The bluegrass hills were vibrant under the strong September sun as hundreds made their way past the Bourbon County gravesite. The mourners, by most accounts, made up a Who's Who in Kentucky aristocracy, a crowd of lawyers, socialites and politicians. Thirteen floral arrangements decorated the rural cemetery, including one from the deceased's most recent girlfriend, signed, "I will always love you, Rebecca."
It was also a crowd of police, horse breeders and gamblers, mingling with some shadowy hangers-on. Harold Slone, a Lexington attorney who recently pleaded guilty to federal income tax violations and mail fraud -- an old friend and law partner of Thornton's -- was there. So was James Lambert, once a prominent Lexington businessman who is now awaiting sentencing on a recent federal cocaine distribution conviction.
They were paying their last respects to Andrew Carter Thornton II, who had single-handedly summed up the dark side of the American dream, or at least the Kentucky version of it, when he landed on a Knoxville, Tenn., driveway with several million dollars worth of cocaine strapped to his waist and a failed parachute strapped to his back. He was 40 when he died.
"He Thornton was very fond of the words of the Oriental philosopher who said, 'Man can overcome any obstacle if he knows in his heart that he must and in his mind that he shall,' " the Rev. Cliff Pike of the tiny Episcopal church in Paris, Ky., said in his eulogy. That was indeed Thornton's credo, according to those who knew him best.
When he hit the driveway on Sept. 10, shortly after abandoning a Cessna twin-engine 404 (which would crash unmanned against a mountain in North Carolina), Thornton was wearing a bulletproof vest, special night vision goggles, a Browning 9 mm automatic pistol, a .22-caliber pistol and several clips of ammunition. He had with him survival gear, a stiletto, $4,500 in cash, six gold Krugerrands, food rations and vitamins, a compass, an altimeter, identification papers in two different names, a membership card to the Miami Jockey Club and the key to the airplane. His Army duffel bag contained 34 football-sized bundles of cocaine that were marked "USA 10."
In his pocket were three epigrams. One 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."
Perhaps more than anyone, Thornton would have appreciated the absurdity of his death. He felt smug in his survivability, his elusiveness, his discretion and his insulation. He flaunted his soldier-of-fortune ideology, his professional connections, his sky-diving exploits, his macho command of weaponry and spy gadgetry.
"He believed he was an 'impeccable warrior,' " said Betty Zairing, Thornton's former wife, referring to a term penned by mystical author Carlos Castaneda. "He was a philosophical, incredibly disciplined, extremely spiritual and loyal warrior, with his own code of ethics, who thrived on excitement."
Others who knew him say he thrived on vengeance and murder.
Thornton was raised on Threave Main Stud, a thoroughbred horse farm in picturesque Bourbon County. The oldest son of Carter and Peggy Thornton (a brother and sister still live in central Kentucky), he was guaranteed induction into Kentucky's blue-blood society. A secretary for Threave Main Stud said Thornton's parents are "burned out on talking to the press" and had nothing more to add.
Thornton was educated at Sayre in Lexington, a private elementary school, and attended Sewanee Military Academy, a prestigious Tennessee institution. Unlike many children of privilege in the 1960s, he was not drawn to the rebellious style of the decade. After graduation from Sewanee in 1962, he joined ROTC and attended one semester at the University of Kentucky. He quit school to join the Army, and often often spoke of his training as a paratrooper for the Army's 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, N.C., and of being awarded a Purple Heart for service in the 1965 U.S. invasion of the Dominican Republic.
Thornton's life began to take several directions. He made a second stab at college in 1966 but dropped out after a year. He worked for his father, training racehorses, before joining the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Police Department in 1968. At night, he attended Eastern Kentucky University and in 1971 received a degree in law enforcement.
As a policeman "Drew" arrested University of Kentucky students protesting the Vietnam war, and in the early 1970s he became a member of the Lexington police department's first narcotics squad, working with the Drug Enforcement Administration's regional office in Louisville. Says former DEA agent Larry Lakin: "DEA worked with Drew on many occasions in narcotics, and sometimes on a weekly basis." The affiliation between Thornton and the DEA intrigues cops who try to understand Thornton's shift from narc to drug smuggler. DEA agent Robert Brightwell, who says he worked with Thornton on narcotics investigations in the early 1970s, describes him as "an 007 paramilitary type personality . . . an adventurer driven by adrenaline rushes" who became bored with being a cop.
