Between the Mason jars containing Kentucky Derby winners’ horse poop and the neon-colored skeleton resting near an assortment of preserved chicken wings shelved at the Kentucky for Kentucky Fun Mall in Lexington, Ky., it’s clear that owner Griffin VanMeter loves the weird parts of his state’s history.
“There’s an amazing history, amazing geography, and there’s a lot to celebrate about Kentucky,” he says, standing in the quirky retail shop housed in a historic factory building, once home to a parachute factory.
It’s here that families travel from miles away to play games, drink Ale-8 soda and peruse window displays of kooky objects related to some of the Bluegrass State’s beloved pioneers, from Colonel Sanders to the Hill Sisters, originators of the “Happy Birthday” song.
But most importantly, especially at this moment, the shop is the only place in the world where you can visit “Cocaine Bear” — yes, the real-life subject of the buzzy Cocaine Bear film, opening on Feb. 24 — in all its taxidermy-preserved glory.
“Here sits Cocaine Bear,” the metal epitaph around the stuffed-animal’s neck begins. “In 1985, Cocaine Bear was found dead in the Chattahoochee National Forest. He overdosed on 40 kilos of cocaine dropped by Andrew Thornton. … Don’t do drugs or you’ll end up dead (and maybe stuffed) like poor ‘Cocaine Bear.’”
On display here since 2015, the dearly departed creature has become the store’s biggest attraction — growing even more so in recent weeks due to the upcoming release of the Elizabeth Banks-directed fictional narrative about the bear’s final hours. Snugged tightly on the far-right side of the store, steps away from a Skee-Ball machine, he sits among mementos, like coins and flowers, that fans have left at his feet.
“We get a lot of visitors,” says VanMeter. “He’s a community hero, representing how bad drugs are and what could happen.”
“We heard about the movie and then I found out [Cocaine Bear] was in Lexington, so I said we have to make a stop,” a traveling hospital employee from Wisconsin, who was passing through the area with her family, says of the bear. “It’s crazy American history and we have to see it.”
Drug deals, chases and plane jumps: The true story of Cocaine Bear
The backstory of the now-famous black bear — who met his tragic end after consuming 75 pounds of cocaine smuggled in the U.S. by a notorious Kentucky drug lord and his ring — has fascinated locals here for nearly 40 years. Its tale begins in 1985, when Lexington-based police-officer-turned-drug-kingpin Andrew Thornton made a cocaine run from Colombia to Georgia.
En route back to Kentucky with another coke shipment and his accomplice Bill Leonard, Thornton boarded a light cargo aircraft — from which the men dumped more than three dozen plastic containers of cocaine into the wilderness below due to the flight being overweight (Leonard later said it was because Drug Enforcement Administration jets were following them). What happened next is unclear, though it’s widely believed the plane began to malfunction, forcing Thornton and Leonard to parachute out — only Thornton’s parachute failed to open (an irony not missed by VanMeter, whose store, remember, was once a parachute factory). While the unmanned plane crashed in North Carolina, Thornton, wearing his Gucci loafers, died on impact, his body soon discovered by police in Knoxville, Tenn., along with a duffel bag containing $15 million worth of cocaine.
It would take another three months for the black bear to be found dead in northern Georgia, after having ingested $2 million worth of Thornton’s narcotics. A December 1985 clipping from the New York Times reported that its carcass was discovered “among 40 opened plastic containers” of cocaine. That’s a lot of drugs.
Of the story’s local ties, says VanMeter, “All those guys lived here and we grew up with their kids and their nephews. Our parents’ generation, in general, was kind of involved in all of that, and everybody has a bit of their own little story connected to it.”
Indeed, a Lexington resident notes while in the shop recently, “We’ve been coming here for years. We’ve always been fans of Cocaine Bear. We read The Bluegrass Conspiracy, and we’re looking forward to the movie.”
The “bluegrass conspiracy,” as coined by author Sally Denton in her book-length investigation of the scandal, describes the exploits of Lexington’s most rich and powerful families and their involvement in international drug and weapons smuggling in the 1980s. Denton’s reporting found corruption at the highest level of state government, as well in the police force itself, giving corrupt cops the “Cocaine Cowboys” nickname at the time. (According to local legend, Woody Harrelson’s hitman father, Charles Harrelson, even played a role in these crimes, says VanMeter.)
