Some stories are truly stranger than fiction.
Such is the case with a cinematic project in the works courtesy of Elizabeth Banks (”Hunger Games,” “Zack and Miri Make a Porno”), who will direct “Cocaine Bear.” It’s an epic tale of drug smuggling, a Kentucky kingpin, a horrific parachute accident and a Georgia black bear who simply found himself in the wrong woods at the wrong time.
Andrew Carter Thornton II was once an Army paratrooper with the 82nd Airborne Division, reportedly receiving a Purple Heart during the 1965 Dominican civil war intervention. He then became a police officer in the Lexington department’s first narcotics squad, where his counterparts described him as a “‘Starsky & Hutch’ type of cop,” according to a 1985 Washington Post story. “He drove fast cars, popped in and raided people.”
When kicking in doors lost its edge, Thornton embarked on an array of vocational pursuits, earning a law degree, becoming “a daring pilot, a master of martial arts who boasted of killing a German shepherd with his bare hands, and an expert sky diver — famous among jumpers for ‘pulling low,’ or releasing the chute at below 2,000 feet,” the report said.
By the late 1970s, his thrill-seeking talents led him to a new frontier: drug smuggling.
Thornton started with marijuana and weapons, which landed him a jail sentence in the early 1980s. Believing he could be of use as an informant, however, police cut him loose after an abbreviated stint. But an ambitious Thornton quickly resumed his new trade, graduating to a Kentucky cocaine network before assuming the role of kingpin in a smuggling ring known simply as “The Company.”
For years, Thornton experienced significant success smuggling cocaine into Appalachia — that is until 1985, when the Army veteran was piloting a cocaine-filled Cessna twin-engine 404 that began to malfunction over the southeastern U.S.
In a last-ditch effort to save the product on board, Thornton began dumping bricks of cocaine out over Georgia’s Chattahoochee National Forest. He then strapped approximately 75 pounds of it to his body before bailing out of the Cessna, which crashed unmanned into a North Carolina mountainside.
Unlike the jumps he had invariably performed in the Army, this one went awry. Thornton’s chute never fully opened.
When he smashed into the earth on a Knoxville, Tennessee, property belonging to local resident Fred Myers, “Thornton was wearing a bulletproof vest, special night vision goggles, a Browning 9 mm automatic pistol, a .22-caliber pistol and several clips of ammunition,” the Post report said.
“He had with him survival gear, a stiletto, $4,500 in cash, six gold Krugerrands, food rations and vitamins, a compass, an altimeter, identification papers in two different names, a membership card to the Miami Jockey Club and the key to the airplane. His Army duffel bag contained 34 football-sized bundles of cocaine that were marked ‘USA 10.’”
Following the accident, bewildered resident Fred Myers told the New York Times, simply, “I’ve never had a landing in my backyard before.” Classic Fred.
Thornton was 40 years old.
Fifty miles to the south, “Pablo Eskobear,” as the 175-pound black bear became known, was making his merry way through the forest when he stumbled upon the vast supply of cocaine ejected from Thornton’s aircraft.
The aptly-coined “Cocaine Bear” went to town accordingly, consuming brick after brick until eventually, well, dying.
Medical reports revealed that the bear’s stomach was filled to the brim. The powdered buffet inevitably led to heart, respiratory and renal failure, on top of yielding a brain hemorrhage, stroke and hyperthermia.
That very bear, also known as “Cocaine Bear,” now sits on (stuffed) display in the Kentucky For Kentucky Fun Mall in Lexington, an unnecessarily-named facility that also sells Cocaine Bear merchandise like stuffed bears, tees, puzzles and coffee mugs. Neat.
The film, meanwhile, will be co-produced by Phil Lord and Chris Miller, both of whom worked alongside Banks during “The Lego Movie” installments.
Cast members include Keri Russell (”Dawn of the Planet of the Apes”), Ray Liotta (”Goodfellas”), Alden Ehrenreich (”Solo: A Star Wars Story”), O’Shea Jackson Jr. (”Straight Outta Compton”) and Kristofer Hivju (”Game of Thrones”).
Filming is expected to start this year.
Jon Simkins is a writer and editor for Military Times, and a USMC veteran.