Thornton attended law school at night and received his law degree in 1976. (He later joined the Lexington law firm of an old friend, Harold Slone, but he never actually practiced law.) He was a daring pilot, a master of martial arts who boasted of killing a German shepherd with his bare hands, and an expert sky diver -- famous among jumpers for "pulling low," or releasing the chute at below 2,000 feet.
According to friends, he died a millionaire.
To friends, Thornton was a man of loyalty, religious conviction, enchanting charm, keen intelligence and supreme self-confidence. To enemies, he was ruthless, egotistical, amoral -- driven by an ego so fragile he overcompensated with machismo.
When Betty Zairing met Thornton, he was training racehorses and thinking of becoming a policeman. She was a university coed, a beauty from Shelby County. "I fell in love with him as a romantic hero," she says. "He was recuperating from wounds he had received in the Dominican Republic, where he had really come into his own as a paratrooper."
They were married in July 1968; a month later he joined the police force. "He was a trained warrior -- a very efficient killer trained by the U.S. government," she says. "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."
Zairing describes Thornton as a loving, supportive and gentle husband. "He loved me," she says, "but he resented having a wife." As a policeman, Thornton would meet "with Mafia hit men from Detroit who had contracts on him," she said. "We both realized it wasn't a life I felt comfortable with." Zairing said that the closer Thornton moved toward a James Bond character, the less she was able to relate to him, to live with the secrecy and danger of his life as a narc. She said Thornton had trouble reconciling the paradoxes of his life.
He told her horror stories about U.S. military operations in Vietnam, she says. "He had trouble understanding that." They were divorced in 1970, and neither remarried. "We kept in touch," she says. "Andrew always made sure I had whatever I needed."
E. Allen Prichard, a Charlotte, N.C., attorney who was a boyhood acquaintance of Thornton's, describes him as the son of a decent, hard-working family, who had the benefit of the finest upbringing. Prichard and Thornton were fellow acolytes at St. Peter's Episcopal church and car-pooled to Sayre School.
"I never saw any indication of innate motivation for his life on the razor's edge," Prichard says. "There was absolutely nothing startling about Andrew's youth that would be a prologue to the current circumstances. He had the usual quotient of decency, fun-loving mischief."
A fellow police officer describes Thornton as an "edge walker" -- a thrill seeker motivated by danger. "As a policeman, Andrew could walk the edge only so long before it became routine. Drug smuggling was a natural transition for him. He was a "Starsky & Hutch" type of cop -- he drove fast cars, popped in and raided people. He was as flamboyant in his life as he was in his death."
"He was a little boy who never grew up," says an FBI agent investigating his death, who asked to remain nameless.
Thornton subscribed to a code of independence; his society was one in which individuals perfected their survival skills through self-defense. Anticipating a nuclear holocaust, he stockpiled paramilitary weapons, freeze-dried foods, gold coins. He wore camouflage fatigues and swastikas and bulletproof vests, and talked about eyes for eyes and teeth for teeth. He considered himself a free-lance military adviser of sorts, siding with anticommunists around the world -- the Salvadoran government, the Nicaraguan contras, South African industrialists.
He had become increasingly paranoid. He surrounded Triad, the isolated Jessamine County farm that he owned, with concertina wire, setting up barracks and digging trenches, according to Kentucky State Police. "Thornton's farm was the subject of aerial and ground surveillance several times following reports that Thornton was operating a guerrilla warfare training camp for mercenaries," according to Sgt. Ralph Ross, a retired Kentucky State Police officer formerly in charge of the state's intelligence division. Thornton consistently maintained that nothing illegal occurred on his farm.
For years, Thornton pursued his avocation of preparing himself and others for Armageddon. His problems began in 1981, with the arrest of one of his aristocratic connections, Bradley Bryant.
Like Thornton, Bryant was a native son of the horsy set, the grandson of a Lexington mayor. They were lifelong friends; they traveled in the same social circles and attended the Sewanee Military Academy together. Bryant had been the best man at Thornton's wedding. In 1977 Bryant formed a private security company called Executive Protection Ltd. He cultivated and recruited police from around the United States. Thornton resigned from the Lexington police department that year and joined Bryant in the new venture.
In 1981, Bryant was arrested in a hotel in Philadelphia when maids smelled marijuana smoke coming from his room. In Bryant's possession at the time of his arrest was a cache of semiautomatic weapons, disguises, more than 10 fraudulent Kentucky driver's licenses and $22,000 in cash. His notebook contained the names and addresses of several Lexington men, including Thornton, as well as references to planned operations with names such as "Blue Fin."
