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The Life and Death of the Cop-Turned-Cocaine-Smuggler Who Killed Pablo Escobear

Andrew Carter Thornton II was an adrenaline junkie who seemingly ran drugs as much for the thrill as for the cash. In the end, though, it would cost him — and a 175-pound black bear — everything.

In 1985, two days before Christmas, the New York Times ran a 78-word story with the headline, “Cocaine and a Dead Bear.” “A 175-pound black bear apparently died of an overdose of cocaine after discovering a batch of the drug,” the article reads. 

The story notes that the bear was found with 40 opened plastic containers with traces of cocaine in the Georgia woods. Fran Wiley, of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation Drug Enforcement Office, estimated that those 40 containers “once held 75 pounds of cocaine, worth $75 million,” which would be approximately $444 million today. Either way, it was enough to kill a mountain full of bears.

As Wiley told the press at the time, only traces of cocaine were recovered as the containers had been sitting in the woods for more than two months. “It had time to dissolve, and there was snow on the mountain when we found it,” he explained. “The bear didn’t obviously eat 75 pounds of cocaine.”

Essentially, Pablo Escobear, as he was dubbed by the media, consumed about an eight ball of cocaine before he dropped dead. It originated from one of five duffel bags dropped from a low-flying drug-smuggling plane. Three other duffel bags — containing another 218 pounds of cocaine — were discovered dangling from a parachute twisted in a tree not far away.

A fifth bag landed in the driveway of a suburban home in Knoxville, Tennessee. It was attached to a man’s crumpled, lifeless body, wrapped in an unused parachute. The dead man also carried with him a .22 pistol, a 9mm Browning, extra clips of ammo, a bulletproof vest and night-vision goggles. In his pockets, he had $4,500 in cash along with six gold South African coins, a stiletto knife, some vitamins and field rations, a compass, an altimeter, a Miami Jockey Club membership card and ID in two different names. In his pocket as well was an epigram that read: “There is only one tactical principle not subject to change: It is to inflict the maximum amount of wounds, death and destruction on the enemy in the minimum amount of time.”

The dead man’s name was Andrew “Drew” Carter Thornton II.

The story of Thornton’s sudden demise will presumably be the focus of the upcoming film Cocaine Bear, the latest from director Elizabeth Banks. The film, slated to star Kerri Russell, Ray Liotta and O’Shea Jackson, is described as a “character-driven thriller inspired by true events that took place in Kentucky in 1985.” But what happened in Thornton’s life before Pablo Escobear ever entered the picture is perhaps even wilder.

He was raised in Lexington, Kentucky, and spent his youth gazing across the manicured bluegrass of his Kentucky home. A son of wealth and privilege, he was a member of the local Iroquois Polo Club. For college prep, he attended Sewanee Military Academy before enlisting in the Army, where he became a paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne and earned a Purple Heart for his service in the Dominican Republic.

He returned home from the Army in the 1960s and went back to college, but he soon dropped out. He tried his hand at breeding horses, along with a couple of other career paths, but nothing stuck. In 1968, he met a young woman named Betty Zairing and soon asked her to be his wife. The two were married in July of that same year, and just two months later, he joined the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Police with a renewed sense of purpose.

Thornton spent his days on the force arresting hippie college kids protesting the Vietnam War, and at night, he went to school, eventually earning a degree in law enforcement. His new wife would later describe him as “a trained warrior — a very efficient killer trained by the U.S. government. He went onto the police force so he could do battle. He was happiest when he was on the cutting edge, when he tested himself.” Their marriage, however, wasn’t meant to last. The couple divorced just two years later. 

During the early 1970s, Thornton joined Lexington’s first Drug Enforcement Task Force and started working regularly with the DEA. One DEA agent remembered him as “an 007 paramilitary type personality … an adventurer driven by adrenaline rushes.”

