The Strange and Tragic Story of Kentucky's 'Cocaine Bear'

Here’s how an insatiable 175-pound black bear became a Kentucky institution.

5 min
Engrid Barnett
Engrid Barnett
The Strange and Tragic Story of Kentucky's 'Cocaine Bear'
All stories

You don’t have to look far to find bizarre tourist attractions around the globe. San Luis Obispo, California, boasts Bubblegum Alley , where you can visit a 66-foot stretch of alleyway completely smattered with discarded chewing gum. In Japan, you can see the Hakone Kowakien Yunessun , a spa-themed park where tourists swim in steaming hot baths of green tea and sake. The Karni Mata Temple in Rajasthan, India, plays home to more than 20,000 rats. And in Boston, Massachusetts, there’s a house fabricated entirely from 100,000 sheets of newspaper , furniture included.

But, Believe It or Not!, this year’s buzziest (and kitschiest) roadside attraction is the Kentucky for Kentucky Fun Mall, home of the infamous “Cocaine Bear.” KY for KY has worked hard to preserve the alleged story of Cocaine Bear and in doing so, has sparked inspiration for a new movie directed by Elizabeth Banks and starring Ray Liotta, Keri Russell, and Matthew Rhys.

Before going forward, we at Ripley’s understand the lore of Cocaine Bear is now in the pop culture zeitgeist, but the story itself remains unclear. Ripley’s only publishes fact, so take the legend for what it is worth. Without further ado, here’s what you need to know about the twisty alleged story behind Hollywood’s latest dark comedy.

From Narcotics Officer to Drug Kingpin and Failed Parachutist

The legend of Cocaine Bear, also known as Pablo EskoBear, fittingly dates back to the 1980s and the so-called “ Bluegrass Conspiracy .” Situated at the center of the chaos was Andrew Thornton, a Kentucky narcotics officer who turned over a new leaf as a drug kingpin. At the height of his second career, he flew a regular drug smuggling route between Colombia and the United States.

Untangling the intricate web he wove began on September 11, 1985, when Thornton’s body fell from the sky onto a driveway in Knoxville, Tennessee. Besides the parachute he appeared to have gotten tangled up in, Thornton carried 150 pounds of cocaine and brandished a bulletproof vest, a Miami Jockey Club membership card, night vision goggles, and Gucci loafers . He also proved well-armed with at least two guns, a few knives, a key to the plane, and $4,500 in cash.

Thornton died at 40 years old, and his exit proved spectacular. Sixty miles from Thornton’s landing point, debris from his plane turned up. Investigators hypothesized he put the aircraft on autopilot before jumping. Some believe he hit his head on the airplane’s tail, inadvertently knocking himself unconscious on the ride to the ground, while others believe the parachute failed. Either way, the ride down proved fatal, but it wouldn’t be the end of the drug kingpin’s legend.

A Bizarre Find in Chattahoochee National Park

As the lore continues, investigators researched and pieced together exactly what happened to the alleged drug-runner-turned-failed-parachutist, another story unfolded in Georgia’s Chattahoochee National Forest. It involved a hunter who allegedly stumbled across a bizarre scene: a 175-pound black bear found dead next to an empty duffel bag of cocaine. As the story goes, a necropsy determined the bear died while consuming 75 pounds of the drug! The white powder measured 95 percent pure and filled the bear’s tummy “to the brim.”

cocaine bear
Image Credit: Kentucky for Kentucky.

Causes of death discovered during the autopsy included respiratory failure, hyperthermia, renal failure, stroke, and cerebral hemorrhaging. As the official who performed the autopsy allegedly reported, “There isn’t a mammal on the planet that could survive that …. You name it, that bear had it.” Despite the messy death, however, the bear’s body remained remarkably intact, which is where the Cocaine Bear story takes another unexpected twist.

A Remarkable, Post-Mortem Journey

Cocaine Bear’s remarkably handsome state of preservation motivated locals to have him stuffed and donated to the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area’s Visitor Center. From there, Cocaine Bear went into storage during a wildfire before reappearing in a Nashville pawn shop.

The bear caught the eye of famed country singer and songwriter Waylon Jennings, who purchased the ursine, gifting it to his friend, Ron Thompson of Las Vegas, Nevada. Thompson died in 2009, and the bear moved to Reno, purchased from Thompson’s estate by Zhu T’ang, who displayed it in his Chinese medicine shop for years.

In 2015, Kentucky for Kentucky tracked down the long-lost taxidermy Bear and brought him to the KY for KY Fun Mall in Lexington, Kentucky. KY for KY went on to state, “Bringing joy to thousands of people every month, Cocaine Bear is not just a roadside attraction – and soon-to-be biopic anti-hero – he’s also a city mascot, a heartwarming community builder, and a warning to all on the dangers of drug abuse.”

Cocaine Bear has been an online viral sensation landing on the front page of Reddit multiple times in just a couple of years and earning over 150,000 combined upvotes! Various  blogs newspapers TV news stations , and  YouTube channels  have gone on to cover Cocaine Bear and Believe It or Not!, when renowned podcast “My Favorite Murder” produced an animated short based on Cocaine Bear, it caught the attention of comedian, and voice actor Patton Oswalt!

Oh my God I want to do the voice of Cocaine Bear.

— Patton Oswalt (@pattonoswalt) January 23, 2019

Today, Cocaine Bear enjoys a life as a roadside celebrity that’s surprisingly family-friendly. Is it weird that a bear that allegedly died of a drug overdose is now a favorite children’s attraction? Perhaps. But the cocaine-addled teddy also acts as a fitting deterrent to illicit substances. As the sign around the animal’s neck explains, “Don’t do drugs or you’ll end up dead (and maybe stuffed) like poor ‘Cocaine Bear.’”

Be sure to check out KY for KY on Instagram , Twitter , Facebook and YouTube  for more Cocaine Bear content and stories. Looking for Cocaine Bear merch to wear to the February 24th big-screen debut ? Checkout the KY for KY online store and grab an original Cocaine Bear commemorative item!

Or Explore Our Categories

Have an Amazing Story?

At Ripley’s, we’re always in search of the unbelievable – maybe it’s you! Show us your talents. Tell us a strange story or a weird fact. Share your unbelievable art with us. Maybe even sell us something that could become a part of Ripley’s collection!

Have an Amazing Story?

Read More Ripley's

Take things to the next level! Ripley’s twentieth edition annual book is full of all-new, all-true stories from around the world.

Escape the Ordinary book
Buy Now
Swirling Pinstripe backdrop
Ripley's Cartoon of the Day

Sunday Cartoon! - May 19, 2024

Cartoon of the Day

LaVerne Biser, a 105-year-old Texas resident, has witnessed 13 solar eclipses.

Ripley's Cartoon of the Day

Robert Ripley began the Believe It or Not! cartoon in 1918. Today, Kieran Castaño is the eighth artist to continue the legacy of illustrating the world's longest-running syndicated cartoon!