The real-life story behind 'Cocaine Bear'

The real-life story that inspired 'Cocaine Bear' is almost as wild as the trailer: It starts with an Army paratrooper turned drug smuggler.
A scene from the film "Cocaine Bear"
Posted at 6:16 PM, Dec 02, 2022

The trailer for the much-hyped dark comedy "Cocaine Bear" is finally here, and it has many people wondering: Which part of this "based on a true story" film really happened in real life?Although the Universal Pictures film might seem too far-fetched and downright absurd to be real, "Cocaine Bear" is based on the true story of a 175-pound black bear who apparently died of a cocaine overdose. The film "Cocaine Bear," which was directed by Elizabeth Banks, depicts a bear's drug-fueled rampage as he terrorizes an Appalachian community.

But how did a bear discover cocaine in the mountains of Georgia, and how did he consume enough to lead to his tragic death?

The story begins with drug trafficker Andrew Carter Thornton II. Thornton joined the Army in his youth and earned a Purple Heart for his service in the Dominican Republic in the mid-1960s. He was a paratrooper and expert skydiver, which would become very relevant later in his life.

After the Army, Thornton studied law and joined the police force in his hometown of Lexington, Kentucky. There, he worked with the Drug Enforcement Administration's regional office in Lexington ... but it wasn't long before this cop turned into a criminal, according to The Washington Post. He stole drugs that he collected as evidence for the DEA and began selling them himself.

Thornton quit the force and become the head of "The Company," leading a drug ring with connections to men like Jimmy Chagra, who brought drugs to America from places like Colombia and Mexico. Thanks to his experience flying planes (and jumping out of them), Thornton began flying drugs out of Colombia as well, the Knoxville News Sentinel reports.

But in 1985, Thornton would take his final, infamous flight. The drug trafficker was flying in 400 kilos of cocaine from Columbia when he realized that DEA agents were tracking him and planning to meet his plane when it landed in Kentucky. Instead of facing arrest, Thornton strapped on a parachute and as much cocaine as he could carry, while his bodyguard tossed bags of cocaine out of the plane.

Thornton's bodyguard lived, the News Sentinel reports, but Thornton did not. He had packed too much cocaine onto himself, causing his parachute to malfunction. The former paratrooper was found dead in a Tennessee driveway.

And as for the millions of dollars of cocaine that was tossed out of his plane over the mountains? A black bear found and consumed some of it, leading to his tragic death. Later dubbed "Pablo Escobear," the bear was found dead in the Georgia mountainside by officials who were trying to find the missing cocaine.

"There’s nothing left but bones and a big hide," Gary Garner of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation told The Associated Press in 1985.

Luckily, unlike the "Cocaine Bear" movie (which stars Keri Russell and Ray Liotta, who died in May), "Pablo Escobear" did not actually go on a cocaine-fueled killing spree. Instead, he likely died a quick death — an autopsy report shared by Rolling Stone says, "Its stomach was literally packed to the brim with cocaine."

After the autopsy, the bear's body was stuffed and sold to various people over the years, including country crooner Waylon Jennings. Later it was put on display at the Kentucky Fun Mall. Although it might sound like a sad tale, the "Cocaine Bear" movie is a comedy, albeit a dark one. The movie is set to be released on Feb. 24, 2023.