The True Story of a Bear That Ate 70 lbs. of Cocaine Is Being Made into a Movie

by Jon D. B.
(Photo by Tom Herde/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Chances are, if you were of age in 1985, then you remember this story. And now the preposterous, ultimately tragic tale of Cocaine Bear is being put to Hollywood film.

Just when you thought you’d seen it all, Universal Studios sweeps in to make Cocaine Bear. How this true story hasn’t been put to film in the last four decades is a mystery in itself, but here we are. 2021 sees Hollywood star and director Elizabeth Banks taking on her next project in the form of this startling true story. Penned by Jimmy Warden and produced by Phil Lord and Chris Miller (the masterminds behind several prominent hits (see: The Lego Movie and 21 Jump Street franchises), Cocaine Bear is set to thrill audiences by its pedigree alone.

While impressive, this talent’s lineup pales in comparison to the true events this film is based on. And you can only read the words Cocaine Bear in succession so many times before wondering what the hell the specifics behind this moniker actually are.

In simple terms, the true story centers around a 175-pound American black bear that consumed over 70 pounds of cocaine. But how? And… ah, why? Allow us to divulge.

Horse-Breeding Royalty, a Failed Smuggler’s Run, and a Bear in the Woods

First, we must travel back to the blue grasses of Appalachia circa 1985. Within the year, Cocaine Bear (as we will refer to the tragic beast) was found dead after eating roughly $15 million worth of the drug.

How did a black bear come into possession of this much cocaine? As the New York Times would report, the bear did, in fact, simply find the 70 lbs. of white powder in the woods. How it got there is, we’re assuming, to feature largely in the “thriller” element of Hollywood’s film adaptation:

Before the bear could find the cocaine, it first had to be dropped from a drug smuggler’s airplane in mid-flight. Said smuggler was Andrew Carter Thornton II, heir to the elite Kentucky horse-breeding Thornton family. His death, alongside Cocaine Bear’s, is so ridiculous, so asinine, that it is documented at the Georgia Bureau of Investigation headquarters. Alongside an exhibit featuring the Monkey From Mars (a story for another time), Thornton’s death is forever memorialized.

As his “memorial” tells, “Thornton fell to his death when he bailed out of the plane and hit his head on the tail of the aircraft,” Roadside America cites. Apparently, coroners believe the unfathomably rich smuggler “didn’t open his parachute until it was too late,” and the rest is history. Literally.

Thornton himself, however, wasn’t found in his home state of Kentucky. In fact, his body hit a residential driveway in Knoxville, Tennessee – hundreds of miles from where his cocaine-laden cargo was dumped. Tracing the path between his body and Cocaine Bear (which we’ll get to momentarily), authorities found nine duffle bags packed to the brim with cocaine.

Enter Cocaine Bear

As officials traced Thornton’s flight path via ejected duffle bags, they wound up just south of the Tennessee-Georgia border. After three months of investigation, however, things were about to get a whole lot weirder.

It was here our unfortunate, infamous bear would enter the picture. Deep in the north Georgia woods, government officials found one of Thornton’s cocaine offloads. This bag, though, was unlike all the others. It was in shreds, as if clawed by a massive beast. Every single ounce of its contents – over 75 pounds – was nowhere to be found.

To their great disbelief, officials found Cocaine Bear sprawled out – dead – mere feet from the empty duffle bag. The 175 lb. black bear had consumed well over a third, nearly half, of his bodyweight in cocaine – then died moments later from a cocktail of unbelievably intense after-effects. Most likely, the poor creature never knew what hit him.

“Its stomach was literally packed to the brim with cocaine. There isn’t a mammal on the planet that could survive that,” Roadside America cites of the coroner that examined Cocaine Bear. “Cerebral hemorrhaging, respiratory failure, hyperthermia, renal failure, heart failure, stroke. You name it, that bear had it.”

And it only gets weirder from here.

The Saga of Cocaine Bear and… Waylon Jennings!?

Country icon and “outlaw” Waylon Jennings. (Photo by Paul Natkin/Getty Images)

While the rest may be a mixture of urban legend and fact, Roadside America recounts a journey after-death for Cocaine Bear that’s even more remarkable than the ending of his life.

“The bear looked good despite its catastrophic demise, so it was stuffed and put on display at a local recreation area — without reference to its awkward past,” the Americana trade continues. “But the bear’s history was known to a few, and it somehow found its way into the hands of a Nashville pawnbroker.”

From here, the Nashville resident would sell taxidermied Cocaine Bear to – and we’re not making this up -infamous “outlaw” country icon Waylon Jennings. Apparently, Jennings (yes, again, that Waylon Jennings), through varying degrees, knew of Andrew Thornton and the saga of Cocaine Bear. This in mind, Roadside America reports that the country star gave Cocaine Bear to a “Las Vegas hustler” – a mutual friend of Thornton and Jennings.

After both Jennings and this “hustler” died themselves, Cocaine Bear was then bought by a “Chinese herbalist in Reno.”

If you didn’t think this should be a movie before, you do now.

After the herbalist’s death, his widow held onto Cocaine Bear. Because, well, who wouldn’t? If all of this leaves you thinking “wow, I sure wish I could see the taxidermy of Cocaine Bear!” – you’re in luck there, too.

Kentucky: The Legend’s Final Resting Place

From here, Cocaine Bear’s legacy would come full circle. A couple of local Kentucky entrepreneurs – both having grown up with the tall tales of Cocaine Bear – went in search of the taxidermied legend. If you can believe it, they wound up tracking down the herbalist’s widow – and inheriting Cocaine Bear off of her.

Whit Hiler and Griffin VanMeter now proudly (understatement) own Cocaine Bear’s taxidermy. He sits as the prize of their business, the Kentucky for Kentucky Fun Mall, as of 2015. It’s a “marketplace for locals to sell quirky home-state items such as gold-plated KFC breastbone necklaces and fried-chicken-scented candles,” Roadside says of their store, which also showcases other “unusual Kentucky relics.”

This is undoubtedly amongst the most abhorrent of fates for any animal. Cocaine Bear does, however, now serve a higher purpose:

“Dangling from his neck is a flashy sign that gives the bear’s proper name “Pablo EskoBear”… And ends with this warning: “Don’t do drugs or you’ll end up dead (and maybe stuffed) like poor Cocaine Bear,” Roadside concludes.

Up Next: Hollywood

Now, after a remarkable whirlwind spanning four decades, Cocaine Bear is heading to Hollywood.

As THR reports, Elizabeth Banks is to direct a “thriller” based on the unbelievable tale. Banks previous works include Sony’s Charlie’s Angels reboot and Universal’s Pitch Perfect 2. This may make her an unconventional choice for the film… But what about Cocaine Bear isn’t unconventional already?

Banks, however, is not the first to try and tackle this story.

“Radio Silence — the filmmaking team consisting of Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, Tyler Gillett and Chad Villella behind Ready or Not — was to direct a previous iteration of the project,” the trade clarifies.

We can only hope this new Hollywood team, and Universal at large, will do justice to the momentous tale that is: Cocaine Bear.