Cocaine Bear – Lexington, Kentucky - Atlas Obscura

Cocaine Bear

The taxidermied body of a bear that was a casualty of a drug trafficker’s bizarre death. 


In 2016, a Lexington, Kentucky, gift shop unveiled a taxidermied black bear that had been recovered by the store’s co-owners, Whitt Hyler and Griffin VanMeter. It wasn’t just any taxidermy bear—this is Cocaine Bear. In 1985, this bear overdosed on cocaine dropped by a drug smuggler in Chattahoochee, a story that inspired a movie almost 40 years later.  

The story goes back to 1985, when a black bear was found dead in the woods after eating roughly $15 million worth of cocaine. Where did a bear get its paws on that much cocaine? It’s tied to the bizarre death of Andrew Carter Thornton III, a Lexington-born drug trafficker at the center of the legendary “Bluegrass Conspiracy.”

On September 11, 1985, Thornton was discovered dead in a Knoxville driveway. He had jumped out of a plane to meet an associate on the ground and exchange the many pounds of cocaine strapped to his body, but the plan went sideways when his parachute malfunctioned. According to an FBI investigation, Thornton also unloaded some cargo mid-flight. Investigators found duffel bags filled with drugs in the mountains of Georgia, and the body of a 175-pound bear surrounded by open containers of cocaine.

Its body was taxidermied, and for a time on display at the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area, with no indication that it was anything other than a normal black bear. But after the bear was moved to a storage facility, it was stolen and started a journey through many different owners. 

To catch Cocaine Bear, Hyler and VanMeter tracked through its journey from Georgia to a Nashville pawn shop to Las Vegas and then an auction in Reno, where they purchased it and had the bear shipped to Kentucky.

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May 22, 2024

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