Archived Arts & Entertainment

Planes, drugs and bears, oh my! Hollywood film has WNC connections

Dale Holland with the United States Forest Service (left) and Bud Talley of the Macon County Sheriff’s Office at the scene of the cocaine ghost airplane in September 1985. Photo courtesy of Bob Scott Dale Holland with the United States Forest Service (left) and Bud Talley of the Macon County Sheriff’s Office at the scene of the cocaine ghost airplane in September 1985. Photo courtesy of Bob Scott

Who would have thought a true story with a link to Clay and Macon counties would arguably be the most popular movie in the United States today?   

Directed by Hollywood starlet Elizabeth Banks, “Cocaine Bear” is a blockbuster dark comedy horror flick about a rampaging black bear fueled on cocaine kicked out of a drug smuggling airplane, and all supported by a cast of odd-ball characters. 

“Cocaine Bear” is receiving glowing reviews in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, and other major media outlets. It’s also playing at the Ruby Cinema in Franklin until March 2. And it’ll no doubt be available on streaming sites soon thereafter.

In the film, a drug smuggler kicks a bag of cocaine from an airplane over North Georgia where a black bear finds it and proceeds to make a picnic of it. The bear goes on a bloody, murderous, tear across a rural community fueled by the coke. The events are genuine, except for the antics of the bear, which is a Hollywood fantasy. 

The real saga began with two men night fishing on Nantahala Lake in September 1985. They did not know when they heard an airplane sputtering overhead, then crash on a mountain peak west of them, that it was the beginning of a whirlwind story of power, greed, drugs, and murder from Colombia, South America, to Knoxville, Tennessee, ultimately ending on the Macon/Clay county line.   

The fish were biting. So, the two men waited until morning to report the crash. “Nobody could have lived through it anyhow,” they allowed when asked why they waited till daylight to report the crash to the law, or so the story goes.

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Clay County Sheriff Tony Woody called and asked if I was interested in writing about a plane crash. When I got to Woody’s office, he had put together a posse of volunteer firefighters, rescue squad members, loafers, forest service folks and deputies gearing up to hike into the remote crash site. Off we trudged expecting to find decapitated bodies all over the mountain.

Woody had a friend who kept a small airplane at the “Tusquitee International Airport.” They went aloft, spotted the crash site, and directed us to it. What was left of the two-engine airplane was scattered across the mountain top for an acre or more.

As the rescuers picked through the wreckage, Woody radioed to them, “How many were killed in that thing?” 

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The wreckage of the drug smuggling airplane. Photo courtesy of Bob Scott

The Rescue Squad Commander radioed back, “Sheriff, we’ve looked. There ain’t nobody on it. There’s not any blood, nothing.”

There was a moment of silence. “Boys, this is serious business — that airplane did not get there by itself.” But it did.

Later that night, we were sitting around the jail wondering how the ghost plane got there. I called in my story and was starting to leave when the executive editor called the jail to tell me there was a story on the Associated Press wire about a man found dead on a driveway — in a tangled parachute, in a residential section of Knoxville. 

“Could there be a connection to your story?” the editor asked. We started to put things together and concluded that we were sitting on the answer of where that airplane came from.

Forty-year-old Andrew Carter Thornton II, a former drug agent and law enforcement officer, had parachuted out of the Cessna 404 after putting it on autopilot. Thornton opened his parachute too late. The free fall from thousands of feet sent him crashing into a Knoxville resident’s driveway.   

Thornton was killed instantly. Upon further inspection, he was wearing a bulletproof vest, night-vision goggles, a pen that fired tear gas, 100 pounds of cocaine strapped to his body, a gun or two, $4,500 in cash, and Gucci loafers. It was the usual Commando Rambo outfit. The estimated value of the cocaine was put at $14 million. 

Thornton and an accomplice had kicked bags of cocaine out of the airplane along their flight path from Colombia to Knoxville. To this day, I think they had accomplices on the ground. 

A 175-pound black bear clawed into a bag of the cocaine near Blairsville, Georgia. Game wardens found it dead lying next to the ripped apart duffel bag of cocaine. And that is where the “Cocaine Bear” movie starts. 

The real bear never went on a rampage. It was too mellowed out. The film is far more entertaining than the facts of the bear’s demise.   

(Bob Scott is a freelance writer and photographer in Franklin. A former Asheville Citizen reporter and photographer, he covered the six westernmost counties.)

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