Bearpacker is Backpacker’s annual celebration of bear safety, science, and stories.
The story of Cocaine Bear starts with a body in a driveway.
Andrew Carter Thornton II had been a paratrooper, a police officer, and a lawyer before turning to drug smuggling, moving loads of cocaine into the U.S. from Colombia in his Cessna 404. That ended on September 11, 1985, when police discovered Thornton’s dead body in a driveway in Knoxville, Tennessee. He was heavily armed, wearing a bulletproof vest, and carrying thousands of dollars in cash and about 77 pounds of cocaine (later valued at around $14 million) in a duffel bag strapped around his waist. He had apparently died when his parachute failed to open after he jumped from his plane, which authorities later discovered about 60 miles away and identified using a key found on Thornton’s body. Thornton had directed the aircraft toward the Atlantic Ocean and set it to autopilot before making his ill-fated jump.
But Thornton, as it turned out, wasn’t the only casualty of his final smuggling run. In November 1985, a hunter discovered a dead 175-pound black bear in Chattahoochee National Forest. Nearby was a duffel bag that had originally contained roughly 75 pounds of cocaine; the unfortunate animal had apparently gotten into the blow and overdosed. As the authorities later deduced, the sordid scene lay directly in the Cessna’s flight path.
Soon the bear’s story will be immortalized in film. This summer, Elizabeth Banks is set to direct Cocaine Bear, which is described by Deadline as “a character-driven thriller inspired by true events that took place in Kentucky in 1985.”
The hunter who found the movie’s title character did not inform authorities of the discovery; in fact, three weeks passed before a game and fish agent learned of the bear and informed the GBI, according to a Slate article. When authorities finally discovered the bear’s body on Dec. 20, all 40 bags of cocaine were opened and empty. The chief medical examiner at the Georgia State Crime Lab told the Kentucky for Kentucky Fun Mall, which currently exhibits the bruin, that the bear’s stomach was “literally packed to the brim with cocaine,” though he estimated the bear had absorbed only 3 to 4 grams of the substance into its bloodstream at the time of its death. (While we couldn’t find much scientific literature on cocaine and bears, a fatal dose for a human being of the same size is about 7.5 grams.) Some law enforcement officers questioned whether the bear—later dubbed “Pablo Escobear” or simply “Cocaine Bear” had really destroyed or consumed 75 pounds of cocaine, or if some enterprising local had taken it.
In an unusual coda, that wasn’t the last mystery Cocaine Bear would be involved in. The chief medical examiner at the GSCL thought it a shame to waste the bear, and had a friend taxidermy it. Initially, they gifted the bear to the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area. However, when the bear was moved to storage to protect it from the threat of wildfires, it disappeared. It eventually turned up in a pawn shop, from which country singer Waylon Jennings bought it. Cocaine Bear’s earthly remains eventually made their way to the Fun Mall, where they reside to this day.