Elizabeth Banks is going to direct a movie based on the true story of the cocaine bear, Variety reports. Phil Lord and Chris Miller of Lego Movie fame will produce, the screenplay is by Jimmy Warden, and—yes, that’s what I said, the true story of the cocaine bear. You know, the cocaine bear! The working title for the project, described as a “character-driven thriller,” is Cocaine Bear, and—fine. I was going to give you all the details of Lord and Miller’s first-look deal with Universal Pictures, maybe touch on the disappointing box office returns for Banks’ last film, Charlie’s Angels, and then list everyone’s agents, but if you are not going to let this cocaine bear thing go, here’s the true story of the cocaine bear.
Unfortunately for filmgoers hoping for an ursine Scarface, the part of the true story of the cocaine bear that involves a bear doing cocaine is extremely brief. Sometime in November of 1985, a black bear living in the Chattahoochee National Forest in north Georgia stumbled upon a duffel bag containing about 75 pounds of 95 percent pure cocaine. The bear, which only weighed about 175 pounds itself, ate some of the cocaine and died within about 20 minutes—scarcely enough time to make any grandiose bear plans, never mind hitting the clubs with Michelle Pfeiffer. The chief medical examiner at the Georgia State Crime Lab later estimated the bear had absorbed about 3 or 4 grams of cocaine into its bloodstream at the time of its death. After about a week, a local hunter, never identified, found the bear and told his friends about it, but didn’t report it to the authorities. It took three weeks for the story to trickle down to a game and fish agent through word-of-mouth. That agent handed the story off to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, and they discovered the bear’s body on Dec. 20. At some point between the time the hunter found the bear and the GBI’s arrival, all of the cocaine disappeared, although, as a GBI agent noted, “the bear obviously didn’t eat 75 pounds of cocaine.” Another agent was similarly suspicious of the empty, cocaine-residue-free wrappers found in the duffel bag, telling reporters, “Something ain’t right, I’ll tell you that.”
That’s the only part of the true story of the cocaine bear where bears and cocaine intersect, and it’s not all that cinematic, but the manner in which the cocaine found its way to the Chattahoochee National Forest in the first place has more than enough plot for a movie. On the morning of Sept. 11, 1985, Fred M. Myers of Knoxville, Tennessee, found a dead man in his driveway, sprawled out on his back over an unopened parachute, seemingly fine except for a trickle of dried blood from each nostril. Myers later remembered hearing a crash around midnight the night before. The dead man was wearing a bulletproof vest and night vision goggles and carried two different pistols, ammunition, a stiletto, freeze-dried food, six Krugerrands, $4,500 cash, IDs in multiple names, a membership card to the Miami Jockey Club, and several inspirational epigrams, one of which read, “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.” He also had a duffel bag with about 75 pounds of cocaine, all of which was recovered. Police identified him as Andrew Carter Thornton II, of Paris, Kentucky, a former police officer and Drug Enforcement Administration agent who’d been accused of stealing weapons from the China Lake Naval Weapons Center and conspiring to smuggle marijuana into the United States back in 1981. The Federal Aviation Administration concluded that he had jumped from an altitude of 7,000 feet and gotten his parachute lines tangled with the duffel bags of supplies and cocaine strapped to his waist.
That same morning, a crashed plane was discovered in Macon County, North Carolina, and was quickly matched with a key in Thornton’s pocket. He’d apparently engaged the autopilot and sent the twin-engine Cessna toward the Atlantic before bailing out over Knoxville, but the plane didn’t clear the mountains. A few days later, a garment bag containing clothing, a pilot’s handbook, and maps of Jamaica was found floating in a pond southwest of Atlanta in Butts County, Georgia. Then the cocaine started showing up. Later in September, game rangers found three duffel bags containing 210 pounds of cocaine hanging from a parachute caught in a tree in the Chattahoochee National Forest. In November, a group of timber workers found another bag with another 28 pounds. The cocaine bear made its fatal discovery that same month, and at the end of December, a hunter found another 220 pounds in three more duffel bags.
It took the authorities two years to sort out what happened, but in November of 1987, federal prosecutors accused Thornton’s girlfriend, Rebecca Sharp, and a man named Ruben Soto, listed as a fugitive in his indictment, of a conspiracy to smuggle cocaine from Colombia into East Tennessee.* Sharp had allegedly been in Knoxville to pick up Thornton and an accomplice who had been on the plane; the plan was for other associates to collect the cocaine from the drop zones. It was never clear whether this was the original plan to get the cocaine to the U.S. distributors who were expecting it, or if Thornton was double-crossing his business partners. Charges against Sharp were dropped in February of 1988 when a judge ruled that the confession she gave to an agent who had presented himself as a representative of the Colombian cartel trying to locate the cocaine was inadmissible because it had been given under duress.* The entire story of Thornton’s smuggling operation, as far as anyone knows it, is detailed in Sally Denton’s 1990 book The Bluegrass Conspiracy.
As for the unlucky cocaine bear, it was taxidermized, and spent the ensuing years getting passed around among a variety of owners, one of whom was reportedly Waylon Jennings. It eventually surfaced as a tourist attraction at the Kentucky Fun Mall in Lexington, Kentucky, where it achieved national notoriety in 2016 by appearing in a TV ad that went viral:
The Kentucky Fun Mall is temporarily closed due to COVID-19, but the cocaine bear can ordinarily be seen from Monday to Saturday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., and on Sundays from 11 to 6. In just a few short years, you’ll also be able to see the cocaine bear at your local theater, thanks to Elizabeth Banks, Phil Lord, Chris Miller, and Jimmy Warden. And that is the true story of the cocaine bear. Cocaine bear!
Correction, March 10, 2021: This article originally misspelled Colombia and Colombian.