KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — The February 2023 horror comedy movie Cocaine Bear is loosely based on a true story, but less focus is given to the pilot and parachutist that gives the story its Knoxville ties.
The Georgia Bureau of Investigation identified the 40-year-old man who fell to his death in Knoxville as former Kentucky Narcotics Investigator Andrew Thornton. He was found dead in the backyard of a house near Island Home Airport on Sept. 11, 1985. According to the Associated Press, nearly 80 pounds of cocaine were found by his side.
The bear that inspired the movie was found months dead in northern Georgia three months later with cocaine in it system.
A Washington Post article from Oct. 20, 1985, referred to Thornton as a daring pilot and an expert skydiver famous for “pulling low,” which was described as releasing the parachute below 2,000 feet.
Thornton was described as highly educated, intelligent, and a thrill seeker motivated by danger, by the Washington Post. He attended law school and received a law degree in 1976, was a master martial artist who bragged about killing a German shepherd with his bare hands and was a racehorse trainer. He met his wife in July 1968, one month before he joined the police force. The couple divorced in 1970.
“To friends, Thornton was a man of loyalty, religious conviction, enchanting charm, keen intelligence and supreme self-confidence. To enemies, he was ruthless, egotistical, amoral — driven by an ego so fragile he overcompensated with machismo.” The Washington Post article read.
The Los Angeles Times reported that Thornton joined the Lexington, Kentucky, Police Department and stayed for nine years. Police Chief John McFadden confirmed to the Los Angeles Times that Thornton served on the department’s narcotics squad from 1970-1973, and described him as an average officer who worked his way through law school while on the force.
By 1981, Thornton was one of 25 men accused in the theft of weapons from the China Lake Naval Weapons Center in Fresno, California and of conspiring to smuggle a thousand pounds of Marijuana into the United States, the Los Angeles Times said. The newspaper said that news reports in 1981 and 1982 linked the ring, which also included several other Lexington policemen, to a group known as “The Company.”
Roughly a year and a half before Thornton’s final jump, the United Press International reported in January 1984 that the FBI had been investigating police involvement in a Lexington, Kentucky area drug ring for years.
On Sept. 26, 1985, the New York Times released an article describing the investigation of Thornton’s death after he jumped from the plane with a duffel bag of 95% pure cocaine strapped to him. According to the Times, Thornton had 77 pounds of cocaine, automatic weapons, night-vision goggles, and survival gear with him when he died.