With the release of the trailer and poster for the movie "Cocaine Bear", the strange-but-true story related to Knoxville has jumped back into the spotlight. The movie, rated R and directed by Elizabeth Banks, is scheduled for release Feb. 24.
"Cocaine Bear" stars the late Ray Liotta, Keri Russell, Alden Ehrenreich and Margo Martindale.
So what's the story behind this movie, and what's its connection to Knoxville? Check out this Knox News article from 2021, when the movie was in its early stages, to get the weird, wild history of it all:
You've probably seen the recent headlines about "Cocaine Bear," the working title of a movie that'll tell the story of a bear who ate a bunch of cocaine and then died.
If you assumed such a tale must have a Knoxville connection, well, you were right: A parachuting smuggler — clad in combat fatigues, carrying several weapons and tied to a bag of cocaine — fell from the sky Sept. 11, 1985, and died just minutes from downtown.
Elizabeth Banks has signed on to direct the "Cocaine Bear" film, which will be produced by "The Lego Movie" filmmakers Phil Lord and Chris Miller, Variety reported. Few details about the project have been released, but the movie has been described as a "character-driven thriller inspired by true events that took place in Kentucky in 1985."
A story made for a movie
Those true events are almost unbelievable, but here goes: On Sept. 9, 1985, Andrew Thornton II, a former Kentucky narcotics officer and lawyer turned big-time drug smuggler, embarked on a mission with Bill Leonard, his karate instructor turned bodyguard. The pair hopped in a Cessna 404 airplane and flew to Montería, Colombia, with plans to pick up 400 kilograms of cocaine and smuggle it into the U.S.
In a 1990 interview with former Knoxville News Sentinel managing editor Tom Chester, Leonard said he knew of the smuggler's shadowy reputation but insisted Thornton sprung the plot on him mid-flight, in the rain and darkness, as Thornton piloted the plane over the Bahamas. Also on the plane? A Colombian man Leonard didn't know.
"(Thornton) said, 'We're not going to the Bahamas,'" Leonard recalled at the time. "The look on his face was hard to explain. He was smiling, but he had a very intense look in his eyes, and he was watching me very closely."
Leonard said the plane landed in a swamp in Montería and was quickly surrounded by men wielding machine guns. While there, he said, he ate what turned out to be parrot and became "deathly ill with food poisoning." He continued to struggle with the sickness as they loaded up the plane with kilos of cocaine. The kilos were wrapped in yellow plastic, packed into burlap bags, stuffed inside duffel bags and outfitted with parachutes.
"If he had told me, 'Hey Bill, we're going to Colombia and smuggle 400 kilos of cocaine to America,' I would have gone, 'Yeah, right!'" Leonard said. "That would have been the end of it right there. He tricked me. There's no way in hell ... I mean anybody that knows me in Lexington knows there is no way I would do anything like this. ... I was a nobody."
A cocaine crash-landing
The pair had left Colombia and were somewhere over Florida when Leonard claimed they heard federal agents talking over the radio about following their plane. They began to consider jumping. Leonard, who'd been vomiting, opened a door and kicked three bags of cocaine out into the world. Thornton yelled in protest, and the two began to argue.
"Right at that time, when it looks like we're going to rip each other's throats out, he just starts laughing," Leonard said. "I don't know what happened. I started laughing. The next thing I know, we're both rolling in the plane, laughing, with tears coming out of our eyes. He turned around and said, 'I'm really sorry for getting you involved in this. I can see this is not your thing. ... You're a family man. Just do what I tell you, and I'll get you out.'"
Thornton told Leonard to cut loose three duffel bags of cocaine from their parachute and dump them from the plane. After giving Leonard a four-minute lesson in skydiving, Thornton tied the remaining duffel bag of cocaine to his body along with a nylon bag containing two pistols, night-vision goggles, a survival knife and about $4,500 in cash. They prepared to jump as the plane, on autopilot now, flew over Knoxville.
Leonard jumped first. His parachute opened. Thornton jumped second. His didn't.
Leonard landed hard near Knoxville Downtown Island Home Airport, just south of the Tennessee River and about three miles from downtown. He did what Thornton told him to do: walked to a grocery store, called a cab, and proceeded to meet Thornton's girlfriend at the Hyatt hotel in downtown Knoxville. Thornton had said he would meet Leonard there so they could ride back to Kentucky, but he never showed.
A man spotted Thornton's body in the backyard of his home on Island Home Pike in South Knoxville the morning of Sept. 11, 1985. The khaki-clad stranger was wearing a parachute, and several bags — including one containing roughly 35 kilograms of coke — were lying nearby. Authorities soon swarmed the scene.
"It was chaos," Chester wrote. "Nobody believed it. A guy just doesn't fall out of the sky with cocaine tied to him. And how did he get here? DEA, Customs, Knoxville narcotics agents, Kentucky police, the FAA ... everybody was crawling all over the cocaine parachutist investigation before lunch. By afternoon, Thornton had been identified, although he was carrying several identifications and a key to an airplane. Everybody had a theory but few answers."
So what about that bear?
Investigators pieced the mystery together. Thornton was a known smuggler, and a key in his pocket matched the tail number on the wreckage of the plane, which crashed into Tusquitee Bald Mountain in Clay County, North Carolina, after the two men jumped.
Believing there to be more cocaine out there than the bag Thornton had on him, authorities scoured the surrounding areas and found 220 pounds of powder hanging from a parachute in a tree in Fannin County, Georgia. Maps, clothes and food from Thornton's final flight turned up two days later.
More duffel bags of cocaine were found months later in northern Georgia — but not before a black bear stumbled upon the coke and ingested so much it died. The bear's sad and bizarre demise warranted exactly three sentences in the New York Times.
"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," reads the Dec. 23, 1985, brief. "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."
A medical examiner conducted an autopsy on the bear and found every problem you'd expect from a massive overdose, the Louisville Courier-Journal reported: cerebral hemorrhaging, respiratory failure, hyperthermia, renal failure, stroke and heart failure.
Nearly three decades after the bear's death, the eccentric retailer Kentucky for Kentucky sought out the bear, reached out to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and traced the animal's postmortem journey. The bear was taxidermized and put on display at the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area in Georgia. At one point, the Courier-Journal reported, the bear was stolen, and it later resurfaced among country legend Waylon Jennings's private collection of preserved animals in Las Vegas. Sure, why not.
By the time Kentucky for Kentucky found the bear, it was serving as a decoration in a traditional Chinese medicine shop in Reno, the Courier-Journal reported. The owner's widow agreed to give up the cocaine bear for the cool price of $200 for shipping costs.
The bear now is on display at the Kentucky for Kentucky Fun Mall in Lexington. The retailer sells a line of merchandise based on the bear, including T-shirts, hats, hoodies, mugs, stickers and snow globes aptly called — you guessed it — "blow globes."
This article originally appeared on Knoxville News Sentinel: 'Cocaine Bear': Knoxville's role in the story behind the new movie