The Real Story of Cocaine Bear, Explained

Close up of Cocaine Bear's face covered in blood from movie
Get Tickets to Cocaine Bear


Is Cocaine Bear a true story? When the movie's frenetic, bloody trailer dropped last year this was the question on everyone's lips. It's no surprise people are clamoring to know exactly what happened with "inspired by true events" emblazoned across posters and previews. The truth behind Cocaine Bear is less grisly than its screen depiction yet equally as gripping.


A Horror, Black (Bear) Comedy 

Directed by Elizabeth Banks, Cocaine Bear stars Keri Russell, Matthew Rhys, O'Shea Jackson Jr., Margo Martindale, Kristofer Hivju, and Ray Liotta in his last-ever performance. As the title suggests, the movie revolves around a gigantic black bear that imbibes a large quantity of cocaine before embarking on a bloodthirsty rampage trying to get its paws on more of the illicit substance. The only thing that stands between the bear and the world at large is a ragtag bunch of cops, crooks, hikers, and tourists. 

Based on that premise alone, is it any wonder the movie makes our list of the most anticipated movies of 2023? And from what we've heard from the cast, the film leans heavily into its outrageous title. Should you prepare yourself less for a serious biopic (or should that be bear-opic?) and more of a gory, horror black comedy? Yep. The movie boasts incredible CGI of the titular beast and if the trailer is any indication, some tense jumpscare moments, which syncs up with Banks' goals for the finished feature. While her previous stints in the director's chair on Pitch Perfect 2 and Charlie's Angels showcase her comedic edge, for Cocaine Bear she's paying homage to the genre filmmakers she admired growing up. 

Professing her love of horror and gore, she namechecked the likes of Sam Raimi and John Carpenter with hopes of Cocaine Bear paying tribute to their films of the 1980s. Those aspects alone should satisfy audiences who like a dash of thrills and a splat of grue along with their chuckles. We're keeping our fingers crossed for the movie's success so Banks' sequel can reference another of her favorite helmers – Steven Spielberg. In case you've not heard, police found three tons of cocaine in the Pacific Ocean prompting the idea for Cocaine Shark. “If there’s a great story, then sure,” Banks told People, “Jaws with cocaine, I don’t see how that loses.” Before we begin to ponder how that might turn out, ahead of its arrival at Regal, here's what we know about the real story of Cocaine Bear.


Skydiving Drug Smugglers

In December 1985, Federal officials discovered the body of a deceased black bear in Northern Georgia's Chattahoochee National Forest surrounded by forty opened containers of cocaine. An investigation revealed the animal died from a drug overdose after ingesting $2 million dollars worth of coke. To learn how it stumbled across this supply, we have to go back to the final exploits of a drug smuggler named Andrew Thornton.

Thornton started off on the straight and narrow before turning to a life of crime. He was an Army paratrooper, a narcotics officer, and a lawyer. He was also as crooked as they come. He served several stints behind bars and even racked up felony charges for a botched drug deal. Charges were eventually thrown out as the police hoped Thornton would snitch on his accomplices. He didn't. 

Armed with professional knowledge and relationships from his tenure as a police officer and a lawyer, Thornton kickstarted his own operation and headed up the import of mass quantities of cocaine into the US. So was born The Company, a drug smuggling ring based out of Kentucky.

His runs typically went between Colombia and Tennessee, which is what he'd intended on one fateful day in September 1985. Thornton and his former karate instructor-turned-bodyguard Bill Leonard landed in Monteria, Colombia where a group of machine gun-wielding men loaded up their plane with kilos of cocaine, each wrapped in plastic and burlap bags. The parcels were then loaded into duffel bags with parachutes attached. Thornton and Leonard returned from Colombia with around 90 pounds of cocaine aboard a small Cessna plane. 

In an interview with the Knoxville News Sentinel, Leonard claimed that somewhere above Florida, they heard Federal agents on the radio talking about tailing their plane. The pair panicked. They tossed three duffel bags of cocaine from the Cessna and began to discuss jumping from the airplane. Thornton gave Leonard a four-minute lesson in skydiving before strapping the last bag of cocaine to his own body. Leonard's dive was a success. He landed near Knoxville Downtown Island Home Airport and then made his way to their rendezvous point at the Knoxville Hyatt. 