The resurrection of Cocaine Bear
Over the course of 40 years, the stuffed bear has been stolen, bought and changed hands, bringing it from Georgia (where it was found) to Tennessee and Nevada before making its way to Kentucky — likely covering more ground than it ever roamed in its actual life, notes VanMeter, who has a background in marketing.
He says he knew that if he and the store’s co-owners — his wife, plus another married couple — tracked down the real Cocaine Bear, it would be a coup to be able to bring him to the store for fans to visit. But figuring out its location took longer than anticipated, he explains.
The first part of the search involved contacting the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, which connected VanMeter to the retired medical examiner who had performed the bear’s autopsy in 1985.
“Its stomach was literally packed to the brim with cocaine,” the examiner told VanMeter at the time, per Kentucky for Kentucky’s website. “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.”
But somehow, the poor creature’s body was in such good cosmetic shape that the examiner decided not to cremate it. Instead, he contacted a hunting buddy who did taxidermy, had the bear stuffed and then gifted it to the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area, where its body was first recovered. It was on display at the park’s visitors center for years without any mention of its past.
Then, in the early 1990s, when park employees had to evacuate its facilities due to the threat of an approaching wildfire, the bear was moved to a temporary storage room in a nearby town — from where it would soon be stolen. Eventually, the bear was found in a Nashville pawn shop by none other than country legend Waylon Jennings, who was apparently a “huge collector of taxidermy,” VanMeter notes.
The singer was also a fan of Cocaine Bear, and had always been intrigued by the bluegrass conspiracy. Turns out, he was friends with a man named Ron Thompson, a Kentucky swindler-turned-Vegas-hustler who was a co-conspirator of Thornton’s in the 1980s. As an “inside joke,” says VanMeter, Jennings gifted the bear to Thompson, and it sat in his Vegas mansion for years until the swindler’s death in 2009.
At Thompson’s estate sale, the bear was sold to a Reno couple, who had no idea about the backstory. VanMeter eventually tracked them down and confirmed the bear’s authenticity, which was supported by the retired medical examiner due to evidence of abdomen scarring from the autopsy 30 years earlier.
When VanMeter knew they had the real thing, he quickly made steps to bring it back to Kentucky. Knowing full well of the bear’s potential, his company also decided to buy the trademark and intellectual property for the name Cocaine Bear, which they have leased to Universal Pictures for the film.
It was definitely a smart move. In fact, Banks tells Yahoo Entertainment, the title was a major reason why she wanted to direct the project in the first place.
“I basically said, ‘I don’t want to make this if we’re going to have to change the title,’” she says, noting that her goal as a filmmaker was to make a “redemption story” for the bear. “This bear got into these drugs, and OD’s on these drugs, and was sort of collateral damage in this war on drugs that totally had gone sideways [in the 1980s]. I really felt for the bear.”
VanMeter now hopes to use the trademarked name for other ventures, like an animated series his team is working on, as well as video games. “The story has stayed relevant,” he says.
‘Deepy human’ story
While the narrative depicts an uncomfortable era during America’s War on Drugs in the ’80s, VanMeter recognizes the “deeply human” message behind the film’s campy plot — “being misunderstood,” as in both the bear and his story and oft-judged Kentuckians, and suddenly being given a chance to “reclaim your story.”
Real fans of Cocaine Bear know this, which is why it’s been a highly-attended tourist attraction “for years,” bringing in people from “all over the world,” Martina Barksdale, director of communications for VisitLex, tells Yahoo Entertainment.
And the bear is certainly “having a moment right now,” says VanMeter, but this time it comes with a broader message.
“Even though all that surrounds Cocaine Bear is very serious,” he says, it’s allowed those intrigued with the story “to bring levity and humor, connection and deep humanity” to the sad details — making for “comedy gold” in which the “victim becomes the victor.”
Cocaine Bear is now playing in theaters.