Bryant initially told police he was involved in a clandestine CIA assignment. He later retreated from that story but continued to create the impression he was sanctioned by the CIA. Within days of his arrest, several federal agencies joined the investigation, and a few months later 25 individuals were indicted in Fresno, Calif., and charged with conspiracy to import and distribute marijuana and to steal government property from the China Lake Naval Base.
Thornton was one of nine Kentucky men named in that indictment, which was handed down amid hints that a larger drug-smuggling conspiracy existed. He was charged with piloting into the Lexington airport a DC4 loaded with tons of marijuana.
Thornton remained a fugitive for several months. But after U.S. Customs agents seized a 56-foot converted mine sweeper carrying 1,500 pounds of marijuana off the Louisiana coast -- and discovered that a machine gun on board belonged to Thornton -- the search intensified. After his apprehension, U.S. marshals transported Thornton to Fresno for his arraignment, where he posted $75,000 in cash and a $1 million personal surety bond, secured by his interest in three racehorses.
He returned to Kentucky to await trial, and on Feb. 27, 1982, three days before he was scheduled to appear for a hearing in Fresno, Thornton was shot twice in the chest at close range as he was leaving a Lexington restaurant. The .38-caliber "wadcutter" bullets didn't penetrate his bulletproof vest. Police concluded the shooting had been staged by Thornton to persuade the California judge that his life would be endangered should he be incarcerated.
He ultimately pleaded no contest to marijuana conspiracy charges, and received a six-month sentence at a minimum-security facility in Lexington; Bryant is currently serving a 15-year sentence at the Federal Correctional Institute in Memphis. One case among the remaining 23 indictments was dismissed; the other defendants were either convicted or became government witnesses.
In the three years following his conviction, Thornton was sought by various jurisdictions for questioning, usually in connection with what police termed vendetta deaths -- with all the victims connected to various Thornton enterprises. Gene Berry, a Florida state's attorney, was murdered at point blank range Jan. 16, 1982, when he opened the door to his Punta Gorda residence; he had successfully prosecuted one of Thornton's Fresno codefendants. Robert S. Walker, a witness against Thornton in the case, was found strangled in a swamp in Tampa. The man who informed Customs of Thornton's involvement with the Louisiana smuggling vessel had his throat slit in Miami.
The death that best summed up the contradictions of the sort of life Thornton led, all the philosophical and cultural reversals, was that of Harold Wade Brown, former head of the DEA office in Kentucky. Brown was perhaps Thornton's closest friend for many years, until he was found shot to death in his Louisville home last year -- an apparent suicide, according to a coroner's inquest.
Their association began in the early 1970s when Thornton worked closely with the DEA. Brown's forced resignation from the DEA in 1981 came just six months before his retirement eligibility. The federal grand jury in Fresno investigated charges that Brown had thwarted the probe of the DC4 piloted by Thornton.
A search of a cabin Brown owned in Dead Horse Hollow uncovered a laboratory for manufacturing a poison that was sold on the streets as cocaine, according to Black. When police searched Thornton's Lexington town house last month, similar exotic poisons and explosives were among the items seized, including ether, nicotine, sodium and ammonium nitrate, and tear gas.
"They were cowboys," said a friend of both Thornton and Brown, who asked that his name not be used. "They shared the same mentality, the same paranoia. They weren't in it for the money alone." This man had known Brown and Thornton for many years, had watched them go from one side of law enforcement to the other. He considers it almost reasonable, suggesting that neither ever left the DEA but became smugglers to better infiltrate narcotics organizations. The irony is lost on him. "Either side," he said, "they were working for America."
Betty Zairing says Thornton thought of himself as a purist, an innocent. She recalls that over lunch last summer, she asked Thornton how he justified the violence, the paradoxes of his life. Thornton replied, she remembers, that he meditated regularly, at which time he entered a world beyond good and evil. He told her he was of a hero consciousness, that at another time in history he would have been a Genghis Khan, a ninja or a samurai, a valorous paragon of battle.
"He went out like an eagle scout," Zairing says of Thornton's death. "He would have loved the concept of the warriors who fall from the sky."
His rivals don't share this romanticized version. To them, Thornton was a cop gone bad. Nothing more and nothing less. Sally Ann Denton, a former TV and wire service reporter, covered part of the Thornton story in Kentucky. She is a private investigator in Washington.