Pablo Escobear: The True, and Tragic, Story of ‘Cocaine Bear'

Don White/iStock via Getty Images
Don White/iStock via Getty Images / Don White/iStock via Getty Images

Cocaine Bear, a new movie set to be directed by Elizabeth Banks, will live up to its title. The premise of the Universal Pictures film centers on a botched drug smuggling plot that leads to a bear consuming—and succumbing to—millions of dollars worth of cocaine. The story may sound over-the-top, even by Hollywood standards, but it's based on true events that are stranger than fiction.

The real story begins with Andrew Carter Thornton II, the kingpin in charge of a Kentucky drug smuggling ring known as "The Company." Before getting involved in the illegal drug trade, Thornton was an Army paratrooper, a lawyer, and a corrupt Lexington narcotics officer. He was arrested for his crimes in 1981, but the police released him thinking that his activity would lead them to his powerful accomplices. What they didn't know was that Thornton was just a few years away from dying a highly unusual death.

In 1985, Thornton was smuggling cocaine by plane when the aircraft engine started to malfunction. He panicked and decided to get himself and his drug haul onto solid ground as quickly as possible. Authorities believe he pushed as much cocaine out of the plane as he could—at least 40 packages of it—before strapping another 75 pounds of the drug to his body and jumping out of the plane with a parachute. The parachute didn't open correctly, however, and Thornton's lifeless body was later found on a driveway in Knoxville, Tennessee. He was wearing night-vision goggles and a bulletproof vest, and carrying weapons, thousands of dollars in cash, and a bag filled with $15 million worth of cocaine.

Thornton's failed evacuation led to another noteworthy fatality about 50 miles away in Georgia's Chattahoochee National Forest. After the packages of cocaine landed in the forest, they were discovered by a 175-pound black bear that has since been dubbed "Pablo Escobear" (he's also known as "Cocaine Bear"). The bear's body was later discovered surrounded by the empty packages, and a medical examination revealed that his stomach was stuffed to capacity with cocaine. His death was linked to cerebral hemorrhaging, stroke, respiratory failure, renal failure, heart failure, and hyperthermia—all signs of a severe drug overdose.

We don't know exactly what Thornton and Cocaine Bear's final moments were like, but the upcoming film based on the story will give us an idea. According to Deadline, The Babysitter: Killer Queen writer Jimmy Warden is penning the script and filmmaking partners Phil Lord and Chris Miller are producing the project along with Banks, with whom they previously collaborated on The LEGO Movie.

Cocaine Bear could start filming as early as summer 2021. If you can't wait for the story to get the Hollywood treatment, you can see the real bear's taxidermied remains on display at the Kentucky for Kentucky Fun Mall in Lexington.