Cocaine Bear: Real-Life Agent Recalls Surreal 1985 Case, and One Even Crazier

Cocaine Bear: Real-Life Agent Recalls Surreal 1985 Case, and One Even Crazier

“I’ve had a crazy life,” admits Fran Wiley, the former Georgia Bureau of Investigation special agent speaking to me from the Blue Heron Antique Mall in Cleveland, Georgia. You wouldn’t guess it from her present-day surroundings—folksy artwork, Wedgwood china, estate pottery—but Wiley has dodged gunfire, bought narcotics undercover, flown in helicopters without doors, and staked out mountaintops waiting for private planes transporting cocaine. As she tells it, she was the first female special agent in charge of North Georgia.

Wiley also worked on an infamous 1980s case involving a bear who overdosed on cocaine in Chattahoochee National Forest. That detail isn’t the craziest of the case, let alone her career—but it’s currently recirculating in the zeitgeist thanks to a new Universal movie directed by Elizabeth Banks. The movie’s plot, which sounds like a meme on steroids, involves a bear ingesting a brick-size package of cocaine and terrorizing Georgia locals including Keri Russell and Margo Martindale.

The actual cocaine bear expired after it had absorbed just about three or four grams of cocaine in its bloodstream, though it may have eaten more. The drugs had been dropped by a plane smuggling hundreds of pounds of the drug from South America.

“Do you know what a Sweet ’n Low packet looks like?” Wiley tells me by phone. “That’s one gram. So the bear had about three of those. This was pure cocaine, not cut.”

When Wiley first heard about Cocaine Bear, she was shocked, and not in a pleasant way.

“I don’t believe in promoting anything that hurts families and destroys families,” she says. “I know this is supposed to be a horror-comedy movie, but the only thing it’s going to do is make money for Hollywood. That’s the way the world is. But that’s not the truth of [the story]. So I’m telling you the truth.”

By December 1985, Wiley had been promoted to assistant agent in charge of GBI’s drug office. She got a call from a game ranger alerting her of a dead bear in Fannin County. “They said, ‘We’ve got a hunter up here who found a dead bear. There’s a parachute and a duffle bag, and we think y’all should come up.”

Wiley told two agents to pack a body bag, collect the bear, and take it to the Atlanta crime lab.

“The necropsy by the pathologist showed that the bear [absorbed] about three, four grams of cocaine, and that’s how she expired,” says Wiley. “It was a female bear, about 175 pounds, six feet tall, black. A Georgia black bear.” She points out one key difference between the film and the real-life event: “When we found the bear, there was no cocaine near her.”

Wiley found out that “a plane on this flight path had crashed on autopilot into North Carolina about three months earlier,” in September. The pilot of that plane, Andrew Thornton, was found dead in Knoxville, Tennessee, around the same time wearing a parachute in a man’s backyard.

Thornton, nicknamed “Slick,” was a former police officer who had gone rogue and become an eccentric drug smuggler. When his body was discovered, he was wearing Army fatigues, Gucci loafers, night-vision goggles, a money belt containing $4,500, and a bulletproof vest. He had with him two guns, rations, and notebooks filled with coded phone numbers.

According to The Bluegrass Conspiracy by Sally Denton, Thornton left Colombia with 12 duffel bags full of cocaine. He decided to abandon his plane after determining that government aircraft were tracking him. The author notes that Thornton himself was believed to be using cocaine at the time—more than a gram a day, according to one source—and had become increasingly paranoid as his habit grew. Per the book, Thornton divided the cocaine into sets of three, affixing each bundle with a parachute—presumably for a ground crew to pick up in Knoxville—before setting the plane on automatic pilot and jumping out of the aircraft himself. (Thornton was survived by a karate-buff copilot who later cooperated with federal authorities and claimed he had been tricked by Thornton into taking part in the mission.)

“When [Thornton] jumped out of the plane, he either hit himself on the plane or knocked himself out, because the [main] parachute did not open,” says Wiley. The situation confounded both experts and those who knew Thornton; he had been an Army paratrooper who, according to Denton, “had jumped more than a thousand times into situations considerably more complex and dangerous.” It seemed to be a case of bad luck and judgment.

A backup parachute had deployed, but could not support the weight of Thornton plus his duffel bag of cocaine. Wiley says that Thornton’s parachute matched the one found near the bear, linking Thornton with the drugs that poisoned the animal.

Thornton had left a will—accounting the recipients of his parachute gear, weapons, and cars. “There is to be no funeral,” he wrote. “Release my ashes in air over my parents farm + then have a party.”

Because of the outlandish story, Thornton has attained his own strange brand of infamy. In addition to featuring in Denton’s The Bluegrass Conspiracy, he was the subject of an episode of Dominick Dunne’s crime TV series Power, Privilege, and Justice. His death inspired a story line on FX’s Justified. In Cocaine Bear, he’s played in the film by Matthew Rhys, with Ray Liotta playing his boss.

If you google Andrew Thornton, “he’s even on Wikipedia,” deadpans Wiley. “Right there with Dale Carnegie and the presidents.”

Strange as the story of Andrew Thornton may be, Wiley has seen stranger. There weren’t many women working in the Georgia Bureau of Investigation in the late 1970s, when she started out. In the early days, she was assigned to a lot of rape cases. “I understand that,” she says. “I was compassionate and could handle that better than some of the guys.” She says she was always the agent stuck on scribe duty—“writing the report and doing the secretary thing. But I didn’t resent any of it.” As a young woman on the force, she was also sexually harassed. On one occasion, she says a sheriff locked her in his office and propositioned her. In those early days, she says, “I was more scared of the men I worked with than the bad guys.”

Her male coworkers started taking her seriously for two reasons, she says. The first time she went to a shooting range, she shot a perfect score. They also got sick of being handed the phone every time a caller mistook her for a secretary.

In the early 1980s, Wiley had a front-row seat to the ways cocaine and cocaine smuggling were upending the criminal landscape. North Georgia was a common trafficking route because of its mountainous and treacherous terrain, scattered law enforcement, and heavy low-flying traffic. “Smugglers had remote strips on the sides of mountains and in pastures along rivers,” says Wiley, recalling the six-seater Beechcraft planes regularly used for covert operations from South America. “They would put a bladder tank on and have enough fuel to get up here.”

Georgia’s sparse rural law enforcement was easily outnumbered by these billion-dollar smuggling operations. In 1985, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that Georgia’s drug agents seized about 2,000 pounds of cocaine—but the agents estimated that they were stopping no more than 10% of the cocaine coming through the state.

“We’d try to catch somebody flying in, [but it’s like] a needle in a haystack. We’d get a tip that there was a plane coming in, and stay out for several days and nights trying to catch somebody,” says Wiley. “But [the odds were] always on the bad guys’ side. They could always fly off if they saw anything funky on the ground.”

Wiley’s first major cocaine case sounds as tailor-made for adaptation as the cocaine bear episode. In 1982, over 500 pounds of the drug were dropped from a plane into a six-mile stretch of Gilmer County. “We’d never had anything like that happen,” she says. The fallen cocaine amounted to half a billion dollars’ worth. Locals scavenged the snake-infested hills in hopes of recovering one of the 18 fiberglass containers that held it, each worth about $25 million. The farmer who initially tipped off police about the discovery later lamented his decision, telling press that he could have retired early had he realized what the white substance on his property was. Over 100 guardsmen had to be called into the area to help recover the drugs.

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