But Thornton never showed. He was discovered in the driveway of South Knoxville resident Fred Myers who was greeted by the unusual sight of a dead body wearing a bulletproof vest, Gucci loafers, and night goggles on the morning of September 11, 1985. FBI investigators later surmised that Thornton's parachute failed to open, turning his skydive to freedom into a tragic freefall. In a bag strapped to his body he had $4500 in cash, two handguns, knives, ropes, and, of course, a bag of cocaine. The aircraft was found crashed several hours away in the North Carolina mountains. 


A Bear's Weight in Cocaine

But what happened to the cocaine that plummeted from the plane? After officials found Thornton's body they searched the local area for several months. They eventually discovered around 218 pounds of cocaine in three duffel bags within 100 feet of a dead bear alongside another empty duffel. As you may have guessed, the bear had eaten a significant amount of cocaine. Police tried to find the local hunter who first discovered the bear, as they believed it had human assistance in emptying the bag of the illicit substance.

Rumors suggest that the bear's stomach was "stuffed to the brim" with cocaine, but the Georgia State Crime Lab's chief medical examiner Dr. Kenneth Alonso confirmed that by the time authorities found the bear, there was very little stomach left; “We had bones and used them to give us an idea of the height and weight the bear would have been.” 

But Cocaine Bear's story doesn't end with its demise. 


The Journeys of Pablo Escobear

According to the Kentucky for Kentucky Fun Mall, located in Lexington, their taxidermied bear on display is the very same bear involved in the case. Dubbed Pablo Escobear, according to their plaque this creature embarked on an adventure post-autopsy that's so bizarre it could be fodder for a sequel. 

If this story is to be believed, following Alonso's autopsy of the animal, the examiner considered the bear's pristine appearance so wonderful it warranted preservation. He called a taxidermist who stuffed and mounted the bear, which was gifted to the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area where it sat behind plexiglass in their visitor center until it wound up in storage due to a nearby wildfire threat. Items from this storage unit were stolen, including the bear, and sold to a pawnshop. 

Legend has it that the shop owner then sold the bear to country singer Waylon Jennings, who then gifted it to a Las Vegas friend, Ron Thompson. After Thompson's death in 2009 all of his possessions went up for auction, which is how the bear came to be purchased for $200 by a man named Zhu T’ang. T'ang kept the bear as a permanent fixture in his Traditional Chinese Medicine store after his wife refused to keep it in their home. When the Kentucky for Kentucky Fun Mall learned of its whereabouts they negotiated with T'ang's wife following his death, and now it lives on display in their store.


Fact and Fiction

As flights of fancy go, that's quite the tale for a taxidermied bear. However recent reports have since debunked most of this highly-entertaining denouement. Despite that being so, workers at the mall remain cheerfully honest about it. “We've just been having a lot of fun with it, getting really creative and kind of just creating, giving Cocaine Bear this whole personality and creating this character from it," said Anne Livengood, the marketing director of the Kentucky for Kentucky Fun Mall. "And so it's been a lot of fun."

So, with the exception of Thornton and the titular bear, all of the characters and scenarios depicted in the movie are fictional. The 500-pound bear onscreen who ingests cocaine and savages hikers is considerably bigger than its real-life counterpart, who clocked in at 175 pounds. From what we've seen in the trailers, the movie bear swallows an entire block of cocaine and survives, so perhaps the increase in size was to counter the effects of the drugs? It's not known exactly how the real-life bear responded to the amount of cocaine it ingested, but the medical examiner noted that only three to four grams were in its bloodstream at time of autopsy. But with no-one around to have witnessed it, the truth will never be known. That's not stopped people from making educated guesses about its reaction: “I say like some humans," Alonso told reporters in 2022. "They take cocaine and they drop dead." Will the bear's onscreen counterpart experience the same fate or live to fight another day? Find out when Cocaine Bear lands at Regal on February 24, 2023.

Get Tickets