy to import a controlled substance and one count of conspiracy to distribute a controlled substance. The indictment, obtained by the Los Angeles Times, said he piloted a plane that flew on a drug run from South America to Kentucky in 1979. 

He pleaded no contest in Fresno to a misdemeanor drug charge and the felony charges were dropped. He was sentenced to six months in prison, fined $500, placed on probation for five years, and had his law license suspended.

But Thornton, who Knoxville Police Lt. Jerry Day described in an interview with the Los Angeles Times as “a kind of survivalist, an individual who was expecting trouble and ready for it," continued to smuggle drugs. 

On Sept. 11, 1985, he was piloting a Cessna 404 from Colombia to America with millions of dollars of cocaine on board when the plane began to reportedly malfunction. Thornton panicked and pushed at least 40 containers of cocaine out of the plane, according to the Daily Mirror.

Realizing the plane was going to crash, he set the plane’s course on autopilot and directed it to the Atlantic Ocean. Heavily armed, wearing a bulletproof vest and expensive Gucci shoes, and carrying thousands of dollars in cash and a duffel bag containing 77 pounds of cocaine, Thornton jumped from the aircraft. The 77 pounds of coke that he had strapped to his body had a street value of over $14 million, according to reports from the time.

Thornton’s parachute failed to open and he fell to his death. His body was discovered in the driveway of a homeowner in Knoxville, Tennessee.

The plane crashed on land 60 miles away from Thornton's body. 

Knoxville police connected a key found on his body to the plane that crashed and ultimately believed Thornton intended to meet someone on the ground to deliver the cocaine. 

"I’m glad his parachute didn’t open," Brian Leighton, a Fresno-based assistant U.S. attorney who prosecuted Thornton for his earlier crimes, told the Los Angeles Times after his death. "I hope he got a hell of a high out of that (cocaine)."

Months after Thornton’s ill-fated flight across the U.S., a hunter discovered a dead 175-pound black bear in Chattahoochee National Forest in Northern Georgia. Also nearby were 40 containers of pure Colombian cocaine.

'Literally Packed to the Brim With Cocaine'

The discovery wasn't immediately reported to authorities, but ultimately a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agent learned of the dead bear and alerted the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, Backpacker reported. 

“They'd been looking for the cocaine on Thursday, didn't find it, and returned to search on Friday. They found the bear, too,” Fannin County Sheriff Walter Porter told UPI at the time.

The bear was reportedly estimated to have ingested about $15 million worth of cocaine. And though the film the case has inspired appears to tell the story of a bear that embarks on a violent rampage after ingesting a deadly quantity of cocaine, such an outcome wouldn't be possible in real life. 

"Its stomach was literally packed to the brim with cocaine. There isn't a mammal on the planet that could survive that," Dr. Kenneth Alonso, the former chief medical examiner at the Georgia State Crime Lab who performed the autopsy on the bear, told the Kentucky for Kentucky Fun Mall. "Cerebral hemorrhaging, respiratory failure, hyperthermia, renal failure, heart failure, stroke. You name it, that bear had it."

In 1985, Alonso told the Associated Press that the autopsy revealed that the bear absorbed only three or four grams of cocaine into its blood stream but had eaten far more.  

″The question is: What happened to that duffel bag?″ Alonso said. ″The bear does not account for the full duffel bag.″

What Happened to 'Cocaine Bear' After Its Body Was Found

The story of the bear has become the stuff of legends. 

Now known locally as "Pablo Escobear” or, more to the point, “Cocaine Bear,” the animal's body was taxidermized. It became a tourist attraction at a park at Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area park but was put in storage in the early 1990s when a wildfire threatened the area, according to reports.

The bear was reportedly among items stolen from the storage facility that ultimately ended up for sale, and eventually it came to belong to country music legend Waylon Jennings. Jennings and the pawn shop owner did not know that the bear was stolen, according to Kentucky for Kentucky Fun Mall.

Jennings, who reportedly had an affinity for collecting taxidermy, purchased the bear for Ron Thompson, a friend based in Las Vegas. Thompson died in 2009 and many of his personal items went to auction, including “Pablo Escobear,” according to Kentucky for Kentucky Fun Mall.

The bear was purchased at auction for $200 by Zhu T'ang, a Chinese American businessman in Reno, Nevada, who displayed it in his store. When Zhu T'ang died in 2012, his widow sold the business but kept the bear, despite never really liking it, according to Kentucky For Kentucky Fun Mall.

"He was always bringing home junk from auctions and estate sales and things like that," his widow told Kentucky For Kentucky Fun Mall. "The bear was one of his favorite things. He just loved it for some reason. At first, he wanted to keep it in our living room but I wouldn't have it. It scared me. I made him take it to the store."

Ultimately, the bear would go on to be sent to the owners of the Kentucky for Kentucky Fun Mall, who were told by Zhu T'ang's wife that they only need to pay for the cost of its shipping. 

Since 2015, the bear has been on display at the shop in Lexington, Kentucky. It dons a backwards cap and a sign around its neck that includes its origin story as well as a message to patrons that reads, “Don’t do drugs or you’ll end up dead (and maybe stuffed) like poor ‘Cocaine Bear.’”

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