Upcoming documentary probes questions of ‘Bluegrass Conspiracy,’ ‘Cocaine Bear’

The process took a Louisville reporter on a journey through Kentucky, Tennessee and Georgia.
The process took a Louisville reporter on a journey through Kentucky, Tennessee and Georgia.
Published: Feb. 22, 2023 at 4:05 PM EST|Updated: Feb. 22, 2023 at 4:23 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 third of five related stories this week, gives a sneak peek at an upcoming documentary looking into the true story behind the bear and the bear itself.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WKYT) - In months of digging through investigative case files, Natalia Martinez says one of her favorite finds originally came from the wallet of Andrew Thornton: a small, handwritten poem.

“It talks about, ‘Don’t believe anything except what you yourself believe to be as true,’” she described.

The quotation is appropriate, she said, not just for Thornton, but for thinking of the story of the Bluegrass Conspiracy as a whole.

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Fascinated by the story, Martinez, an investigative reporter at WAVE-TV in Louisville, started looking into it before she had even heard of the movie “Cocaine Bear.” Her focus centers on the stories of Andrew Thornton and the bear itself, with her journey for answers taking her “from the dense Georgia mountains, down Kentucky’s Cocaine Corridor and to the very spot where Thornton died.”

“It’s just got so many different elements to it, that I think it’s intriguing,” Martinez said. “And that’s why people have kind of latched on, and even though it’s been 40 years, it’s still fascinating.”

By now, many of the case files have been destroyed, Martinez learned. Still, she was able to track down the FBI file on Thornton and the toxicology report for the drug-ingesting bear itself.

WAVE’s documentary also uncovers what it bills as the “true story behind the drug-sniffing bear and its rise to stardom,” the documentary’s webpage states. “The film dissects the myths surrounding the ultimate party animal” and attempts to answer some questions about its history.

The clothing and souvenir shop Kentucky for Kentucky claims to own the real bear, which is now stuffed and located at the business’s Fun Mall on Bryan Avenue. (The taxidermied bear is scheduled to appear at the Kentucky Theatre for the “Cocaine Bear” movie’s opening weekend.)

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“Before we searched for Cocaine Bear’s stuffed remains, he was a forgotten footnote in the story of the Bluegrass Conspiracy,” KY for KY said in a statement Monday. The shop has an entire line of Cocaine Bear merchandise. “His demise is now well documented, and his mythologized final hours are about to hit the silver screen, but post-death, his story gets even weirder and more convoluted.

“In 2015 we tracked down the long-lost taxidermied Bear and brought him to the KY for KY Fun Mall in Lexington, Kentucky, to share his legend and what we learned about his post-overdose provenance. Visited and bringing joy to thousands of people every month, Cocaine Bear is not just a roadside attraction - and soon-to-be biopic anti-hero - he’s also a city mascot, a heartwarming community builder, and a warning to all the dangers of drug abuse.

“We trademarked his name and likeness as part of our guardianship, popularizing him as a character,” the statement reads. (The business licensed the naming rights to the movie’s production company for the upcoming film, the Herald Leader reported.) “You can visit Cocaine Bear free of charge during opening hours. We hope that you do.”

[Learn more about WAVE’s documentary here.]

The documentary has something even for those already familiar with the background story, Martinez said.

“They are going to get the true story of Andrew Thornton and this bear and what led to his demise,” she said.

Many family members of the players - as well as others still alive who were involved in the case - did not speak to Martinez for the documentary, she said, but, as time passes, she hopes they will share their stories - for history’s sake - before it is too late and fiction takes over.

She hopes that viewers come away from the documentary with a different sense of who Andrew Thornton was.

“You look on the internet and all you see is, ‘Cop gone rogue,’ ‘Drug-smuggling cop,’” she said. “And I think there was so much more to Andrew Thornton.”

After all, the poem in his wallet tried to warn us.

WAVE’s documentary, “Blow: The True Story of Cocaine, a Bear and a Crooked Kentucky Cop,” is scheduled to premiere March 10. It will stream on WAVE’s website and OTT channels like Roku, Amazon Fire, AppleTV and the WAVE News YouTube channel.