A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Kentucky’s legendary ‘Cocaine Bear’ story to be subject of new movie directed by Elizabeth Banks

By Rachel Nix
Building Kentucky

A new movie will dive into the fascinating true story of a legendary Kentucky bear.

Kentuckians may know the history of “Cocaine Bear,” a 175-pound black bear found dead of an apparent drug overdose after consuming more than 75 pounds of cocaine in the mid-1980s.

How the drugs made it to the Appalachian woods where the bear was found and the bear’s wild ride to where its body stands today is the stuff of legends – so its no wonder it caught the interest of major Hollywood names.

Elizabeth Banks (Photo from Building Kentucky)

Elizabeth Banks is directing the “Cocaine Bear” film for Universal Pictures joined by producers Phil Lord and Chris Miller of LEGO movie fame.

The screenplay was written by Jimmy Warden and is described as a “character-driven thriller.”

It’s unclear if any of the movie will be shot in Kentucky when it starts filming in summer 2021 or if Banks and her collaborators will visit now taxidermied Cocaine Bear in Lexington as inspiration for the film.

A Kentucky drug smuggling ring known as “The Company” and its kingpin Andrew Carter Thornton II are behind this amazing true story. Thornton, the son of Kentucky horse breeders, served as a narcotics officer in Lexington, lawyer, and Army paratrooper before entering the illegal drug trade.

In 1985, Thornton’s plane engine malfunctioned when flying illegal drugs across the region. Panicked, he strapped pounds of cocaine to his body and pushed the rest out of the plane before jumping out with a parachute. When the parachute didn’t open, Thornton fell to his death onto a driveway in Knoxville, Tennessee.

The plane crashed 60 miles away and “Cocaine Bear” was found months later 50 miles away in Georgia’s Chattahoochee National Forest. The dead bear was believed to have ingested roughly $15 million worth of discarded drugs found in a duffel bag from Thornton’s haul.

The life of Thornton was later chronicled in the book “The Bluegrass Conspiracy” by Sally Denton and inspired storylines on the TV show “Justified.”

Cocaine Bear at Kentucky Fun Mall (Photo from Building Kentucky)

This wild story doesn’t end there. Cocaine Bear’s body was recovered and stuffed to put on display at a Tennessee park. He was later put into storage, stolen, and pawned before spending time in the home of country star Waylon Jennings and lived with a Vegas hustler before ending up at an auction. He was purchased by Reno, Nevada man who put the bear on display in his medicine shop.

Fans of the Cocaine Bear legend and owners of Kentucky for Kentucky tracked down the bear in 2015. Known for their 2011 campaign to change Kentucky’s slogan to “Kentucky Kicks Ass,” Kentucky for Kentucky founders Whit Hiler and Griffen VanMeter were able to acquire the bear from the Reno man’s wife and bring it back to Kentucky.

Cocaine Bear traveled across the country again to become a roadside attraction a the Kentucky for Kentucky Fun Mall in Lexington, where he stands today. Fans are encouraged to snap a photo with “Pablo EskoBear” while they shop. T-shirts, mugs and other Cocaine Bear merch are also available as souvenirs.

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  1. Tracey says:

    I find this in very poor taste and not funny at all. Millions of animals domestic and wild are effected and
    killed because of our vices. Pelicans eating cigarette butts, fish eating mercury from our chemicals, dogs swallowing pain medications. We are suppose to be the “care takers” of gods creations. Seems we like to destroy them in our selfishness.

  2. J says:

    Omg the bear ate it out of a duffel bag lady. It wasn’t like he was purposely given cocaine to OD on. ‍♀️

  3. Ryan Thornton says:

    Andrew was related to me. My 3rd great grandfather and his brother came to Kentucky in the 1800. The brothers split ways but eventually both came back to bourbon county. So I am related to a drug dealer.

  4. Chris says:

    Cocaine Bear is my hero

  5. Hamilton jeffries says:

    Animals act like animals , relax people . I promise you , Thornton wanted to make a clean getaway & take his drugs with him . It was a fluke coincidence that this bear got more than a snort full . Did you read that a man died also (even if he was a criminal ) , but all you wanna moan about it is a dead bear . True stories are more interesting than a Hollywood script so accept what life deals out & stop worrying about animals. God will handle us & them .

  6. Alex Killen says:

    I have to ask, since when have we been designated caretakers of all things on earth? Animals killed by our vices? That is one of the most insane things I’ve ever heard.

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