Are You Ready for Cocaine Bear?

Cocaine Bear is ready for you! Photo: Pat Redmond/Universal

For some of us — those who took notice of a May 2022 Universal announcement explaining that, as her next trick, actor-director Elizabeth Banks would be making a movie “inspired by the true story” of “a 500-pound apex predator” doing a “staggering” amount of blow — the wait is about to be over. Cocaine Bear is coming! Cocaine Bear is almost here.

Banks’s movie opens in theaters this Friday, and I propose we use that time to separate fact from fiction in Cocaine Bear’s real-life tale. Did a bear once get its mitts on some coke that dropped from the sky and into a forest in Georgia? Yes. Did things unfold in the bloody manner Cocaine Bear would have us believe? No. Unlike Colombia’s cocaine hippos (thriving on Pablo Escobar’s estate, to the degree that local scientists recommended a cull) and Italy’s cocaine hogs (lauded as heroes for having sniffed out and destroyed a dealer’s stash), cocaine bear’s story is not a triumphant one. I should warn you: At least in real life, cocaine bear died in the end.

Cocaine Bear: in brief.

In Banks’s movie, a massive black bear ingests (orally but also nasally, railing lines off of disembodied limbs) an ungodly quantity of cocaine, then embarks on a grisly rampage in order to maintain its high. The trailer suggests that Cocaine Bear can smell blow from an outlandish distance and will go after anyone or anything dusted even lightly with powder. Cocaine seemingly amps up all of Cocaine Bear’s natural bear abilities and endurance, allowing it to run and jump and climb at more vigorous speed; it also makes Cocaine Bear aggressive, which black bears usually are not, often not even when cornered. Maybe for that reason, Cocaine Bear’s violence seems like the byproduct of a chemical obligation — the thing about coke being once a person, or I guess bear, starts doing it they generally want to keep doing it — for which we cannot blame Cocaine Bear. It is simply playing the hand it was dealt, while the people who dealt that hand chase Cocaine Bear around with guns, attempting to neutralize the threat. This doesn’t seem very fair, does it?

Is that what happened with the real Cocaine Bear?

Mostly no, but at the same time it is impossible to say precisely what went down because investigators only found the bear’s decaying remains; they have no record of what the bear may or may not have done while on drugs. Still, contemporaneous reports allow us to sketch a possible picture.

Per the Knoxville News Sentinel, our story begins on September 9, 1985, when Andrew Thornton II — “a former Kentucky narcotics officer and lawyer turned big-time drug smuggler” — hopped in a tiny plane to make a run to Colombia, where he planned to pick up 400 kilos of cocaine. This is according to his karate instructor–slash–bodyguard, Bill Leonard, who says he was duped into accompanying Thornton, who’d claimed they were going to the Bahamas. But as they flew over their destination, Leonard told the Sentinel that Thornton, smiling with a freakish intensity, turned to him and said, “We’re not going to the Bahamas.” Instead, Leonard explained, they landed in Montería, where they loaded the plane with duffels full of coke. Had Leonard known smuggling to be the point of the trip, he insisted “there’s no way in hell” he would have gone: “That would have been the end of it right there,” he told the Sentinel. “He tricked me.”

Who knows about that, but Leonard’s is the only firsthand account we have: After he and Thornton heard Feds on their radio, Leonard “opened a door and kicked three bags of cocaine out into the world,” the Sentinel reports. Looking at the design of their tiny plane (a Cessna 404) online, I am not totally convinced this man is telling the truth, but regardless, his mass dumping of product provoked a heated argument, then a fit of laughter, and then an apology. “I’m really sorry for getting you involved in this. I can see this is not your thing,” Thornton supposedly told Leonard. “You’re a family man. Just do what I tell you, and I’ll get you out.” The pair would jettison the remaining drugs, parachute from the plane (now cruising on autopilot), and regroup on the ground. Leonard survived and made his way to their designated meeting spot: a Hyatt in downtown Knoxville, Tennessee. Thornton didn’t. On September 11, a local man found Thornton’s dead, Gucci-loafered body, freighted with about 35 kilos of coke weighing some 77 pounds, sprawled in his yard.

