'Cocaine Bear': What to know about the stranger-than-fiction story behind the movie

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On September 1985, a lone parachutist fell to his death in Knoxville. He was found wearing the parachute — which failed to deploy — along with several bags, including one stuffed with around 35 kilograms of cocaine.

The man, a drug smuggler named Andrew Thornton, had bailed out of a plane after a drug run to Colombia, according to local officials. Several more containers of cocaine that fell from the plane landed in northern Georgia, where a black bear came upon them.

The story inspired the movie "Cocaine Bear," which is set to release in theaters Feb. 24. The dark comedy thriller depicts a 500-pound bear's coke-fueled rampage that involves "an oddball group of cops, criminals, tourists and teens converging in a Georgia forest," according to Universal Studios.

Here are a few things to know about "Cocaine Bear" and the bizarre-but-true story that inspired it.

A inquisitive bear gets ahold of a wayward drug shipment and runs amok in "Cocaine Bear."
A inquisitive bear gets ahold of a wayward drug shipment and runs amok in "Cocaine Bear."

Who's in the 'Cocaine Bear' movie?

The Emmy-studded cast of "Cocaine Bear" is led by director Elizabeth Banks ("Charlie's Angels" and "Pitch Perfect 2").

It includes: Keri Russell ("The Americans"), Margo Martindale ("The Americans"), Ray Liotta ("The Many Saints of Newark"), Alden Ehrenreich ("Solo: A Star Wars Story"), O’Shea Jackson Jr. ("Straight Outta Compton"), Jesse Tyler Ferguson ("Modern Family"), Kristofer Hivju ("Game of Thrones"), Kahyun Kim ("American Gods"), Christian Convery ("Sweet Tooth"), Brooklynn Prince ("The Florida Project") and Scott Seiss.

In May, Liotta died in his sleep in the Dominican Republic, where he was filming the movie "Dangerous Waters." He was 67.

Read more about the cast and crew of "Cocaine Bear" at universalpictures.com/movies/cocaine-bear.

Where can I see 'Cocaine Bear'?

"Cocaine Bear" will release in theaters nationwide on Feb. 24. Refer to local movie listings for schedules, tickets and locations.

What's the true story about drug smuggler Andrew Thornton?

A photo of Andrew Thornton, originally published Sept. 14, 1985.
A photo of Andrew Thornton, originally published Sept. 14, 1985.

Before he was a drug smuggler, Thornton was a Kentucky narcotics officer and lawyer. He enlisted the help of karate instructor and bodyguard Bill Leonard for the drug run to Colombia. The two loaded 400 kilos of cocaine into a Cessna 404 airplane and smuggled the drugs back into the U.S.

From 2021:'Cocaine Bear' tells a wild story, and Knoxville plays a role

The plane was somewhere over Florida when they thought they overheard radio transmissions from federal agents who said they were following them. They put the plane on autopilot and bailed out. However, Thornton's chute failed to deploy. He landed in the backyard of a South Knoxville home, clad in combat fatigues with several weapons and a bag of cocaine tied to his body.

The scene drew scores of officials from multiple agencies who slowly pieced the investigation together. The abandoned plane ultimately crashed into Tusquitee Bald, a mountain in Clay County, North Carolina. Authorities found cocaine and other items from the plane in different parts of Georgia, including the area where the black bear was later found dead.

Leonard survived the jump. He told his wild story in 1990 to former Knoxville News Sentinel managing editor Tom Chester.

Did the real 'cocaine bear' hurt or kill anyone?


In fact, the bear's death seemed to only warrant a tiny slice of the frenzy of news coverage surrounding Thornton's death. The New York Times wrote a three-sentence story in December 1985 after the 175-pound black bear was found dead amid 40 opened plastic containers with traces of cocaine in Georgia.

Watch the official trailer for 'Cocaine Bear'

Note: This video may be disturbing to some viewers.

This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: 'Cocaine Bear': The wild, but true, Tennessee story behind the movie