The True Story Behind ‘Cocaine Bear,’ When A Black Bear Ate 70 Pounds Of Cocaine

Published February 19, 2023
Updated February 21, 2024

In 1985, a drug smuggler hurled a duffel bag of cocaine out of a plane and into a Georgia forest, where it was found by a black bear who was aptly nicknamed "Pablo Escobear."

Cocaine Bear, the new film by director Elizabeth Banks, has a wild premise: A bear eats a brick of cocaine, then goes on a murderous rampage.

It’s a great setup for a horror-comedy, with a cast featuring Ray Liotta, Keri Russell, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, and Alden Ehrenreich, but there’s something else about Cocaine Bear that stands out — the words, “Inspired By True Events” on the movie’s poster.

Cocaine Bear Poster

Universal PicturesThe poster for Cocaine Bear directed by Elizabeth Banks.

Of course, Cocaine Bear‘s true story isn’t anything like the movie. There was no Jaws-like carnage, no group of Hollywood leads traipsing around the woods in a “hunt or be hunted” scenario. There was a bear and there was some cocaine. Yes, the bear did ingest the cocaine.

And like most weird, drug-fueled stories, it happened in the 1980s.

‘Cocaine And A Dead Bear’ — The Three-Sentence Story That Inspired Cocaine Bear

In December 1985, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation made a shocking, albeit head-scratching, announcement: A 175-pound black bear had “died of an overdose of cocaine after discovering a batch of the drug.”

The story ran as a three-sentence item from United Press International and appeared in national publications, including the New York Times, as such:

Cocaine And A Dead Bear

The New York Times/UPIThe New York Times three-sentence story outlining the details of the true “cocaine bear” story.

The cocaine was estimated to have cost millions of dollars and had been dropped out of the air back in September by Andrew Thornton, a drug smuggler and former Kentucky narcotics investigator, as he parachuted from a plane.

Thornton had likely been trying to shed some weight to avoid plummeting to his death. Unfortunately for Thornton, it didn’t work. He crash-landed in Tennessee, where he was found dead with a bundle of cocaine strapped to his body.

Of course, authorities couldn’t just leave bundles and bricks of cocaine lying around the woods, so after Thornton’s body was discovered, a search began to find his discarded cargo. That’s when the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) found their bear — who had evidently found the cocaine first.

How Much Cocaine Did “Pablo Escobear” Eat?

By the time GBI agents discovered the bear in the mountains of Fannin County, roughly 80 miles north of Atlanta, it had been dead for about four weeks. Near the bear’s remains, GBI agents found a duffel bag — and inside it, and the ripped-open remnants of 40 packages of cocaine.

“The bear got to it before we could, and he tore the duffel bag open, got him some cocaine and OD’d,” GBI’s Gary Garner told the Associated Press at the time. “There’s nothing left but bones and a big hide.”

To illustrate exactly how much cocaine we’re talking about, each small package of cocaine contained one kilogram. The bag originally contained 40 packages, so there was 40 kilograms of cocaine. In total, that’s around 88 pounds — and the bear seemingly ate the majority of it. Thornton, meanwhile, was only carrying 77 pounds of cocaine when he hit the ground.

A later AP report went on to say that chief medical examiner Kenneth Alonso determined the bear had only three or four grams of cocaine in its bloodstream when it died, though it may have eaten more.

“The question is: What happened to that duffel bag?” Alonso said. “The bear does not account for the full duffel bag.”

Not far from where the bear had discovered the duffel bag, GBI agents found another identical duffel bag containing another 75 pounds of cocaine.

This was, to be absolutely clear, a lot of cocaine.

Cocaine Bear True Story

Universal PicturesA still from Cocaine Bear which, based on its trailer, deviates wildly from its source material.

In all, GBI agents found four duffel bags all within 100 yards of the bear’s dead body — a grand total of at least 218 pounds of cocaine, all linked to Andrew Carter Thornton.

Who Was Andrew Carter Thornton?

