Real Stories is an ongoing column about the true stories behind movies and TV shows. It’s that simple. This installment focuses on the real story behind the 2023 film Cocaine Bear.
Some stories sound so ridiculous that it is hard to believe that they originated anywhere else but in the writers’ room. They sound more like an episode of a cartoon than reality. Such is the real story behind Cocaine Bear, an upcoming film directed by Elizabeth Banks and starring Keri Russell, O’Shea Jackson Jr., and Christian Convery. The film also features the great Ray Liotta in one of his final film roles.
Ahead of the film’s release, here is a look at the absurd and true story behind Cocaine Bear, which, yes, does involve a bear ingesting cocaine. The poor thing.
A Parachute Accident
Our tale beings on September 11, 1985. An 84-year-old man by the name of Fred Myers got up to shave. When he looked out of the window of his Knoxville, Tennessee home, however, he saw something strange. He saw the body of Andrew Carter Thornton II (played in the film by Matthew Rhys).
The son of a “well-to-do Kentucky family,” as Time described him, was found with “79 lbs. of cocaine, two pistols, knives and $4,500 in cash.” He also had night-vision goggles and a bulletproof vest. Later that day, a plane crashed into the mountains of North Carolina.
What was this former narcotics officer and attorney doing? What had happened?
Thornton had previously been busted for smuggling marijuana and was later placed on probation. In the wake of his death, the clues were eventually pieced together. As Tony Acri, assistant special agent in the Atlanta office of the Federal Drug Enforcement Administration, told the Associated Press in 1988: “It was an unusual case.”
With two accomplices, Thornton had planned to smuggle 880 pounds of cocaine into the United States from Colombia. While jumping out of his twin-engine Cessna plane, Thornton’s parachute malfunctioned, and he hit the ground, landing on his head. According to the AP, investigators were able to link “nearly 300 pounds of Colombian cocaine strewn from a plane across eastern Tennessee and northern Georgia” directly to Thornton’s fall. As Acri put it:
The fact that Thornton parachuted in carrying the dope – we haven’t seen that before.
The Cocaine Bear
As investigators tried to make sense of Thornton’s fall from the sky and the details of the obvious smuggling plot, a poor bear fell victim to the scheme. In December of that year, the Associated Press reported:
Investigators searching for cocaine dropped by an airborne smuggler have found a ripped-up shipment of the sweet-smelling powder and the remains of a bear that apparently died of a multimillion-dollar high.
Investigators had successfully tracked down most of the missing cocaine. However, they discovered a torn duffle bag that had previously contained the drug alongside the bear. They found the bear, who weighed about 150 pounds, about four weeks after its death.
In the film, the bear goes on a murderous rampage. However, no such violence occurred here. The bear was found in the mountains, about 80 miles north of Atlanta, just south of Tennessee. According to the AP:
Officials believe the bear, and maybe some others, ate several million dollars worth of the cocaine. Each of the 40 packages is believed to have contained one kilogram of cocaine, or about 88 pounds in all, and valued at as much as $20 million.
On Christmas Eve, the AP continued its coverage of the bear’s overdose. A medical examiner corrected the record, noting that the bear did not consume all of the missing cocaine. Medical examiners said the bear had “only three or four grams of cocaine into its bloodstream, although it may have eaten more.” Investigators believe that Thornton dropped the cocaine there with the intention of returning.
The plot thickened when officials said they wanted to talk with the hunter who had found the bear, as some of the duffle bags were missing cocaine. That part of the story seems to have never been resolved, at least not publicly.
Visit the Bear
If taxidermy is your thing, here’s some good news: you can visit the so-called “Cocaine Bear.” After the bear was medically examined, it was taxidermized. After years of changing hands, the bear is now on display at the Fun Mall in Lexington, Kentucky.
“You wouldn’t think that a Cocaine Bear would be for all ages, but kids love it,” one of the buyers told Roadside America. “Everybody wants their picture with Cocaine Bear.”
Cocaine Bear debuts in theaters on February 24, 2023