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Is ‘Cocaine Bear’ really based on a true story? Behold the wild tale of the real ‘Pablo Escobear’

A smuggler, an airplane, and a Georgia forest that wasn’t ready for this kind of snow.

(from left) Daveed (O’Shea Jackson, Jr.), Eddie (Alden Ehrenreich), Officer Reba (Ayoola Smart) and Syd (Ray Liotta) in Cocaine Bear (2022)

Audiences are so used to seeing movies supposedly “inspired by true events” that it takes a real toot of a story to bump a film’s title to a key position at the top of their must-see list. But that’s just the case with the bonkers, real-life tale behind Cocaine Bear, Universal’s upcoming film helmed by The Hunger Games acting veteran and Charlie's Angels director Elizabeth Banks that’s actually, seriously, based on true events.

One thing to get out of the way from the start, though: Sadly, the real cocaine bear likely didn’t last nearly as long, after nomming down the bad thing, as the titular ursine terror depicted in the jacked-up, hilariously scary trailer that crashed the upcoming-release party this week. Nope, the poor fella enjoyed a jolt of pure stimulation that investigators believe lasted relatively briefly before the massive quantity of yeyo did its thing on his central nervous system and knocked him dead.

Here’s what actually happened: In 1985 (evidently a great year for high-profile drug busts), an insane amount of obviously illegal cocaine was panic-dropped by a smuggler who’d parachuted from his plane — and later died from the fall in neighboring Tennessee — because the drugs he tried to bring with him were weighing him down. Via Entertainment Weekly, the drop took place above the Chattahoochee–Oconee National Forest in Georgia, where first a hunter, and later investigators, subsequently discovered a tattered duffel bag and “40 packages of cocaine that had been ripped open and scattered over a hillside,” via a contemporary AP report — and all of it not far from the deceased corpse of a 150-pound black bear.

How much coke did the bear blow through? “Officials believe the bear, and maybe some others, ate several million dollars worth of the cocaine,” the 37 year-old AP report notes. “Each of the 40 packages is believed to have contained one kilogram of cocaine, or about 88 pounds in all, and valued at as much as $20 million.”

Georgia Bureau of Investigation officers at the time estimated the bear, found in December, had been dead for four weeks when officials encountered it, and thankfully didn’t endure after ingesting the drugs long enough to go on a mauling spree fit for a horror show. “The bear got to it before we could, and he tore the duffel bag open, got him some cocaine and OD’d,” Gary Garner, a GBI officer investigating the bygone crime, told the AP.

The demise of the man believed to be behind the amped-up tragedy is just as wild as its bear-meets blizzard-buffet finale. In September of 1985, Andrew Thornton, a U.S. narcotics officer and “alleged gang leader,” via EW, dumped the drugs — allegedly obtained “on a smuggling run from Columbia” — while flying a small Cessna aircraft northward over Georgia. He’d evidently already dumped a portion of his drug haul while in flight (the portion the bear discovered, naturally), but at some point near the Tennessee line, he apparently decided to just put the plane on autopilot and parachute out with the remaining 77 pounds of coke “strapped” to his body.

Things only got worse for Thornton from there: He “likely either misjudged the weight the parachute could carry or got tangled in the wires, but either way, he fell to his death, landing in the driveway of a Knoxville, Tenn. resident,” EW notes. “On his body, investigators found the keys to an unmanned Cessna plane that had recently crashed into a mountain in North Carolina. Days later, ‘clothes, maps of Jamaica, and a pilot's logbook bearing the Cessna's number’ were discovered about 30 miles south of Atlanta.”

Both the alleged human perpetrator and the bear have long since passed, but the wild story has persisted in local lore. Next time you’re in the Bluegrass State (where Thornton was raised and worked as an officer), drop in at the Kentucky for Kentucky Fun Mall in Lexington for a quick driving detour that’ll take you to straight to the taxidermied cadaver of the legendary party animal himself.

Though the bear’s preserved cadaver has a fascinating history of its own (one that apparently even involves a stint in the possession of country music icon Waylon Jennings), we can neither confirm or deny that it’s really the same bear. But we can tell you that the real cocaine bear, affectionately still referred to by locals as “Pablo Escobear,” probably spent his final hours yarfing down coke like there was no tomorrow (which, sadly for him, proved accurate).

“Its stomach was literally packed to the brim with cocaine,” said the medical examiner who performed the animal’s necropsy, according to a deep-dive 2015 article done by Kentucky for Kentucky. “There isn't a mammal on the planet that could survive that. Cerebral hemorrhaging, respiratory failure, hyperthermia, renal failure, heart failure, stroke. You name it, that bear had it.”

Universal’s Cocaine Bear is lining up for a Feb. 24, 2023 premiere in theaters nationwide.

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