The Sentinel reports that Thornton’s parachute failed to open, while a contemporaneous New York Times clipping says “he was carrying too heavy a load while parachuting.” That tracks. According to the Washington Post’s obituary, Thornton also carried the following on his person:

A bulletproof vest, special night vision goggles, a Browning 9 mm automatic pistol, a .22-caliber pistol and several clips of ammunition. He had with him survival gear, a stiletto, $4,500 in cash, six gold Krugerrands, food rations and vitamins, a compass, an altimeter, identification papers in two different names, a membership card to the Miami Jockey Club and the key to the airplane.

The abandoned plane would go on to crash in North Carolina, and some portion of the abandoned blow would go on to be ingested by a Georgia bear — our bear, the eponymous Cocaine Bear. That was the conclusion drawn by narcotics agents scouring the area for the rest of Thornton’s haul after a hunter found the decaying body of an approximately 150-pound black bear. About four weeks dead and lying near a duffel and dozens of thrashed cocaine packages in December 1985, the corpse furnished a working hypothesis. “The bear got to it before we could, and he tore the duffel bag open, got him some cocaine and OD’d,” Gary Garner, of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, told The Associated Press. “There’s nothing left but bones and a big hide.” And a lot of empty packaging, for which Cocaine Bear probably wasn’t entirely responsible.

How much cocaine did Cocaine Bear eat?

It’s not 100 percent clear. A follow-up AP article clarified that the bear “didn’t take all 75 pounds of the drug dumped in the area,” though a necropsy found three to four grams of coke in the animal’s bloodstream. It may have consumed more than that, but surely nowhere near the amount Cocaine Bear’s biopic would have us believe.

What became of the bones and the big hide?

The bear’s taxidermied body now rests at the Kentucky for Kentucky Fun Mall, according to the Fun Mall itself. Here it is, much smaller in reality than as imagined for the big screen:

As to how the bear found its way to a Lexington market for local kitsch, that seems to be owed to the uniquely enterprising nature of Fun Mall employees. A 2015 blog post announcing the acquisition explains that Fun Mall staff contacted the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, which directed them to the medical examiner, who apparently remembered the necropsy well: “Its stomach was literally packed to the brim with cocaine,” the M.E. apparently told the Fun Mall. “There isn’t a mammal on the planet that could survive that. Cerebral hemorrhaging, respiratory failure, hyperthermia, renal failure, heart failure, stroke. You name it, that bear had it.”

The medical examiner also said he had given the remains to a “hunting buddy” who stuffed it and then donated it to the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area, where it remained on display for some years. A wildfire in the early 1990s led to the bear’s temporary relocation to a neighboring town, where it is said to have disappeared from storage and routed — via a pawn shop — to the Las Vegas home of country singer Waylon Jennings. He reportedly gave the bear to a friend as a gift, and when that friend died, a Reno man bought it at auction. Fun Mall detectives called that man’s widow, who turned out not to like the bear and told them they could have “the damn thing” if they’d pay shipping. All, of course, according to Fun Mall, which now sells Cocaine Bear merch if you are interested.

Which of these characters are represented in Elizabeth Banks’s Cocaine Bear?

As far as I can tell, only Thornton (played by Matthew Rhys) made it into the film version of Cocaine Bear’s life, though Banks’s ad copy promises “an oddball group of cops, criminals, tourists and teens” embroiled in Thornton’s mess. Other recognizable names include Ray Liotta (in his final role), Keri Russell (Felicity), Kristofer Hivju (Game of Thrones), and Jesse Tyler Ferguson (Modern Family).

When can I see Cocaine Bear?

February 24 in theaters nationwide.

Is the bear going to die in the end?

I don’t know for sure, but I think so.

Are You Ready for Cocaine Bear?