5 Things To Know About Drug Officer Andrew Thornton And The Real Story Of The ‘Cocaine Bear’

The real-life circumstances that inspired the movie 'Cocaine Bear' require just as much suspension of disbelief as the film inspired by these bizarrely true events.

December 08, 2022
Andrew Carter “Drew” Thornton II, pictured here, died after jumping from a Cessna on Sept. 11, 1985.

The real-life circumstances that inspired the movie 'Cocaine Bear' require just as much suspension of disbelief as the film inspired by these bizarrely true events.

Photo by: FindAGrave.com


The film Cocaine Bear is a horror comedy about a black bear that ingests a large amount of cocaine and terrorizes a north Georgia town as the residents wait for it to sober up or overdose. While it sounds far fetched, the premise of the movie is based on bizarre true events that include paratrooper Andrew Thornton, a dead bear, and 77 pounds of Colombian cocaine.

Here are five things to know about the real story of the Cocaine Bear.

Andrew Thornton was a paratrooper and a cop who earned a law degree

Before he was found dead in the driveway at a Knoxville, Tennessee home in 1985, Lexington, Kentucky native Andrew “Drew” Thornton was an army veteran, police officer, and an attorney. According to a Washington Post article published at the time of his death, he was awarded a purple heart for injuries he sustained during the U.S. invasion of the Dominican Republic in 1965. Later, he went home to Lexington, Kentucky where he became a police officer that worked closely with the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), but at some point he joined the smugglers he’d been working to bust.

A previous run-in with the law left him without his law license

According to the Los Angeles Times, Thornton was one of 25 people accused of stealing weapons from a naval facility and conspiring to import half a ton of marijuana into the country. He was later indicted on federal conspiracy charges for allegedly flying a plane full of marijuana between South America and Kentucky in 1979. He was sentenced to six months in prison, he had to surrender his law license, and he was placed on probation for five years.

The feds were already sniffing around Lexington before Thornton died

A January 1984 article from United Press International reported that the United States Department of Justice knew that there was a massive drug ring operating out of Lexington, and that it was being aided by officers from the Kentucky State Police, the Lexington FBI office, and officers on the Lexington police force. While Thornton is not explicitly named in that article, it does name cocaine as the drug in question and explains that federal investigators were led across the country to track down leads and suspects in the case.

Thornton’s flight killed him and a bear more than 100 miles apart from one another

On Sept. 9, 1985, Thornton and a bodyguard reportedly flew a Cessna to Colombia in South America where he picked up 400 kilograms (roughly 880 pounds) of cocaine to smuggle back into the United States. The pair made the return trip on Sept. 11, but they got spooked somewhere over Georgia when they heard on the radio that the FBI was following them. They dumped some of their cocaine as they neared the state line between Georgia and Tennessee, and then prepared to parachute from the plane near Knoxville, Tennessee. The passenger jumped, made it safely to the ground, and then walked to a grocery store and called a cab so he could meet an accomplice in downtown Knoxville and then head north to Kentucky. Thornton, however, was not so lucky.

Thornton put the plane on autopilot and strapped about 80 lbs of the cocaine to his body to prepare for his own jump. His parachute malfunctioned — perhaps due to the fact that he jumped from a low altitude and had such a heavy load strapped to his body — and he fell to his death in Knoxville, Tennessee. His body was discovered in the driveway of a home. The unmanned plane ultimately crashed in the mountains of North Carolina. Authorities were able to tie Thornton to the plane because a key in his pocket had the same numbers as the crashed Cessna.

You can go see the Cocaine Bear for yourself

As for the so-called cocaine bear, there was no murderous rampage like the movie implies. In December of 1985, investigators in Georgia were searching for the cocaine that Thornton had dropped from the plane prior to his failed jump. Instead, they stumbled across a 175-lb black bear lying dead among several open packages of cocaine. Authorities believe the bear found the packages, tore into them, and then died after overdosing on several million dollars of the drug.

The bear carcass was taxidermied and spent time on display in Georgia before somehow making it into the hands of outlaw country music star Waylon Jennings. Eventually, the bear was purchased by the Kentucky for Kentucky Fun Mall in Lexington, where it is still on display.

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