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Crime News

How Drug Smuggler Andrew Thornton Died: 6 Theories From Peacock’s ‘Cocaine Bear: The True Story’

A new Peacock documentary streaming April 14 presents several theories on how the narcotics trafficker tied to "Cocaine Bear" met his death.

By Joe Dziemianowicz

Does a bear snort in the woods? 

Based loosely on true events, the horror-comedy “Cocaine Bear,” streaming April 14 on Peacock, follows the titular critter’s murder spree after plowing into drugs that ended up in a Georgia forest. 

Andrew Thornton, a real-life southern “blue blood”-turned narcotics trafficker played by Matthew Rhys in the hit movie, was the bear’s unwitting supplier. 

“Cocaine Bear: The True Story” — a Peacock documentary streaming with the movie  — covers Thornton’s connection to Cocaine Bear through vivid and insightful interviews with detectives, journalists and special agents.

During a 1985 smuggling run from Colombia to Kentucky, Thornton tossed a duffel bag packed with parcels of cocaine from his plane before parachuting to his death. But in real life, the bear that tore into that stash didn’t actually go on a killing rampage. It died from an overdose.

Precisely how Thornton perished in that plunge has sparked fascination and a number of scenarios. Then again, Thornton was a man who left questions in his wake throughout his colorful, crime-filled life. 

Born into Kentucky privilege in 1944, Thornton went to Sewanee Military Academy before joining the Army and training as a paratrooper, according to a September 1985 Time report.

Thornton went on to become a Lexington narcotics officer and a lawyer. Despite his achievements, he was drawn to the wrong side of the law. Besides getting busted for marijuana smuggling, he was convicted of drug possession, the Time magazine article noted.

Scrapes with the law didn’t curb his habit of breaking it. By 1983, Thornton was using his connections in Colombia to covertly carry cocaine into America, according to the Peacock documentary.

On September 10, 1985, Thornton flew a load of cocaine into the U.S. from Colombia, Charles Stites, producer of the “Fly By Night” podcast, told Peacock producers. 

“His goal was to move cocaine into the Lexington area with an intermediate stop in Georgia,” said Stites.

Plans got fatally fouled up. On September 11, 1985, Thornton’s body was discovered by 84-year-old Fred Myers, who heard a thud in the backyard of his Knoxville, Tennessee home.

Thornton’s body was found with a duffel bag containing 79 pounds of cocaine, two handguns, night-vision goggles and knives. He wore a bulletproof vest and footwear described as “Gucci loafers.”

Authorities determined that Thornton had smuggled cocaine worth around $15 million in a twin-engine Cessna. Thornton bailed out of the plane after switching over to automatic pilot. It crashed 70 miles away in North Carolina.

How did a practiced paratrooper end up dead? “People do have a number of different theories as to how this happened,” former investigative reporter Michael York told producers. 

These are six theories of why the jump went bad, per “Cocaine Bear: The True Story.”

1. Parachute Predicament

Stories circulating say that both the main and reserve chutes failed for unknown reasons.

2. Door Dilemma

An obvious cut on Thornton’s head suggested that he hit his head as he exited the airplane, which may have made him unable to pull the parachute cord, according to Stites.

3. Cocaine Headache 

“The medical examiner believed that the load of cocaine had swung back around and caught him in the face and either knocked him out or addled him,” said JJ Jones, former Knox County detective. The movie directed by Elizabeth Banks appears to follow this scenario.

4. Paranoia Problems

Thornton may have suspected that he was being followed or being tracked by a DEA plane or the Coast Guard or customs, according to Jones. In fact, he wasn’t being trailed by anyone, according to the Peacock special.

The bear in Cocaine Bear (2023)

5. The Sneaky Scam

One hypothesis is that Thornton was ripping off the Colombian suppliers. In order to do that he’d offload the drugs, crash the plan, claim the coke was destroyed, and keep it for himself.

“Why would he have all those parachutes in the airplane tied to duffel bags full of cocaine if that wasn’t the plan originally,” said former DEA agent Rick Sanders.

It’s a dangerous scheme considering the reach of drug cartels. 

6. The Second Smuggler

A few months after Thornton was found, another parachute was recovered at a Knoxville airport. “We theorized that Andrew Thornton let the other individual in the plane jump and then put the plane on autopilot,” said Jones. 

In 1990, a man named Bill Leonard told the Knoxville News Sentinel that Thornton had talked him into traveling with him to help provide security for him, said Stites, adding that Leonard is believed to be an unwitting accomplice. Leonard has never been charged with a crime.

Four decades later, exactly what happened in the skies over Knoxville carries an air of mystery – just like a good thriller.

To learn more about Andrew Thornton’s exploits, watch “Cocaine Bear” and the companion special “Cocaine Bear: The True Story,” streaming April 14 on Peacock.