Uncovering the conspiracy: Former WKYT journalists reflect on crime, corruption behind ‘Cocaine Bear’ drug run

In the early- to mid-1980s, WKYT reported extensively on what would become known as the ‘Bluegrass Conspiracy.’
In the early- to mid-1980s, WKYT reported extensively on what would become known as the ‘Bluegrass Conspiracy.’
Published: Feb. 21, 2023 at 3:27 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 second of five related stories this week, looks at the WKYT journalists who worked to dig up the network of organized crime and corruption with ties to the story behind the film.

LEXINGTON, Ky. (WKYT) - Even decades later, Ken Kurtz remembers exactly where he was on Sept. 11, 1985.

“I was off at my annual professional convention,” he said. “And somebody said, ‘Have you heard that Drew Thornton parachuted into Knoxville and has been killed?’ Wow!”

Kurtz worked as news director at WKYT from 1975 to 1992, and hired Sally Denton as the station’s first investigative reporter. (He also hired Barbara Bailey, Bill Bryant and Sam Dick.)

By the time Thornton died, Denton, employed at WKYT from about 1980 to 1983, was no longer working in Lexington, but the incident was a major example of several loose ends exposed by her reporting that were beginning to be tied up.

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“[Channel] 27 had to take a little bit of criticism from various people when Sally was doing various stories about the police department,” Kurtz said, “many of which ended up in ‘The Bluegrass Conspiracy.’”

(Denton’s book: “The Bluegrass Conspiracy: An Inside Story of Power, Greed, Drugs and Murder,” was first published in 1989. It has sold more than 250,000 copies.)

Denton did not respond to an interview request for this story, but, in a 2019 podcast interview with WKYT’s Amber Philpott, Denton said that Lexington in the early 1980s was an investigative reporter’s paradise because of the corruption in plain sight.

“It was just wild, and...so out in the open,” Denton said. “But to try and pull all the threads together - I mean, honestly, it’s taken me almost 40 years to connect a lot of the dots.”

Denton’s reporting “turned over the rocks, and the evils - the weevils - came out,” Kurtz said previously, highlighting the continuous nature of the revelations during that time.

“It was just one after another, and it was unheard of in Lexington television,” Denton said in 2019. “Ken gave me - I think the first story on ‘the Company’ [the drug smuggling ring at the center] - I can’t remember when it appeared, probably ‘82 - the story was 13 minutes long straight, without a break, at the top of the news, the 6 o’clock news.

“That was absolutely unheard of,” she said, “and we were only scratching the tip of the iceberg then.”

With public doubt and criticism of Denton’s reporting still lingering even after she left, Denton and Kurtz agreed that it was the circumstances surrounding Thornton’s death - when his parachute failed to open after he jumped from a plane with cocaine, cash, guns and gold strapped to him - that finally lent more credence to what they had been saying all along.

“It wasn’t until Drew Thornton parachuted,” Denton said, “that people were like, ‘Maybe Sally Denton did know what she was talking about.’”

“People did not want to believe the ‘Cocaine Cowboys’ existed within the Lexington Police Department,” Kurtz said. “Drew Thornton’s death really validated a lot of what she wrote, and now the ‘Cocaine Bear’ comes along for a new generation and re-validates a lot.”

The film “Cocaine Bear” is a highly-fictionalized hypothetical account of what could have happened to the bear that was found dead after having ingested some of the cocaine Thornton dropped from his plane while flying over rural Georgia. Director Elizabeth Banks described it as “the bear’s revenge story” inspired by a real event.

Kurtz said he was surprised to hear about the movie “Cocaine Bear,” but he does plan to see it when he gets the chance.

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