Cocaine Bear.
Cocaine Bear, a Kentucky immortal. The chicken head is a relic from Kentucky's Funtown Mountain.

Cocaine Bear

Field review by the editors.

Lexington, Kentucky

The blue bloods of Kentucky want you to associate their state with thoroughbred racehorses, or bourbon, or even Abraham Lincoln. They would rather not add Cocaine Bear to the roster of Kentucky immortals, but it's too late now. The bear has become an official state icon, thanks to Whit Hiler and Griffin VanMeter.

Cocaine Bear.

Cocaine Bear was briefly famous in 1985, when it was found dead after eating roughly $15 million worth of coke from a duffle bag dropped from a drug smuggler's airplane. The smuggler, Andrew Carter Thornton II, was the wealthy son of an elite Kentucky horse-breeding family. According to a display at Georgia Bureau of Investigation headquarters (famous for exhibiting the Monkey From Mars), Thornton fell to his death when he bailed out of the plane, "hit his head on the tail of the aircraft," and didn't open his parachute until it was too late.

Thornton's body was found in a driveway in Knoxville, Tennessee. Nine coke-stuffed duffle bags were eventually recovered along his plane's flight path. Cocaine Bear was found three months later, in the woods just south of the Tennessee-Georgia state line, sprawled next to the ripped-open 10th bag. All of its coke -- about 76 pounds -- was gone.

Decades passed. Griffin and Whit, also sons of the Bluegrass State (like Thornton), made headlines in 2011 when they launched a tongue-in-cheek campaign to replace Kentucky's lame tourism slogan, Unbridled Spirit, with one of their own, Kentucky Kicks Ass. "A bureaucrat in the tourism office said, 'Those guys have a constituency of no one,'" Griffin recalled, "but those no ones bought a lot of our Kentucky Kicks Ass t-shirts."

Encouraged, Griffin and Whit opened a brick-and-mortar store -- the Kentucky for Kentucky Fun Mall -- as a marketplace for locals to sell quirky home-state items such as gold-plated KFC breastbone necklaces and fried-chicken-scented candles. They also wanted their store to showcase unusual Kentucky relics, and that's when they remembered Cocaine Bear. "Growing up here, I remember hearing about it a lot," said Whit. Could it possibly still be around?

Griffin and Whit spoke with the medical examiner who'd performed the bear's necropsy. Even after 30 years he remembered the bear. He told them:

"Its stomach was literally packed to the brim with cocaine. 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."

The bear looked good despite its catastrophic demise, so it was stuffed and put on display at a local recreation area -- without reference to its awkward past. But the bear's history was known to a few, and it somehow found its way into the hands of a Nashville pawnbroker. He sold the bear to outlaw country star Waylon Jennings, who gave it to a Las Vegas hustler who was familiar with Andrew Thornton. When both Jennings and the hustler died, the bear was bought by a Chinese herbalist in Reno.

When the herbalist died, his widow kept it -- until she was tracked down by Griffin and Whit. She gladly gave them the bear, who arrived in the Fun Mall in August 2015.

"You wouldn't think that a Cocaine Bear would be for all ages, but kids love it," said Griffin. "Everybody wants their picture with Cocaine Bear." The Fun Mall has a liberal policy with shutterbugs, who are encouraged to come into the store (a former parachute factory) and take as many photos with the bear in as many ridiculous poses as they want.

Griffin and Whit are attentive parents to their furry showpiece. Cocaine Bear is given regular cleanings and outfitted with a Kentucky hat and an oversized gold chain. Dangling from its neck is a flashy sign that gives the bear's proper name ("Pablo EskoBear") and ends with this warning: "Don't do drugs or you'll end up dead (and maybe stuffed) like poor Cocaine Bear."

Cocaine Bear

Kentucky for Kentucky Fun Mall

Address:
720 Bryan Ave., Lexington, KY
Directions:
Kentucky for Kentucky Fun Mall. North side of downtown, on the south side of Bryan Ave. between E. Loudon Ave. and N. Limestone St. It's a low, dark gray building next to a tall old brick warehouse.
Hours:
M-Sa 10-6 (Call to verify)
Phone:
859-303-6359
Admission:
Free
RA Rates:
Worth a Detour
Save to My Sights

Nearby Offbeat Places

Giant Abraham Lincoln MuralGiant Abraham Lincoln Mural, Lexington, KY - 1 mi.
Big Bronze PussycatBig Bronze Pussycat, Lexington, KY - 2 mi.
Parkette Drive-In RestaurantParkette Drive-In Restaurant, Lexington, KY - 2 mi.
In the region:
Cross-Topped Water Tower, Wilmore, KY - 17 mi.

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November 22, 2017

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