If you’d rather listen to this story, check out this episode of the podcast.
On a recent episode of the 1980s pop culture podcast 1980s Now, the hosts shared the true tale of the bear now popularized in a new film. While the movie veers wildly from the actual story, the truth maybe stranger than the fiction depicted on the screen. Maybe. And while a full accounting of the wide-reaching scandal that ultimately led to the death of an innocent bear, here are some of the more salient details.
November 1985. While trudging through the golden, fallen leaves of the Chattahoochee National Forest, a hunter came upon easy prey. Laying there before him, in a small clearing beneath a canopy of trees, was a sizeable black bear. Though it was as still as death, it appeared alive. And so, the hunter, slowly raised his rifle, bringing the butt of the gun tight against his shoulder. But before he could squeeze the trigger, he made another, more startling discovery. Strewn about the body of the ursus americanus, lay several packages of a white substance. And nearby, a large duffle bag. The bear was already dead, killed by man who had left a string of deaths long before this Yogi had dined on the deadly pic-a-nic basket.
With a name that sounds like cardigan-covered-shoulders come to life, Andrew Carter Thornton IIII was born into Kentucky’s blue-blood society. A child of privilege, Thornton forewent his family’s esteemed horse farm, for a seeming life of public service. After graduation from the prestigious Sewanee Military Academy in 1962, Thornton joined the United States Army. There, Thornton became a decorated paratrooper for the 82nd Airborne Division. Despite his extensive training, Thornton wasn’t prepared for the jump that would end his life.
Longing to continue the adrenaline-fueled combat he had experienced, Thornton joined the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Police Department in 1968, just a few years after his military career had ended. And as police work became routine, Thornton’s thrill-seeking ambition landed him on the newly-formed narcotics squad. Working closely with the DEA, Thornton’s need-for-speed was sated, albeit briefly, as he slid over car hoods before racing off to another drug bust. But soon, confiscating drugs wasn’t nearly as exciting as selling them.
Lifelong friends, Bradley Bryant traveled in the same high-class social circles as Thornton. The pair even attended the Military Academy together. So in 1977, when Bryant formed a private security company, it was a no-brainer (only natural) for Bryant to court Thornton away from the police department. Thornton turned in his badge that year and joined Bryant in the new venture. Jimmy Chargra, one of their first clients, however, seemed to need little protection. When this leader of a large drug-running syndicate was scheduled to appear before a US District Judge he couldn’t bribe, he had him murdered. The hitman: Charles Harrelson, father of beloved “Cheers” actor Woody.
September 1979. The China Lake Naval Weapons Center, an installation that conducts highly classified research in the barren reaches of the Mojave Desert, had been robbed. Sophisticated, and some deadly, military equipment, including infrared nightscopes, had been stolen. Already fearing the extensive illegal exporting of arms from the United States, Federal Authorities were on high alert. On Jan. 4, 1980, while the disappearance of the equipment was under investigation on the West Coast, the Philadelphia police responded to what they believed was a routine call. A maid at an airport hotel had smelled marijuana emanating from one particular room. arrested Bradley Bryant at an airport hotel. Once inside, however, drugs were the least interesting item the officers uncovered.
While some may pack some pajamas, clean underwear, and a toothbrush, while traveling, Bradley Bryant was prepared for something else when police arrested him in his room at a Philadelphia airport hotel. In addition to his skivvies, Bryant was carrying a cache of semi-automatic weapons, an assortment of disguises, more than 10 fraudulent Kentucky driver’s licenses, and $22,000 in cash. When Bryant’s arrest led to the additional search of a warehouse he rented in Lexington, officers found an arsenal of weapons, various electronic surveillance devices and an infrared nightscope. Also among Bryant’s items as a notebook that contained the names and addresses of two dozen men, including one Lexington resident: Andrew Carter Thornton III.
Within days of Bryant’s arrest, several federal agencies joined the investigation. And just a few months later, 25 individuals were indicted in Fresno, California, charged with conspiracy to import and distribute marijuana and to steal government property from the China Lake Naval Base Weapons Center. Although Thornton was named in that indictment, he was not charged. Instead, amid hints that a larger drug-smuggling conspiracy, Thornton was charged with piloting a DC4 loaded with a literal half-ton of ganja. Sensing justice was coming for him, Thornton did what any decorated Army veteran soldier and former narcotics officer would do: he fled.
Perhaps the first preppie prepper, Thornton had practicing for the apocalypse for years. Now, with his world coming to an end, Thornton donned a bulletproof vest, grabbed a pistol, and eluded capture for several months. But when U.S. Customs discovered the 56-foot converted mine sweeper that seized off the coast of Louisiana carried 1,500 pounds of marijuana—and a machine gun belonging to Thornton—the search intensified. After Thornton was finally apprehended, U.S. marshals transported him to Fresno for his arraignment, where he posted $75,000 in cash and a $1 million personal surety bond, secured by possibly the only remaining connection Thornton had to his prior life as a Kentucky aristocrat: three racehorses.
