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‘Cocaine Bear’ is based on a true story: Pablo Eskobear, who overdosed

This is a black bear but not Pablo Eskobear. (GreenReynolds/Getty Images/iStockphoto)
4 min

It’s a premise meant to send adrenaline racing through moviegoers’ veins: A bloodthirsty bear chasing people through a forest — high out of its mind on cocaine.

Director Elizabeth Banks’s wild new horror-comedy “Cocaine Bear,” in theaters February but previewed in a trailer Wednesday, tells the story of a black bear that gobbled up a “staggering amount” of the highly addictive illegal stimulant and unleashed a “coke-fueled rampage for more blow … and blood” around rural Georgia.

But what is fact, and what is fiction, about the “Cocaine Bear?” Its titular character is real, and has since been dubbed Pablo Eskobear (a nod to the notorious drug kingpin Pablo Escobar).

And although the synopsis suggests the “500-pound apex predator” is hunting potential victims in a Georgia forest where “an oddball group of cops, criminals, tourists and teens” are converging, there is no indication Pablo Eskobear targeted people or killed anyone.

The story dates to 1985, when the remains of a 150-pound black bear were discovered by narcotics investigators on a hillside in Fannin County, Ga., near a duffel bag and 40 ripped-open packages of cocaine, the Associated Press reported at the time.

“The bear got to it before we could, and he tore the duffel bag open, got him some cocaine and OD’d [overdosed],” AP quoted Gary Garner of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation as saying. (In the trailer, the rampaging bear at times appears to be very high.)

A subsequent autopsy reported by AP found the bear had absorbed around three to four grams of the drug into its blood stream, significantly less than the 75 pounds of cocaine believed by investigators to have once been contained in a duffel bag found nearby, but apparently enough to kill it.

Agents believed the cocaine haul had been dumped from the sky three months earlier by Andrew “Drew” Carter Thornton II, 40, while on a drug flight from Colombia, with the intention of returning to the area later to collect the stash.

But Cocaine Bear came across the stash before Thornton, who died before he was able to return to the forest.

On Sept. 10, 1985, Thornton fell from a Cessna twin-engine plane flying over Knoxville, Tenn., where he was found dead on a driveway with a failed parachute strapped to his back and an Army duffel bag containing 34 football-sized bundles of cocaine.

According to The Washington Post’s obituary at the time, Thornton also had bulletproof vest, night-vision goggles, a Browning 9mm automatic pistol, a .22-caliber pistol, several rounds of ammunition, a stiletto, $4,500 in cash, six gold Krugerrands (South African coins), 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.

The veteran, who claimed he was awarded a Purple Heart for his participation in the 1965 U.S. invasion of the Dominican Republic, worked as a racehorse trainer, a police officer and eventually a narcotics agent — before becoming involved in the illegal drugs trade himself and being convicted on marijuana conspiracy charges. At the time of his death, he was sought by various jurisdictions for questioning in connection with “vendetta deaths,” according to The Post’s obituary.

“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,” a fellow police officer told The Post at the time.

Georgia Bureau of Investigation agents were not able to determine the intended recipient of Thornton’s cocaine haul, but it probably wasn’t a bear.

Cocaine Bear fans can today pay tribute to Thornton’s final victim in Kentucky, where retail store Fun Mall has a stuffed bear on display which it claims to be the original. The store’s Instagram recently posted: “Want to chill with Cocaine Bear?”

The Washington Post was not able to immediately verify the authenticity of the Cocaine Bear.

Fun Mall has a wild tale of its own about the bear’s alleged journey. After being preserved by a taxidermist, the store claims, the Cocaine Bear was sold by a pawnshop to country legend Waylon Jennings, before it eventually ended up in a traditional Chinese medicine shop in Reno, Nev. The wife of that shop’s late owner was happy to get rid of it — as long as Fun Mall, which says it tracked down the object from her, paid for its shipping.