The man who fell to earth

Beth KinnaneOur Town Stories, South Knox

Local and social media have been abuzz lately with the release of the trailer for the movie Cocaine Bear, set to appear in theaters nationwide in February of next year. Labelled a dark comedy thriller, the movie is tagged as being “inspired by a true story.”

After watching the trailer, all I can say is the viewing audience and critics alike will have to really lean into “inspired by,” because the only parts that are true are these: a man was found dead in a South Knoxville driveway back in 1985 attached to a failed parachute and a whole, whole bunch of uncut cocaine; same man pitched at least 200 pounds of coke out his plane over the north Georgia mountains before setting it to autopilot and unwittingly jumping to his death; a black bear ate some of the drugs.

The real cocaine bear (photo courtesy of Kentucky for Kentucky).

And this is where the truth departs from the movie. In the movie, the bear in the drug stash weighs 500 pounds and goes on a murderous rampage. In reality, a 175-pound black bear was found dead of an overdose near the mostly empty cannisters. The real cocaine bear, also known as Pablo Eskobear, was eventually taxidermized and now resides in a popular Lexington, Kentucky, store called Kentucky for Kentucky. At one point, Pablo was in the possession of country music legend Waylon Jennings.

So, the story is being played for a gruesome lark. Which is a shame, really, because the real story behind the dead skydiver is the stuff gripping true crime cinema is made of.

Fast forward from 1985 to September 1996. I had just moved to Lexington to work in the thoroughbred industry. I found a sports bar close to my apartment where I could meet people other than at work. Upon first telling one of the owners my name, I was immediately asked “are you related to Bill Canan?” To which I responded “no” (same pronunciation, different spelling) and “why?”

“Well, you’re from Knoxville. Don’t you remember Drew Carter Thornton?” The name wasn’t ringing a bell. “You know, the guy who died in a failed jump with a bunch of cocaine?” Oh, yeah. That guy. But what on earth did that have to do with me and some dude named Bill Canan? “Haven’t you read The Bluegrass Conspiracy???

Andrew “Drew” Carter Thornton

Well, I hadn’t then, never had heard of it, but I most certainly did in short order. The book was standard nightstand reading material in the greater Lexington-Fayette County area, as I was soon to learn. Especially as I was often asked about any relation to Bill Canan for years to come. And boy howdy, what a tale.

Canan’s picture should sit in the dictionary next to the definition of dirty cop. He helped develop the narcotics unit at the Lexington Police Department in the early 1970s before adding drug trafficking as his side hustle. Among his many close associates in his illegal activities was former LPD officer Andrew “Drew” Carter Thornton Jr., the man found dead in Fred Myers’ Island Home driveway on Sept. 11, 1985.

Make no mistake: Canan and Thornton were very bad men. Thornton found his own untimely end in our fair city before justice could catch up with him. Canan was charged and eventually convicted in 1993 for cocaine trafficking, threatening witnesses and carrying a fake badge identifying himself as a federal drug officer. He was sentenced to 17 years in prison, but was released in 2008. He died in 2020.

Thornton was raised on a thoroughbred farm in Bourbon County that is still owned by his family and run by his nephew. As it would happen, in my work in Kentucky I got to know the nephew as well as Thornton’s brother, who ran Airdrie Stud for years. Lovely people who are no doubt worn out with this story. Just because someone knows or is related to someone who did terrible things doesn’t mean they are guilty of same.

Now to the book: I do not know former reporter Sally Denton, nor do I have any vested interest in helping her sell copies of The Bluegrass Conspiracy. When first published in 1989, some of the names dropped in the six-degrees-of-separation spaghetti bowl of connections howled defamation, libel and slander. Interestingly, though, 33 years on, no one has yet to file a lawsuit against her.

While not the most polished of books, the story it tells is far more chilling than a black bear on a bender. The Canan/Thornton web of intrigue is vast and includes the failed attempt to prosecute Thornton’s girlfriend, Rebecca Sharp, on drug conspiracy charges here in Knoxville, the assassinations of U.S. Judge John Wood in Texas (courtesy of actor Woody Harrelson’s father, Charles) and Florida Assistant State Attorney Gene Berry, and the unsolved 1977 disappearance of Melanie Flynn of Lexington. The last person to see her alive was Bill Canan.

Beth Kinnane is the community news editor for KnoxTNToday.com

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