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The True Story Behind ‘Cocaine Bear’

If there’s anything people on the internet love more than cute animals, it’s tales of Reagan-era drug-induced depravity. So on Tuesday, when Variety reported that actor Elizabeth Banks’ upcoming project would focus heavily on a bear involved in a botched drug smuggling operation, people on social media reacted in much the same way a coke-addicted ursine would if someone broke out a credit card and a rolled-up $20 at a party: with extreme interest and excitement.

Described as a “character-driven thriller inspired by true events that took place in Kentucky in 1985,” the film, which aptly has the working title Cocaine Bear, is reportedly based on a true story of a convicted drug smuggler who died while parachuting from a plane carrying an extremely heavy load of drugs. The unfortunate bear in question happened to chance upon 40 containers of cocaine and died of an overdose.

There are many questions raised by this project: from what perspective will the story be told, that of the drug trafficker or that of the bear? If the latter, would the film focus on the bear’s everyday life, consisting largely of footage of salmon fishing and developing fecal plugs (Google it) for hibernation? Or would Cocaine Bear follow more of a Lifetime-inspired trajectory and depict the bear’s descent into addiction, complete with frenetic dance montages set to EDM and at least one scene of the bear performing with a woodpecker in a sex show for drug money?

Since none of these details have been revealed, here’s what we know about the true story behind the cocaine bear itself.

What is the cocaine bear?

The story of the cocaine bear starts with the tale of Andrew Carter Thornton, the well-off son of Kentucky horse breeders who became an Air Force officer and Purple Heart recipient and later a narcotics police officer. Thornton resigned from the Lexington, Kentucky police force in 1977 to practice law.

The law-abiding life apparently did not serve him well: in 1981 he was arrested, along with 25 other men, for attempting to steal guns from a naval base in Fresno, California and for attempting to traffic 1,000 pounds of marijuana into the country. A 1980 federal indictment alleged that Thornton was part of a drug-and-weapons smuggling ring called “the Company,” which also reportedly involved other former Kentucky police officers.

Initially, Thornton was slapped with two felony charges of conspiracy to import and distribute a controlled substance, to which he pleaded not guilty. After fleeing the state, he was found heavily armed in North Carolina and brought back to California to face reduced misdemeanor drug charges. He pleaded no contest to the charges and was sentenced to six months in prison and a $500 fine; as part of the terms of his sentence, he also had his law license revoked.

But Thornton’s days of drug smuggling were far from over. On September 11th, 1985, his body was found in a driveway in Knoxville, Tennessee, wearing a parachute and carrying about 77 pounds of cocaine, which was later valued to be worth about $14 million. He was heavily armed and wearing a bulletproof vest, and was also carrying a membership card to the Miami Jockey Club. Authorities later found his plane, which had been on autopilot, about 60 miles away. They determined that he had attempted to jump from the plane, but his parachute had failed to open. He was 40 years old.

In addition to the bizarre circumstances surrounding his death, Thornton is also notable for inspiring perhaps the most vicious quote ever to be featured in an obituary. “I’m glad his parachute didn’t open,” the district attorney who prosecuted him on the 1981 marijuana trafficking charge told the LA Times after he died. “I hope he got a hell of a high out of that.” Though considering that Thornton’s body was found with several epigrams, including the cheery quotation, “There is only one tactical principle not subject to change: It is to inflict the maximum amount of wounds, death and destruction on the enemy in the minimum amount of time,” it’s perhaps not surprising that this was a guy who made more than a few enemies during his lifetime.

In 1987, two years after Thornton’s death, authorities charged his girlfriend with conspiracy to smuggle cocaine from Colombia into Tennessee, but the charges were dropped after a judge ruled that a confession she had made to an agent pretending to be a member of the Colombian cartel was given under duress.

OK, that’s very sad and all, but where does the bear come in? 

A few months after Thornton died, a hunter in the Chattahoochee National Forest in Georgia stumbled on a 175-pound black bear. The bear was extremely dead; though it was not found half-naked atop a 1970s art deco coffee table with blood-crusted nostrils like someone in Boogie Nights, it appeared to have overdosed after attempting to eat 75 pounds of 95-percent pure cocaine, which it had found in a duffel bag.

It’s still unclear exactly how much cocaine the bear managed to eat; an autopsy later determined it had only ingested about three or four grams, but when the bag was discovered, all 75 pounds of the coke were completely gone. “Its stomach was literally packed to the brim with cocaine,” the official who performed the bear’s autopsy later said. “There isn’t a mammal on the planet that could survive that. Cerebral hemorrhaging, respiratory failure, hyperthermia, renal failure, heart failure, stroke. You name it, that bear had it.”

Remarkably, the story doesn’t end there. The bear was stuffed and put on display, passing through various owners — including, at one point, country star Waylon Jennings  — before finally ending up at the roadside attraction the Kentucky for Kentucky Fun Mall in 2015, where it was redubbed Pablo Escobear. “You wouldn’t think that a Cocaine Bear would be for all ages, but kids love it,” one of the proprietors told Roadside America. “Everybody wants their picture with Cocaine Bear.” The bear even made a cameo appearance in a surreal 2016 ad for the mall.

This is a fascinating story, but it doesn’t sound super amenable to cinematic adaptation. Cocaine Bear sounds more like it’s angling to be a part of the viral news cycle and less like a fully developed project in its own right. If I’m being honest with myself, will I actually watch this movie when it comes out? 

Probably not. But if you do, feel free to check out this explainer again!

What do you think?

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