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Crime News Missing Persons

Cocaine Bear: What Happened To Police Informant Melanie Flynn?

When Kentucky woman Melanie Flynn went missing, her friendship with local police officers Bill Canan and Andrew Thornton were scrutinized.

By Cydney Contreras
A government handout of Melanie Dee Flynn

Melanie Flynn had big aspirations. The 24-year-old wanted to be a professional singer, once leaving Lexington, Kentucky to make her dream happen. She sang in bars in Aspen, Colorado and Cincinnati, Ohio, before eventually returning to her parent's home, where she was living at the time of her disappearance on January 26, 1977. 

In the months prior, the 24-year-old became acquainted with two men: Bill Canan and Andrew Thornton, both of whom worked in the narcotics division of the Lexington State Police and were later found out to be drug smugglers — the same ones that inadvertently killed a bear with one of their shipments, a story that has been fictionalized in "Cocaine Bear," streaming now on Peacock.

Melanie told friends that she had been dating Canan at the time of her disappearance, with her friends telling reporter Kathy Denton, who would later write the book "The Bluegrass Conspiracy," that Melanie was head over heels for him They had even reportedly spoken of getting married   .
But Canan didn't seem that concerned about Melanie when her father, former state senator Bobby Flynn, spoke to him about his daughter's whereabouts. As Denton wrote, "Canan acted as though they had been mere acquaintances."

Canan even suggested that Melanie had left on her own. And, initially, her family thought so too. As her father told the Courier Journal in March 1977, "She's an adult and if she wants to stay out all night, that's her business."

Bobby Flynn even thought that Melanie could've wandered off and gotten lost. According to "The Bluegrass Conspiracy," she had sustained a major head injury in a horse-riding accident at the age of 19, resulting in a five-month hospitalization. Shortly after recuperating, she was struck in the head by her husband — who she subsequently divorced — causing partial amnesia and memory loss. Perhaps, Bobby theorized, she just didn't know where she was.

But details didn't add up. On the day she disappeared, she had told her mother, Ella Richey, that she'd be home for dinner at 5:30 p.m. after going to a doctor's appointment, the Courier Journal reported. Then, the local high school where she worked as a secretary called her parent's home on Jan. 28 to ask if she was sick. The family filed a missing persons report the following day.

The same night the Flynns filed a missing persons report, police found Melanie's car, a maroon 1975 Ford Elite, in the parking lot of a Hollow Creek apartment in Lexington, where the 24-year-old lived five years prior. The car was still locked, with her jacket and some clothes left in the trunk from a previous visit to Louisville, according to the Courier-Journal

"Her pocketbook and keys were gone," her father told the newspaper. "The fact that her winter coat was still in the car indicates to me that she had to either get in the car of somebody that she knew, or else she was going to someone's apartment at Hollow Creek."

But when police interviewed residents at Hollow Creek, no one reported seeing her. In fact, no one from her hometown had seen her in days. 
"Generally, she always contacted somebody, me or her mother, no matter where she was," her best friend Donna Illman told the Courier-Journal. "If she's around town, I think she'd be out. She's not the kind to stay cooped up." 

After weeks of talking to friends and locals, police began to suspect foul play, convinced that Melanie would've been seen by someone. According to the Cincinnati Enquirer, they spoke to the nearly 200 people that Melanie had listed in her little black book.

Detective John Bizzack told the Courier Journal, "To have her disappear for a weekend is nothing, but 34 days is an absurdity. Up until a week ago, we thought she might be off on a lark. Now all that has changed."

Then, in June, Det. Bizzack said the case was closed after several witnesses allegedly reported seeing Melanie in Daytona Beach, Florida. He wrote in a June 20, 1977 statement, published by the Cincinnati Enquirer, "Facts learned through the investigation allowed detectives to identify Flynn through belongings, activities, and associations with certain witnesses."

Det. Bizzack said in another statement to the Cincinnati Enquirer that multiple people reported speaking to Melanie in Florida, adding, "The chance of someone else saying that she was Melanie Flynn from Kentucky, telling things about the family that only Melanie would know and sharing the jewelry and mannerisms of Melanie is practically nil." 

But the Flynns, including Melanie's brother Doug, then a baseball player for the New York Mets, were not convinced. While Melanie was supposedly seen in Florida, she never spoke to her family.

“We just don’t buy it,” her mom told the Cincinnati Enquirer. “The police haven’t shown us any evidence to prove that Melanie’s in Daytona Beach.”  

Then, Canan spoke out in an explosive interview in which he claimed that he never dated Melanie, who was in fact an informant for the narcotics division — though Denton said there were no court records that could verify Melanie's alleged role as an informant, according to "The Bluegrass Conspiracy." Canan said she only acted as an informant for three months from 1974 to 1965 as a way to avoid drug possession charges, according to a report by The Cincinnati Enquirer.

In the new Peacock documentary “Cocaine Bear: The True Story,” former FBI Special Agent Jim Huggins said that Melanie was “furnishing [Canan] with information about drug users around the University of Kentucky.” 

It’s speculated that Melanie learned of Canan and Thornton’s drug operation, putting herself in danger. Huggins said, “I think they became concerned that she may be a threat to their operations and would go to the authorities and cause them some major problems.”

The former FBI special agent added that the Kentucky State Police learned Melanie was last seen talking to two men, believed to be Canan and Thornton. 

“When you go from drug smuggling and you escalate to a crime of murder, that’s really taking it to a whole other level,” Huggins said. “That has not been proven yet. However, Melanie Flynn is still missing.”

Adding to the family's suspicions was the discovery of Melanie's purse, containing her lipstick and medication, in August 1977. It washed up on the shore of the Kentucky River, where a local fisherman happened upon it, according to “Cocaine Bear: The True Story.”

Melanie's purse was the last bit of solid evidence in the case — though, of course, rumors still abound. 

In 1993, a man named George Umstead, a former Lexington police officer then serving a 36-month drug sentence, took the stand in the trial of Bill Canan, who was facing charges of conspiring to possess and distribute cocaine, possessing and distributing cocaine, intimidating two grand jury witnesses, and possessing a fake DEA identification card. Umstead testified under oath that Canan told him he had killed Melanie, according to a 1993 report by the Courier-Journal.

Umstead added that, in 1984, Andrew Thornton had also accused Canan of murdering Flynn because "he loved her," the Courier-Journal reported.
Canan was never charged with her disappearance, though he was convicted of the separate charges against him related to drug smuggling and witness intimidation, according to an appeal.  He was released from prison in September 2008 and died at the age of 74 in March 2020. 

As for Canan's suspected accomplice, Andrew Thornton, the former narcotics officer died on Sept. 11, 1985, having perished during an apparent drug smuggling operation gone awry. It's believed his parachute failed to open when he — and a 75-pound bag of cocaine — were flung out of a plane. The bag of cocaine was found by a hungry bear, who died of an overdose.

Now, nearly 50 years after Melanie was last seen, police are still looking for any clue as to what happened to the missing 24-year-old. Authorities most recently searched an area along the Kentucky River where a tipster said she might be buried, according to LEX18. The search yielded no new evidence.

Melanie's brother Doug continues to seek answers to his sister's whereabouts. At a recent event for an Indiana YMCA, he said, according to the Kosciusko County Union Online, "I was bitter. It was the one thing I wish was put to rest before my parents passed away."

To learn more about the drug operation and the overdose of the so-called cocaine bear, watch “Cocaine Bear: The True Story,” streaming now on Peacock.