The cocaine-eating bear from The Bluegrass Conspiracy is getting wild at The Kentucky for Kentucky Fun Mall!
You probably already know the story, the one about drug-smuggling Kentucky blue blood Andrew Thornton II that's been turned into books like The Bluegrass Conspiracy and TV shows and everything else, but if you don't here's the gist of it:
Andrew was one of those polo club, Sayre School, stud farm kids back in the '60s. He was probably always up to no good and ended up in a military academy. Then the army. After he'd had enough of that he became, of all things, a Lexington narcotics cop. How weird is that? A polo-playing drug cop.
A few years later, in 1977, he was a practicing Lexington lawyer.
Presumably, Thornton used his stint on the right side of the law to build a network of shady connections across the globe.
In 1981, he was accused of stealing weapons from a California naval base and conspiring to smuggle half a ton of pot into the U.S.
He plead not guilty and was arrested as a fugitive in North Carolina, wearing a bulletproof vest and packing a pistol.
He somehow managed to get these felony charges dropped and got off with a small fine, six months in prison and a suspended law license.
As soon as he was released, Thornton was back at it.
In 1985, while on a coke-smuggling run from Colombia and after dropping packages off in northern Georgia, Thornton jumped from his plane, got tangled in his parachute and fell to his death. His body ended up in some guy's yard in Knoxville, Tennessee.
When they found him he was wearing night vision goggles, another bulletproof vest and Gucci loafers. He also had $4500 in cash, some knives and two pistols.
Oh yeah. And he had a duffel bag filled with about 75 pounds of cocaine. At the time, that was $15 million worth.
Here's where things get super weird (and where Kentucky for Kentucky gets involved).
Three months after Thornton's bizarre death, a dead black bear was found in Georgia's Chattahoochee National Forest. It had apparently overdosed on cocaine dropped by Thornton.
Here's how the story appeared in the New York Times:
Cocaine and a Dead Bear
BLUE RIDGE, Ga., Dec. 22 (UPI) — A 175-pound black bear apparently died of an overdose of cocaine after discovering a batch of the drug, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation said today. The cocaine was apparently dropped from a plane piloted by Andrew Thornton, a convicted drug smuggler who died Sept. 11 in Knoxville, Tenn., because he was carrying too heavy a load while parachuting. The bureau said the bear was found Friday in northern Georgia among 40 opened plastic containers with traces of cocaine.
That's a lot of the ol' booger sugar, even for a bear. Can you imagine? One minute he's trying to find enough berries to survive another boring day in the Chattahoochee, the next minute he's ripping fat rails of Colombian disco dust off of tree stumps and water skiing in jeans with Alan Jackson, forcing all the other bears to listen to Huey Lewis and the News before chopping their heads off with an axe.
We needed to know more about this kick-ass bear. And our curiosity paid off in a big big way.
First things first, we contacted the Georgia Bureau of Investigation mentioned in the Times blurb. Not surprisingly, the legend of the cocaine bear was still fresh in the minds of everyone who worked there and they were able to put us in touch with the retired medical examiner who performed the bear's necropsy (an autopsy for an animal). He said it wasn't common for him to examine animals, but from time to time animals were involved with criminal investigations and he was required to treat them the same as a deceased human. Nevertheless, the cocaine bear stood out to him as a particularly strange incident.
"Its stomach was literally packed to the brim with cocaine. 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."
Its stomach was literally packed to the brim with cocaine. There isn't a mammal on the planet that could survive that.
Despite all that, the examiner said, the bear's body remained in good cosmetic shape. Such good shape that he thought it would be a shame to just have it cremated. He contacted a hunting buddy who did taxidermy, had it stuffed and then gifted it to the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area, where it was displayed in the visitor center behind a plaque without mention of its party animal past.
So we called them, too. And things just kept getting weirder.
Apparently, in the early '90s, the threat of an approaching wildfire prompted park employees to evacuate the area's facilities. They took the few artifacts they had, including the cocaine bear, and put it in temporary storage in a nearby town called Dalton.
A month later, it was gone.
Some of the stuff, some arrowheads and old Native American blankets, was recovered from a Nashville pawn shop. But coke bear never turned up. It had already been sold to … get this … country legend Waylon Jennings.
Now, according to court documents, the pawn shop owner told everybody that he didn't know anything about the bear's weird history. He said that to him it was just a stuffed bear like any other. But Jennings — who is apparently a huge collector of taxidermy and American oddities and all that, and who maintains relationships with pawn shops and antiques dealers across the nation — told police that this particular pawn shop owner, a guy he'd done business with in the past, called him as soon as the bear came in and relayed the whole coke-fueled story of Andrew Thornton in great detail.
Jennings said he had no idea the thing was stolen, and wouldn't have bought it if he did, but if the rightful owners wanted it back they'd have a long trip ahead of them. Coke Bear had gone to Vegas.
Here's how that went down:
When the pawn shop owner called Jennings and told him the whole Andrew Thornton adventure he must have known Jennings would be interested. He already knew all about it. He'd heard tale of Thornton long before the news of his strange death. And he'd heard it from their mutual friend, none other than the Kentucky prince turned Vegas hustler, Ron Thompson.
Thompson left Kentucky and went to Vegas, where he established himself as the host with the most, making sure the people that mattered had a swell time while their bank accounts evaporated.
He became good friends with a lot of them, people like Waylon Jennings who provided the entertainment and people like Andrew Thornton who provided Sin City's drug of choice.
We couldn't find out for sure if Jennings knew Thornton personally, but he definitely knew what he was about. So when Jennings had a chance to nab the infamous cocaine bear he took it, thinking it would make the perfect gift/inside joke for his buddy Ron Thompson.
And that's how Coke Bear went to live in the Nevada desert in a Kentucky-fied mansion. For a while.
We found out that when Thompson died in 2009, much of his estate was sold at auction. It was kind of a longshot, but it was worth a try. We called the auction house and asked if they still had the manifest. They did. We asked if they would send it to us. They did. And there it was. 26th on the list. Right after a lot of custom suits for a very stocky man.
One (1) taxidermied North American black bear.
A couple more awkward phone calls and we were able to track down the buyer. Zhu T'ang, a Chinese immigrant living in Reno, had purchased the bear uncontested for the opening bid of $200 from Nellis Auction House.
Unfortunately, Mr. T'ang had passed away. However, we spoke to his wife and learned that he'd been using the bear as decoration in his traditional Chinese medicine shop. When he died in 2012, she sold the business but saved the bear even though she never really liked it.
"He was always bringing home junk from auctions and estate sales and things like that," she said. "The bear was one of his favorite things. He just loved it for some reason. At first, he wanted to keep it in our living room but I wouldn't have it. It scared me. I made him take it to the store."
We asked if she knew anything about the bear's history. She said she didn't. She said she just figured it was a regular old bear that had been amateurishly taxidermied on account of the visible scarring on its abdomen.
And that's when we knew we'd found the legendary coke bear. Those tell-tale scars on its stomach were from its postmortem examination at the Georgia Bureau of Investigation 30 years earlier.
We told Mrs. T'ang the whole crazy story, about Andrew Thornton II and his Gucci loafers, about Waylon Jennings and Ron Thompson and our now two-month-long quest to find her late husband's beloved bear.
She said she almost didn't believe us, but if we'd gone through that much trouble we could have "the damn thing" just to get it out of her sight. All we had to do was pay for shipping.
So, ladies and gentleman, stop by the Fun Mall and meet our new mascot, OG the Cocaine Bear. He's been caged up for way too long and he's ready to get wild!