The Wild and Totally True Story Behind 'Cocaine Bear'

Meet the real 'Cocaine Bear.'
Meet the real 'Cocaine Bear.' / Universal Pictures

Cocaine Bear, the comedic thriller directed by Elizabeth Banks and starring Keri Russell that’s in theaters now, doesn’t refer to a codename or some kind of convoluted metaphor.

It’s about a bear, who does a ton of cocaine.

In the movie, a black bear consumes a bag full of white powder then goes on a murderous rampage through a small Georgia town. But unlike most previous comedies with internet-tailored titles (think Snakes on a Plane) Cocaine Bear is based on an unbelievable true story—with a few embellished details.

The Parachuting Kingpin

In the final months of 1985, a black bear stumbled upon a duffel bag full of cocaine in the Chattahoochee National Forest in northern Georgia. The stash had literally dropped out of the sky via a plane piloted by an eccentric Southern man named Andrew Thornton II

Thornton, or “Drew” as friends called him, began working as a narcotics police officer in Lexington, Kentucky, in the early 1970s and eventually earned his law degree in 1976. However, it wasn’t long before he turned to the other side of the law, allegedly getting swept up in a drug and weapons smuggling ring.

In 1981, in Fresno, California, Thornton was one of more than two dozen individuals indicted on two counts of conspiracy to import and distribute approximately 1000 pounds of marijuana. He pleaded not guilty, then went on the run; he was eventually arrested as a fugitive in North Carolina. For his crimes, Thornton was fined $500, had his law license revoked, served six months in prison, and was put on probation for five years.

With his law license suspended, Thornton couldn’t fall back on his law career. Instead, he reportedly resumed his criminal activities upon his release from prison. Despite all his legal troubles, Thornton was rumored to be a multimillionaire; he was a member of the tony Miami Jockey Club and even owned several race horses. Thanks to an early stint in the Army, Thornton was also a parachutist and had a pilot’s license, too—both skills he would use in a spectacular drug smuggling stunt that led to his early death.

Authorities later speculated that Thornton flew a twin-engine plane loaded with drugs from South America, placing it on auto pilot somewhere along the southeastern U.S. so he could jump out with a parachute. The plane crashed in the North Carolina mountains, and Thornton crashed in the backyard of a Knoxville home after falling at a rate of 60 to 80 mph, UPI reported. His parachute had failed to open.

Thornton was found dead with 77 pounds of cocaine strapped to his body, along with several guns and knives (the martial arts enthusiast was known to carry “strange weapons” on his person). Local investigators could not immediately locate the rest of the drugs onboard Thornton’s plane at the time of his death, including one bag loaded with $15 million worth of the powdery stuff.

But where the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) failed, “Pablo Escobear” succeeded. 

Bear Hunt

According to the Atlanta Constitution, the bear stood roughly 5 feet tall and was 3 to 4 years old at the time of the incident. It probably stumbled upon the bag in the mountains of Fannin County “a number of weeks” prior to December 20, 1985, when local officials found its decomposing body next to 40 ripped-open packages of cocaine and the torn duffel bag. No substantial quantities of the drug remained.

The scene might’ve suggested an obvious answer—the bear ate all of it—but investigators were quick to cool that particular theory. 

“We’re looking at over two months since it was dropped here,” GBI agent Gary Garner told UPI. “It’s had time to dissolve and there was snow on the mountain when we found it. The bear obviously didn’t eat 75 pounds of cocaine.”

An autopsy conducted the next day confirmed Garner’s assumption. The bear had ingested just two to four grams, give or take, and then died of “acute cocaine intoxication,” the AP reported.

The GBI never figured out what exactly happened to the rest of the stash. Agents suspected someone found the rest of the cocaine and scooped it into a fresh container before running off. They had questions for an unidentified hunter, who had supposedly found the bear and circulated the story for weeks before a state fish and game employee tipped off the GBI.

As for the bear itself, it didn’t go on a killing spree, but its legend lives on. According to local lore, the coroner who performed the autopsy had the bear taxidermied and donated to the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area soon after the debacle. The stuffed bear then supposedly went missing, bouncing between pawn shops and the home of Waylon Jennings before landing at the Kentucky for Kentucky Fun Mall in Lexington. There, he’s displayed in a rotating series of hats with an opened bag, nestled just at his feet.

Update: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Andrew Thornton II was a narcotics officer in Lexington, Tennessee.