A look back: The true Ky. story behind the ‘Cocaine Bear’ movie

The film is loosely based on fact, stemming from a story with Bluegrass connections.
The film is loosely based on fact, stemming from a story with Bluegrass connections.
Published: Feb. 20, 2023 at 4:47 PM EST
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The movie “Cocaine Bear” opens Thursday in theaters. The new horror-comedy, which is rated R, is about a black bear that stumbles upon a stash of drugs, then goes on a bloody killing spree. It is a highly-fictionalized account loosely based on fact, from a story that has its roots in the Bluegrass. This, the first of five related stories this week, is a look back at the true story behind the bear.

LEXINGTON, Ky. (WKYT) - As the story began to spread, the nationwide legend of the bear began below the fold.

In The New York Times, it was on page A10 - an inch of newsprint that was easy to miss, buried beneath much larger articles titled “A Church, Chickens and Spies,” “Texas Ranchers Earn Extra Cash From Hunters,” and “Bright Lights Dim Neighbors’ Smiles.”

“Cocaine and a Dead Bear,” the headline read, accompanied by just a few short sentences from a United Press International news brief, on Dec. 23, 1985.

The chain of events that led there has a history in the WKYT Archives - as a Bluegrass conspiracy came crashing down three months earlier.

Andrew C. Thornton II, 41, died Sept. 11, 1985. His body was discovered on a driveway at a home in Knoxville, Tenn., after falling to his death from an airplane during what was believed to be a drug smuggling operation. His parachute failed to open when he jumped from the plane with cocaine, cash, guns and even gold strapped to him, investigators said.

[Drew Thornton’s Last Adventure | via The Washington Post (Oct. 20, 1985)]

Thornton was born in Bourbon County and grew up in Lexington. He worked for the Lexington Police Department for eight years before going to law school and becoming an attorney.

In 1981, he faced charges for drug and weapons trafficking, one of nine Kentuckians named in the indictment. After spending several months as a fugitive, Thornton was arrested, but then posted bond. He was later accused of staging his own shooting just days before his trial.

That was not the end of it, but it was part of what became known as the “Bluegrass Conspiracy” - organized crime and corruption involving businessmen, drug traffickers and law enforcement in central Kentucky.

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The story is the focus of “The Bluegrass Conspiracy: An Inside Story of Power, Greed, Drugs and Murder,” written by Sally Denton, who worked as an investigative reporter at WKYT from about 1980 to 1983.

Thornton’s final journey was an ill-fated drug run to Colombia. On the way back, believing to have federal agents on their tail, he and another man with him dropped bags of cocaine out of the plane before they jumped out. The plane crashed in North Carolina.

Three months later, investigators in Georgia found a 175-pound black bear dead after having ingested some of the cocaine Thornton dropped.

The film “Cocaine Bear” is a highly-fictionalized hypothetical account of what could have happened to the bear. Director Elizabeth Banks described it as “the bear’s revenge story” inspired by a real event.

“Cocaine Bear” is rated R for bloody violence and gore, drug content and language throughout. It releases Feb. 24 in theaters.