Is Cocaine Bear based on a true story?

Cocaine Bear
Cocaine Bear (Image credit: Universal Pictures)

They say that truth is stranger than fiction, but does that apply to Cocaine Bear, the new movie that focuses on a black bear that ingests hefty amounts of the titular drug and goes on a rampage?

To set the stage, here is the official synopsis for Cocaine Bear:

"Inspired by the 1985 true story of a drug runner's plane crash, missing cocaine and the black bear that ate it, this wild dark comedy finds an oddball group of cops, criminals, tourists and teens converging in a Georgia forest where a 500-pound apex predator has ingested a staggering amount of cocaine and gone on a coke-fueled rampage for more blow … and blood."

The synopsis and just about all of the promotional materials for the movie include that phrase, "inspired by." That definitely gives the creatives for the movie some leeway to take the story into some fun directions. But what is the true story that it is based on and just how different is the actual movie?

Warning, some spoilers for Cocaine Bear ahead.

What is Cocaine Bear based on?

In September 1985, a drug smuggler named Andrew Thornton took a plane to Colombia and picked up around 400 kilos of cocaine. Unwittingly along for the ride was a man named Bill Leonard, who recounted his wild trip with Thornton in a 1990 interview with the Knoxville News Sentinel.

According to Leonard, on their flight back they picked up radio signals of federal agents saying they were tracking the plane. Leonard began to panic and threw some of the drugs out of the plane. Thornton eventually worked with him to give him a crash course (no pun intended) in skydiving. Leonard jumped out and survived. Thornton, meanwhile, strapped a duffle bag of cocaine to himself before jumping out. However, his parachute did not open and he ultimately died.

Thornton and Leonard landed around Knoxville, Tenn., but some of the drugs didn't land there, which is where the bear comes in. Authorities searched areas in northern Georgia for the drugs and eventually found them months later. However, before they could find the drugs, a black bear did.

Reports indicate that the 175-pound bear from Chattahoochee National Forest ate about 75 pounds of cocaine. It did not, though, go on any kind of a rampage. No one was hurt, as the bear died of an overdose. The New York Times reported on the incident, writing: 

"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 New York Times wrote. "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."

Off of the success of Cocaine Bear, Peacock has a new documentary about the real-life story of Drew Thornton, Cocaine Bear: The True Story, premiering Aril 14. Watch the trailer right here:

How is Cocaine Bear different from the true story?

Keri Russell in Cocaine Bear

Keri Russell in Cocaine Bear (Image credit: Courtesy of Universal Pictures)

Well, the real bear didn't kill anyone, so the movie is clearly meant to be a fun, outrageous what if scenario. That being said, the movie is sure to weave in a few of the elements of the true story.

First and foremost is that they do depict Andrew Thornton dumping the drugs and jumping out the plane to his ultimate demise. Like the rest of the movie it is a heightened version of events, featuring a fun cameo from Matthew Rhys. Actual news clips about Thornton's death are also shown in the movie.

But aside from that, Cocaine Bear is almost entirely a work of fiction.

Cocaine Bear is playing exclusively in movie theaters as of February 24.

More on Cocaine Bear

Michael Balderston

Michael Balderston is a DC-based entertainment and assistant managing editor for What to Watch, who has previously written about the TV and movies with TV Technology, Awards Circuit and regional publications. Spending most of his time watching new movies at the theater or classics on TCM, some of Michael's favorite movies include Casablanca, Moulin Rouge!, Silence of the Lambs, Children of Men, One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest and Star Wars. On the TV side he enjoys Only Murders in the Building, Yellowstone, The Boys, Game of Thrones and is always up for a Seinfeld rerun. Follow on Letterboxd.