Animals Gone Wild: The True Story Behind ‘Cocaine Bear’

This week brings the larger-than-life horror comedy Cocaine Bear, from director Elizabeth Banks (Charlie’s Angels) and arriving exclusively in movie theaters on February 24, 2023.

The movie, written by Jimmy Warden, “finds an oddball group of cops, criminals, tourists, and teens converging in a Georgia forest where a 500-pound apex predator has ingested a staggering amount of cocaine and gone on a coke-fueled rampage for more blow … and blood.”

The raucous feature is stacked with an all-star cast, including Keri Russell, Ray Liotta, Alden Ehrenreich, O’Shea Jackson, and Jesse Tyler Ferguson.

Cocaine Bear also happens to be based on a true story. No, seriously.

Almost forty years ago, news of the now infamous “Cocaine Bear” hit the trades mere days before Christmas. A brief three-sentence article from United Press International that appeared in The New York Times, published on December 23, 1985, said it all yet begged so many unanswered questions.

Cocaine Bear true story 1985

United Press International’s article appearing in NYT on December 22, 1985

The news article explained, “A 175-pound black bear apparently died of an overdose of cocaine after discovering a batch of the drug, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation said today. The cocaine was apparently dropped from a plane piloted by Andrew Thornton, a convicted drug smuggler who died Sept. 11 in Knoxville, Tenn., because he was carrying too heavy a load while parachuting. The bureau said the bear was found Friday in northern Georgia among 40 opened plastic containers with traces of cocaine.”

The bear’s remains were found in the mountains of Fannin County, near Tennessee. According to an archived AP News article from 1985, the body was found “near the duffel bag and 40 packages of cocaine that had been ripped open and scattered over a hillside.”

That’s millions of dollars worth of blow scattered across the area via Thornton’s smuggling plane drops. Investigators searching for the cocaine came upon the bear weeks after its overdose, so the details of the black bear’s discovery and subsequent demise remain a mystery. Though it’s speculated that the sheer volume of cocaine scattered across the mountains means it wasn’t the only animal to ingest the substance.

What is known is that Thornton became a member of the Lexington Police Department’s narcotics squad in the early ’70s and earned his law degree through evening classes. It was during his tenure on the narcotics squad that he began smuggling. On a smuggling run from Columbia, Thornton jumped from his plane and “fell in Knoxville an hour before an unmanned Cessna airplane crashed into a mountain in North Carolina.”

(from left) Daveed (O’Shea Jackson, Jr.), Eddie (Alden Ehrenreich), Officer Reba (Ayoola Smart) and Syd (Ray Liotta) in Cocaine Bear, directed by Elizabeth Banks.

Thornton’s body was found in a resident’s driveway, with the black bear’s remains found weeks later.

Naturally, the stranger-than-fiction story captured imaginations and became a sensation. The bear’s remains were reportedly spared from cremation and taxidermized for display, where it’s currently on display at Kentucky for Kentucky Fun Mall. The merchandise options for this bizarre mascot are fittingly larger than life, too.

It’s safe to assume that Cocaine Bear won’t remotely adhere to fact and instead play up the amusing absurdity of the historical situation, honoring the storied tradition of animal attack features with a sense of humor. While Cocaine Bear might fill in those missing gaps regarding the eponymous apex predator through horror comedy antics, much to our amused delight, it’s the human element that might connect fact with fiction.

Cocaine Bear assembles an oddball bunch for its mayhem, but that’s not much farther from the truth. The primary difference, of course, is that the real-life “Pablo Escobear” never went on a murderous horror movie rampage. But he will in Cocaine Bear, in theaters this weekend.

Cocaine Bear trailer

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