Cocaine Bear is based on true events, but just how much of it is real?

Cocaine Bear
(Image credit: Universal Pictures)

Warning! This article contains minor spoilers for Cocaine Bear. If you've yet to see the movie and you don't want to know anything, turn back now!

As the trailers suggest, Cocaine Bear, the new horror comedy from Elizabeth Banks is based on true events – but just how much of it is real? Well, given the insane goings on in the movie, you won't be surprised to learn not everything in it really happened. That doesn't mean, though, that what did wasn't wild in its own right...

Starring Keri Russell, Margo Martindale, O'Shea Jackson Jr., Alden Ehrenreich, and the late Ray Liotta, the film follows a ragtag group of people who cross paths with a crazed American black bear that's ingested a shedload of the titular white powder. Instantly addicted to the stuff, the creature soon goes on a murderous rampage to find her next fix, leaving carnage (and a pile of bodies) in her wake.

In both the film and real-life, the drugs landed in Georgia's expansive Chattahoochee National Forest after narcotics cop-turned-drug smuggler Andrew C. Thornton II, the son of wealthy horse breeders in Kentucky, chucked them out of a plane on September 11, 1985. Nicknamed 'The Cocaine Cowboy', Thornton was known for ferrying the illegal substance over the southern border and dumping bags of it across various wildernesses for his associates to pick up later. While he's seen piloting the twin-engine five-seat Cessna alone in the movie, he reportedly had a travelling companion in reality; Bill Leonard, a body-building karate instructor.

While the FBI suggested Thornton had flung the stash due to it being too heavy in-flight, in 1990, Leonard told The Knoxville News-Sentinel that Thornton, who may or may not have been flying under the influence, had become convinced they were being tailed by feds, and persuaded Leonard to set the auto-pilot, drop their load and bail. After giving Leonard a crash course on how to use a parachute, he pushed him out of the aircraft before jumping himself. While Leonard landed safely and was never charged with any crime, Thornton's parachute failed to open properly and his body was discovered on the driveway of Fred Myers in Knoxville, Tennessee. 

He was wearing a khaki jacket over a bulletproof vest, black gloves and gray-laced Gucci loafers. On his person, he was said to have $4,586.76 in cash, notebooks full of secret codes and telephone numbers, night-vision equipment, a pistol, and 77 pounds of cocaine.

You don't see what happened to the plane in the screen adaptation but in real-life, the Cessna crashed into an ivy-covered ridge in the Natahala National Forest of North Carolina, roughly 145 miles away from where Thornton was found.

Keri Russell as Sari, Jesse Tyler Ferguson as Peter, and Margo Martindale as Liz in Cocaine Bear

(Image credit: Universal Pictures)

Thornton, brought to life by Matthew Rhys in Cocaine Bear, only plays a small part in the movie, but his actions set the chaotic 95 minutes that follow into action. After Knoxville-based detective Bob (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) realizes who the dead body belongs to, works out that druglord Syd (Liotta) was Thornton's boss, and catches wind that a couple of Syd's men, Eddie (Ehrenreich) and Daveed (Jackson), are headed out to Chattahoochee, he sets off there himself. 

Elsewhere, nurse Sari (Russell) ventures into the wilderness to retrieve her truant young daughter Dee Dee (Brooklyn Prince) and her smitten friend Henry (Christian Convery). Along the way, Sari enlists the help of animal-rights activist Peter (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) and Liz (Martindale), a forthright park ranger. Other characters include a couple of paramedics, Officer Reba (Ayoola Smart), Stache (Aaron Holliday), Vest (J. B. Moore), and Ponytail (Leo Hanna), three young punks who regularly mug unsuspecting trekkers in the woods, and Elsa (Hannah Hoekstra) and Olaf (Kristofer Hivju), two ill-fated Norwegian backpackers. All humans in the flick are fictitious, apart from Thornton.

In reality, the bear – fondly dubbed Pablo Escobear – ate 35 pounds worth of blow having wandered close to Chattahoochee's Blood Mountain, where the final act of the movie takes place. When its corpse was discovered in January, four months after Thornton and Leonard dropped the drugs, an autopsy revealed that its stomach was filled to capacity with cocaine. It died, reportedly, from a combination of cerebral hemorrhaging, hyperthermia, respiratory failure, renal failure, and heart failure.

At the scene, investigators found all 40 plastic packets of the Colombian flake, thought to have contained 77 pounds worth of the substance. It is believed that other local animals, and potentially some humans, must have finished the load off. 

According to reports, chief medical examiner Dr. Kenneth Alonso didn't like the idea of wasting their bear's body, so ordered the deceased beast to be taxidermied. It was then gifted to Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area. At some point, though, the bear was temporarily misplaced after being packed away during a wildfire before turning up again in a Nashville pawn shop. 

From there, it was bought by country music star Waylon Jennings, who presented it to a friend, Ron Thompson, in Las Vegas. When Thompson died in 2009, it was bought for $200 by Chinese immigrant Zhu T'ang. When T'ang passed away in 2012, his widow agreed to give it to the Kentucky for Kentucky Fun Mall in Lexington, Kentucky on the condition that they pay for its shipping. It remains there to this day.

Cocaine Bear is out in UK and US cinemas now. For more, check out our list of the most exciting upcoming movies coming our way throughout 2023 and beyond.

Amy West

I am an Entertainment Writer here at GamesRadar+, covering all things TV and film across our Total Film and SFX sections. Elsewhere, my words have been published by the likes of Digital Spy, SciFiNow, PinkNews, FANDOM, Radio Times, and Total Film magazine.