On February 27, 1982, just three days before Thornton was scheduled to appear for a hearing in Fresno, it appeared vigilante justice was served after Thornton’s dinner. As he left a restaurant, Thornton was shot twice in the chest at close range. But the .38-caliber “wadcutter” bullets didn’t penetrate the bulletproof vest Thornton wore as often as socks. But it wasn’t good fortune that kept Thornton alive for the police quickly determined the mastermind behind the apparent attempted murder: It was Thornton himself. The attack had been staged by Thornton to persuade the judge that his life would be endangered should he be incarcerated.
Ultimately, Thornton pleaded no contest to marijuana conspiracy charges. And while Bryant had already begun serving a 15-year sentence, Thornton received what was effectively a slap on the wrist: six-months at a minimum-security facility and a $500 fine. But the convictions of his co-conspirators did more damage to Thornton than jail time. Already quite paranoid, Thornton shrunk his circle of trust to himself and just one man: his karate instructor turned bodyguard, Bill Leonard. Following his release from prison, Thornton divorced himself from the crime ring he had helped to create and decided to resume his drug smuggling operations alone. But there was still a matter of some loose ends—or rather noose ends—that needed to be tightened.
For three years, authorities sought Thornton for questioning regarding what they described as “vendetta deaths.” A series of otherwise unrelated murder victims were connected by Thornton’s enterprises. Gene Berry, the Florida state’s attorney, who had successfully prosecuted one of Thornton’s co-defendants, was murdered at point blank range when he opened the door to his Punta Gorda residence. Robert S. Walker, a witness against Thornton in the case, was found strangled in a swamp in Tampa. The man who informed Customs of Thornton’s involvement with the Louisiana smuggling vessel had his throat slit in Miami.
On September 9, 1985, Thornton began what would be his final, fateful journey. Having invited Leonard to vacation with him in the Bahamas, the pair boarded a Cessna 404. An accomplished pilot, Thornton steered the craft through the darkness, and the rain, and flew completely over the Bahamas. It was then that Thornton revealed the true nature of the trip. Instead of snorkeling and sunbathing on the Caribbean Island, Leonard was to help Thornton do something even more thrilling: retrieve 400 kilograms of cocaine from a drug cartel in Columbia.
Once the plane safely landed in a swamp in Montería, it was quickly surrounded by machine gun toting men. While Leonard ate what he later learned was a parrot, he watched Thornton load their transport. The illegal, addictive white powder was wrapped in yellow plastic bricks, packed into burlap, and then stuffed inside large duffel bags outfitted with parachutes. The value of their cargo on the return flight had increased by $80 million dollars and one likely undercooked parrot.
As undigested parrot rose in Leonard’s throat, so did Leonard’s ire. Angry over the betrayal, and teeming with salmonella, Leonard threw open the plane’s door somewhere over Florida. And after returning the bird’s remains to the skies, Leonard kicked out three duffel bags of cocaine. Suddenly, the parrot wasn’t the only thing to disagree with Leonard. The two men began to fight. Their confrontation was quickly interrupted by radio chatter. A Black Hawk helicopter and two DEA jets had spotted Thornton’s Cessna as it crossed into US air space. But Thornton had a plan.
Under the dim light of the cockpit, against the darkness of the night sky, Thornton strapped a parachute to himself. And during the roughly four minutes it took Thornton to strap another chute on Leonard, Thornton gave Leonard what would be his only skydiving lesson. After shoving three more duffel bags from the plane, Thornton strapped the remaining parcel to his person, while barking instructions at Leonard. The pair would rendezvous at a hotel in Knoxville. With the plane on autopilot, they jumped.
September 11, 1985. Fred Myers was finishing his morning save when he spied what appeared to be a man laying amidst debris in his driveway. Upon closer inspection, it was clear the crumpled person was dead, a trickle of dried blood ran from his mouth. Thornton had indeed landed in Knoxville, but not as he intended. Lifeless, Thornton was surrounded by the very things that had defined his life. He was wearing a bulletproof vest and special night vision goggles. He was carrying a Browning 9-mm automatic pistol, a .22-caliber pistol and several clips of ammunition. He also had survival gear, a stiletto and $4,500 in cash. And six gold Krugerrands, food rations and vitamins. A compass, an altimeter, identification papers in two different names, and a membership card to the Miami Jockey Club. And duffel bag filled with 77 pounds of cocaine. Police couldn’t be sure why his parachute had failed him.
As the investigation continued, pieces of the mysterious puzzle began to come together. A crashed Cessna 404 was soon found nearby with no signs of fatalities and a number matching that on a key found among Thornton’s things. Police ruled the death an accident—the cause: gravity—but the tale of the aviator was yet unknown. As the story became clearer, more duffel bags of cocaine were found in northern Georgia. But not before a particular black bear stumbled upon errant container.
When authorities finally discovered the bear’s body on December 20, it also found 40 empty bags of cocaine. While the chief medical examiner who autopsied the animal found its stomach was “literally packed to the brim with cocaine,” law enforcement wasn’t certain whether the bear had consumed 75 pounds of the drug or some enterprising local had taken it. But the examiner was confident that after absorbing 4 grams of the substance, the bear had cerebral hemorrhaging, respiratory failure, hyperthermia, renal failure, heart failure, stroke and died shortly thereafter.
But the animal’s story doesn’t end there. Listen to the podcast episode (at 57:50) to learn the continuing tale of the Cocaine Bear.