In 1976, Thornton earned a law degree and switched from cop to lawyer as he continued to work on the right side of the law. But that didn’t last long. Five years later, Thornton was arrested on allegations that he was involved in a smuggling ring conspiring to deliver stolen U.S. Navy weapons to the Soviet Union in exchange for radar equipment. The discovered stolen weapons were allegedly intended to be traded in Libya — an agreement allegedly authorized by the CIA. However, as the New York Times also reported, “Federal authorities who are familiar with these cases said that they believed the hardware stolen from China Lake was actually intended for use in exchange for drugs in Colombia.”

Thornton was caught piloting a DC4 plane filled with marijuana that he was attempting to smuggle through the Lexington airport. He pleaded not guilty to the charges of conspiracy to import and distribute a controlled substance. Then he fled. He was eventually tracked down and re-apprehended in North Carolina. At the time of his arrest, he was armed with a handgun and was wearing a bulletproof vest. As he awaited trial in Kentucky, Thornton was shot twice while leaving a restaurant, but both shots were blocked by his bulletproof vest.

On the surface, it would seem like someone wanted Thornton dead. But the Lexington police believed the attempted assassination was faked and that Thornton arranged the attempt on his life himself to convince the court that he needed protection. After he changed his plea to “no contest,” the related federal weapons charges were dropped and Thornton was sentenced to six months in a minimum security prison for conspiring to smuggle 1,000 pounds of pot. His law license was also suspended.

Once he was released from federal prison in November 1982, though, Thornton only went bigger. By the early 1980s, he became a full-blown international drug smuggler. He made his living flying a small aircraft from South America back into America, smuggling in pot, cocaine and weapons. Meanwhile, he may also have been getting revenge for his short time in prison. Over the next three years, a number of people connected to the bust and prosecution were found dead — often of suspicious circumstances. 

First, there was Florida Assistant State Attorney Gene Berry. He opened the door to his home on January 16, 1982, only to be shot dead, execution style. That same year, in the investigation into Berry’s death, Thornton was again named as part of a billion dollar drug smuggling and gun running ring, one that included the man who invented Tang and former All-Pro NFL wide receiver Lance Alworth, who was fond of bazookas. Then there was Robert S. Walker, a witness who testified against Thornton, who was later found dead in a Florida swamp. He had been strangled to death. Lastly, the informant who tipped off the feds about Thornton was found in Miami with his throat cut, a street punishment for a snitch. 

As for Thornton’s own demise, on the fateful night of September 10th, 1985, Thornton was on an eight-hour return flight from Colombia, flying low in his Cessna 404, loaded down with hundreds of pounds of cocaine. The former horse-breeder-turned-cop-turned lawyer-turned-drug-smuggler was likely quite confident in his plan. Again, he had night-vision goggles that would allow him to spot infrared beacons in the dark, marking the drop zone in the Georgia woods. All Thornton had to do was toss the duffel bags out of his plane, set the plane on autopilot and parachute out.  

Thornton, however, made one tiny, yet fatal, mistake. When he leapt from the plane, he hit his head on the tail, knocking him out cold. He then plummeted to the ground unconscious, his parachute unopened. Next to his body was several million dollars worth of cocaine in a duffel bag, still attached to his waist. He was 40 years old. 

The pilot-less twin-engine plane continued on autopilot to North Carolina, where it eventually crashed into a mountainside. 

There was early talk from a few federal agents that Thornton wasn’t just unlucky — he had been murdered, perhaps after betraying his Colombian cartel business partners. This line of thinking was strengthened after Thornton’s smuggling partner also subsequently died in a suspicious plane crash later that same year. All we know for sure, though, is that the Colombian connection in America didn’t receive their promised cocaine shipment and that the two American drug smugglers who failed them were both dead by the end of 1985. As was, of course, Pablo Escobear. 

The Georgia black bear was eventually stuffed by a taxidermist and turned into a mascot for the Appalachian countryside and its history of bizarre criminality. His last known location: the Kentucky for Kentucky Fun Mall, which, ironically enough, is located in Thornton’s hometown of Lexington. 

Despite the strange and ugly facts of Thornton’s death, Zairing still romanticizes her ex-husband. “He went out like an Eagle Scout,” she told the Washington Post back in 1985. “He would have loved the concept of the warriors who fall from the sky.”