Once upon a time, Andrew Thornton II was a young man who showed a lot of promise. A well-off son of Kentucky horse breeders, he went on to become a Purple Heart recipient in the U.S. Air Force.

According to a Los Angeles Times report following his death, Thornton served in the 101st Airborne Division in the mid-60s, sent to the Dominican Republic after a revolution broke out. A friend described him as “an expert sky diver and the type of guy who wouldn’t let anyone touch his pack.”

Andrew Carter Thornton

Public Domain/CanvaAndrew Carter Thornton, the drug smuggler who died after leaping out of an airplane.

Another friend described him as “one of the smartest fellows I ever met. In school he did very well. He came from a very good family and had everything in the world going for him.”

After his short military career, Thornton joined the Lexington police force in 1968, working there for nine years and resigning in 1977 to practice law.

It’s not clear what changed for Thornton, but four years later, he was arrested in California as part of a group of 25 men accused of stealing weapons from the China Lake Naval Weapons Center and of conspiring to smuggle 1,000 pounds of marijuana into the U.S.

Thornton managed to skirt indictment on the weapon theft charges, but he was indicted on a count of conspiracy to import a controlled substance and a count of conspiracy to distribute a controlled substance. Thornton had allegedly piloted a small plane in 1979 that smuggled drugs from South America to Kentucky.

He pleaded innocent in the case, fled California, and then was arrested as a fugitive in North Carolina. At the time of his arrest, he was wearing a bulletproof vest and carrying a pistol.

When he was taken back to California, he pleaded no contest to a reduced misdemeanor drug charge. His felony charges were dropped, but he was sentenced to six months in prison, fined $500, placed on a five-year probation, and suffered, understandably, a suspension of his law license.

In 1981, reports came in that Thornton had set up the Lexington Police Department’s intelligence squad. What’s more, the group he was accused of conspiring with had links to an even larger group known ominously as “The Company.”

Meanwhile, Thornton evidently hadn’t put his days of drug smuggling behind him. On Sept. 11, 1985, police found his body in the driveway of a home in Knoxville, Tennessee with roughly $14 million worth of cocaine strapped to it. He was wearing Gucci loafers.

“I’m glad his parachute didn’t open,” said the district attorney who had prosecuted Thornton in 1981. “I hope he got a hell of a high out of that.”

Then, of course, they found their cocaine bear not far away in Georgia.

The Real Story Of ‘Cocaine Bear’

So, there you have it. The real story behind Cocaine Bear has truthfully little to do with a bear and much more to do with a man who seemingly had everything going for him, got embroiled in the late ’70s drug trade, and died in dramatic, ironic circumstances. Honestly, that could be a pretty good movie too, albeit a much more serious one.

Cocaine Bear

Universal PicturesCocaine Bear stars Ray Liotta and Keri Russell.

Elizabeth Banks’ movie, of course, is only inspired by the true events — it is not beholden to them. So instead, we’re getting a horror-comedy creature feature about a bear that gets high on cocaine and does not die, but rather hunts a group of people through the woods in a bloody rampage.

And hey, that sounds like a fun ride.

After learning the true story of Cocaine Bear, read the story of Rafael Pérez, the crooked LAPD cop who inspired Training Day. Then, learn about the Battle Of Mogadishu and the harrowing true story of Black Hawk Down.

Austin Harvey
A staff writer for All That's Interesting, Austin Harvey has also had work published with Discover Magazine, Giddy, and Lucid covering topics on mental health, sexual health, history, and sociology. He holds a Bachelor's degree from Point Park University.
Maggie Donahue
Maggie Donahue is an assistant editor at All That's Interesting. She has a Master's degree in journalism from Columbia University and a Bachelor's degree in creative writing and film studies from Johns Hopkins University. Before landing at ATI, she covered arts and culture at The A.V. Club and Colorado Public Radio and also wrote for Longreads. She is interested in stories about scientific discoveries, pop culture, the weird corners of history, unexplained phenomena, nature, and the outdoors.