NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) — Cocaine Bear, the latest film from Universal Pictures, hits theaters Friday, but did you know the film has strong ties to Tennessee?
“Millions of dollars worth of cocaine fell from the sky this morning in Knoxville, Tennessee,” a news anchor says in the film’s trailer.
iMDB.com’s description of the film reads, “An oddball group of cops, criminals, tourists, and teens converge in a Georgia forest where a 500-pound black bear goes on a murderous rampage after unintentionally ingesting cocaine.”
While there was no real-life murderous rampage, the horror-comedy and likely soon-to-be cult classic was indeed inspired by true events from Tennessee and North Georgia.
Sept. 11, 1985
On Sept. 11, 1985, law enforcement arrived at a house near Knoxville’s Island Home Airport where a man was found dead. That man, identified as 41-year-old Andrew Thornton, jumped from a plane and died as his parachute failed to open.
“A parachuting smuggler wearing combat fatigues and carrying pistols and knives plunged to his death today in a backyard when his parachute failed to open,” a New York Times article reads. “At his side was 79 pounds of cocaine.”
The Cessna airplane Thornton jumped from crashed into the North Carolina mountains, an hour after Thornton died in Knoxville, according to an Associated Press article from 1985. A key to the airplane was found in Thornton’s pocket, while clothes, maps of Jamaica, and a pilot’s logbook with the airplane’s number were found about 30 miles south of Atlanta a few days later.
Who was Andrew Thornton?
According to an Oct. 20, 1985 article from the Washington Post, Thornton was a pilot and skydiver known for “pulling low” or releasing the parachute below 2,000 feet.
Thornton was a member of the Lexington, Kentucky, Police Department and was on the force for nine years. The police department confirmed to the Los Angeles Times Thornton was part of their narcotics team from 1970-1973.
The Los Angeles Times reported by 1981, Thornton was one of 25 men accused of stealing weapons from the China Lake Naval Weapons Center in Fresno, California and conspiring to smuggle 1,000 pounds of marijuana into the United States.
On Sept. 26, 1985, the New York Times published a story regarding the investigation of Thornton’s death. According to the article, Thornton reportedly jumped from the plane while carrying a duffel bag of “95 percent pure cocaine strapped to him.” When authorities found Thornton’s body, he had 77 pounds of cocaine, automatic weapons, night-vision goggles, and survival gear with him.
What happened to the cocaine?
According to the AP, over 200 pounds of cocaine were found in a remote wooded area in Fannin County, Georgia, in the days after Thornton died.
Investigators with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation found the remains of a black bear weighing over 150 pounds by the duffel bag, along with 40 packages of cocaine that had been torn open and scattered over a hillside in late December, the AP said.
″The bear got to it before we could, and he tore the duffel bag open, got him some cocaine and OD’d (overdosed),″ Gary Garner of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation told the AP at the time. ″There’s nothing left but bones and a big hide.”
Investigators believed the bear had been dead for about four weeks. The bear was believed to have eaten several million dollars worth of the cocaine and, according to the AP, each of the 40 packages was believed to have contained one kilogram of cocaine, or about 88 pounds in all, and valued at as much as $20 million.
Another bag containing 75 pounds of cocaine was found nearby on Nov. 5.
Georgia chief medical examiner at the time, Dr. Kenneth Alonso, told the AP the bear’s autopsy revealed it had absorbed three or four grams of cocaine into its bloodstream.
Where is the bear now?
A bear believed to be the real-life cocaine bear currently sits on display at the Kentucky for Kentucky Fun Mall in Lexington. According to the mall’s website, the medical examiner said the bear’s body remained in good cosmetic shape and felt it would be a shame to have the bear cremated. He then reportedly called a hunting friend of his who also did taxidermy, had the bear stuffed, and gifted it to the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area where it sat on display in the visitor center behind a plaque without any mention of its million-dollar high. However, the weird doesn’t stop there.
According to the mall, the threat of an approaching wildfire in the early 1990s prompted park employees to evacuate the area’s facilities. They gathered the few artifacts they had, including the cocaine bear, and put it in temporary storage in Dalton, a nearby town.
A month later, it was gone.
Some of the artifacts, including arrowheads and old Native American blankets, were recovered from a Nashville pawn shop, but the bear never turned up. Instead, it had reportedly already been sold to country music legend Waylon Jennings.
The mall said according to court documents, the pawn shop owner told everyone he didn’t know about the bear’s past. However, Jennings, a huge collector of taxidermy and other American oddities, allegedly told investigators the same owner of the pawnshop, a man he’d done business with in the past, called him as soon as the bear came in and told him the whole story about the bear’s coke-fueled past.
Jennings allegedly said he had no idea the bear was stolen and wouldn’t have bought it if he did. However, if the rightful owners wanted the bear back, they had a long trip ahead of them; Cocaine Bear had gone to….Las Vegas.
According to a story on the mall’s website, the pawnshop owner heard about the bear’s history from Las Vegas hustler Ron Thompson. Thompson, a Kentucky native, went to Sin City and established himself as a well-known hustler.
Jennings reportedly pounced on the chance to nab the infamous cocaine bear, thinking it would make the perfect gift (or inside joke) for Thompson, his friend.
According to the mall, Thompson died in 2009 and most of his estate was sold at auction. The mall said they called the auction house and asked if they still had the manifest.
They then asked if the auction house would send it to them.
Sure enough, the bear was 26th on the list, reportedly after a lot of Thompson’s custom suits.
“One (1) taxidermied North American black bear,” the manifest read.
After more phone calls, the mall said they tracked down the buyer, Zhu T’ang, a Chinese immigrant living in Reno, Nevada. He reportedly purchased the bear for the opening bid of $200 from Nellis Auction House.
T’ang died in 2012, but according to his wife, he used the bear as a decoration in his traditional Chinese medicine shop. When T’ang died, his wife said she sold the business but kept the bear, even though she didn’t like it.
T’ang’s wife said she didn’t know anything about the bear’s history, and just figured it was a regular bear that was “amateurishly taxidermied” due to the visible scars on its abdomen.
The mall claimed those scars on the bear’s stomach were from its autopsy in Georgia 30 years earlier. When they told T’ang’s wife the whole story, she almost didn’t believe them, but said the mall could have the bear just to get it out of her sight, as long as they paid for shipping.
Side note: according to a Screen Rant article, when the case first broke in 1985, the bear was dubbed “Pablo Escobear” by the media, a fitting nickname for a bear with a drug problem.