Cocaine Bear: The stranger-than-fiction story Ray Liotta came to Ireland to film

Elizabeth Banks’s new movie, due to be released in February 2023, re-creates in Co Wicklow one of the oddest stories to emerge from the 1980s

The trailer for Cocaine Bear was released last week. The film’s title is not a metaphor or clever wordplay: the movie is about a bear high on the drug. The trailer depicts a bloody spree that follows the bear’s cocaine binge. The spree is fictional, but the story about a high bear is real – and its lore is likely to grow with Elizabeth Banks’s movie, which was filmed in Co Wicklow last year and stars Keri Russell, O’Shea Jackson jnr and, in one of his final roles, the late Ray Liotta.

The film’s backstory begins in the 1980s. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation announced in December 1985 that an 80kg black bear had “died of an overdose of cocaine after discovering a batch of the drug”. “The cocaine was apparently dropped from a plane piloted by Andrew Thornton, a convicted drug smuggler who died September 11th, 1985, in Knoxville, Tennessee, because he was carrying too heavy a load while parachuting,” the UPI news agency reported. The bureau said the bear was found “in northern Georgia among 40 opened plastic containers with traces of cocaine”.

The bear was found dead in the mountains of Fannin County, Georgia, just south of the Tennessee border. “There’s nothing left but bones and a big hide,” Gary Garner of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation told the Associated Press news agency at the time. Dr Kenneth Alonso, the state’s chief medical examiner at the time, said after an autopsy in December 1985 that the bear had absorbed 3g or 4g of cocaine into its bloodstream, although it may have eaten more, AP reported that month.

Today the same bear is said to be on display in Lexington, Kentucky, at the Kentucky for Kentucky Fun Mall. The mall said in an August 2015 blog post that workers there wanted to know what happened to the bear and found out it had been stuffed. The blog post says the stuffed bear was at one point owned by country singer Waylon Jennings, who kept it in his home in Las Vegas, before it was delivered to the store. (This account could not be confirmed.)

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What happened to the bear in its final days, or hours, after the cocaine binge is a mystery, but the origins of the cocaine are not. Thornton was a known drug smuggler and a former police officer. He was found dead the morning of September 11th, 1985, in the backyard of a house in Knoxville, Tennessee, wearing a parachute and Gucci loafers. He had several weapons and a bag containing about 35kg of cocaine, the Knoxville News Sentinel reported.

A key in Thornton’s pocket matched the tail number of a wrecked plane that was found in Clay County, North Carolina. Based on Thornton’s history of drug smuggling, investigators guessed there was more cocaine nearby. The investigators searched the surrounding area and found more than 135kg of cocaine in a search that lasted several months. They also found the dead bear. Banks’s big-screen retelling of the story is due to be released on February 24, 2023. – A version of this article originally appeared in The New York Times