Waylon Jennings and the Cocaine Bear (Country History X)

This is the story of Waylon’s notorious relationship with cocaine told through the improbable tale of a police officer and lawyer turned drug smuggler from Kentucky, and a cocaine-eating bear. Country History X, which looks to tell the history of country music, one story at a time.

Editor’s notes:

Country History X primarily lives here on Saving Country Music, on YouTube (see below and subscribe), and is also available on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Pocket Casts, and Anchor.

Of all the Country History X episodes, this is probably the one that admittedly has the least to do with country music. It is also being released out of order from the originally-visioned episode rollout. The reason for this as explained in the episode was the recent announcement that Universal Pictures and director Elizabeth Banks are making the story of the Cocaine Bear into a feature film. No word if Waylon’s role will be a part of the film, but just in case it is or isn’t, it felt important to set his role with the Cocaine Bear in proper context.

A full transcript and sources for the story can be found below.

Episode #1: The George Jones Drug Tapes
Episode #2: John Prine & The Perfect Country & Western Song
Episode #3: Charlie Rich BURNS John Denver
Episode #4: The Mafia, and the Toby Keith & Rascal Flatts Restaurants
Episode #5: The Tragic Life and Death of Keith Whitley

Transcript


“Hey Trigger, tell a Waylon Jennings cocaine story!” Well, okay. But the next question would be, which one? The country music Outlaw’s career is nearly synonymous with the Colombian marching powder, and the stories of his cocaine escapades are quite numerous.

If you know much of anything about Waylon Jennings and classic country, you probably already know the story from 1977 when Waylon was in the studio recording tracks for the Hank Williams Jr. album The New South and eight DEA agents busted into the studio after tracing a package of cocaine that was sent to Waylon by his manager. Waylon eventually beat the rap when his drummer Richie Albright flushed the narcotics down the studio toilet as Waylon and others ran interference, and the whole incident was eventually memorialized in the #1 Waylon Jennings song “Don’t You Think This Outlaw Bit’s Done Got Out of Hand.”

We’ll probably circle back on that story at some point, but it’s been told aplenty, even if some new wrinkles have emerged in recent years. So how about we go a bit off the beaten path and tell one of the Waylon Jennings cocaine stories very few have heard, but that is part of a story that’s pretty famous that many do know about. They just don’t know that Waylon Jennings actually played a part in it. This is the tale of Waylon Jennings and the Cocaine Bear.

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Now I have to start this off by warning you that country music only plays a marginal role in this particular story. But what makes it so worth stopping down to tell from a country music perspective is that for many years, few if anyone knew that Waylon Jennings had any role in this story at all. And now that the entire tale is being made into a Universal Pictures feature film, it feels important to place Waylon’s role in the legacy of Pablo Escobear in its proper context.

When it comes to country stars that own the craziest stories, guys like Johnny Cash and George Jones probably have someone Waylon Jennings licked. But one of the remarkable things about the life of Waylon Jennings is how it has intersected with so many other major cultural moments, including quite a few that the general public seems to be completely unaware of. You could kind of consider him like the Forrest Gump of country music in that capacity.

Waylon Jennings was supposed to be on the plane that crashed on February 3rd, 1959, taking the lives of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and “The Big Bopper” J. P. Richardson, as well as the the pilot. The tragic moment was later memorialized in the song “American Pie” by Don McLean. Playing bass for fellow panhandle Texan Buddy Holly at the time, the plane was originally commissioned for Holly and his band who were on tour with a package show. But Waylon gave up his seat to “The Big Bopper” last minute. Otherwise, Waylon Jennings may have ended up as a footnote in history, and dead in that Iowa field with Buddy Holly. Surely that story will get the Country History X treatment at some point as well.

But Waylon Jennings had all kinds of moments where he intersected with important events and people that you may not expect a hillbilly from Littlefield, TX to experience. Waylon once shared an apartment with Johnny Cash. He was there in Austin when the hippies and cowboys conjoined to start a redneck cultural revolution. He was at Willie Nelson’s Dripping Springs Reunion, a.k.a. the Woodstock of country, and was part of country music’s first Platinum-selling album called Wanted: The Outlaws. Waylon played a concert with The Grateful Dead, went out on the Lollapalooza tour with Metallica and Soundgarden, was friends with Muhammad Ali and had the boxer over for the Christening of his son Shooter, and kept audience with multiple Presidents. And yes ladies and gentlemen, at one point, Waylon Jennings actually owned the infamous Cocaine Bear.

Maybe you know a bit about the story of the Cocaine Bear and Andrew C. Thornton II, or may you don’t. His story was closely detailed in numerous historical accounts, including the book Pride, Privilege, and Justice by Dominick Dunn, and the book The Bluegrass Conspiracy by Sally Denton originally released in 1990. The story was also featured in a double episode of the show The FBI Files on Discovery Channel in 2003, and also was the inspiration for the story arc of the television series Justified on FX in 2013.

But just in case you’ve never heard the origin story of the Cocaine Bear: here’s a summary. Andrew Thornton II was the privileged offspring of Carter and Peggy Thornton, who owned a horse breeding farm and business in Bourbon County, Kentucky. The farm gave birth to no less than three Kentucky Derby-winning horses. The younger Thornton attended a distinguished private school, and was part of a prestigious polo club growing up, raised among the upper crust society of Lexington. We’re talking serious, Southern blue blood stuff here.

Andrew Thornton later attended a military academy, and eventually enlisted in the Army as a paratrooper in the 101st Airborne, which would be an important skill set later in his illustrious life as we would come to find out. But after his Army stint, Thornton became a police officer in Lexington, Kentucky, and was later placed on the bureau’s narcotics task force. He also attended the University of Kentucky Law School, and after retiring from the police department in 1977, began practicing law.

It all sounds upstanding, right? Yeah, not so much. At some point when Andrew Thornton II was still a practicing police officer on the narcotics task force and studying law, he started to get into the drug smuggling business himself, and big time. Some four years later in 1981, he was caught up in a conspiracy involving 25 other men who had stolen weapons from a military installation in Fresno, California and had also tried to smuggle some 1,000 pounds of marijuana into the United States.

Thornton plead not guilty in a California court, but then skipped bail and became a fugitive, finally getting apprehended in North Carolina while wearing a bulletproof vest and banishing a pistol. At this point, Mr. Kentucky blue blood had turned into a full-blooded criminal. But using his legal training and pulling some strings, he got off with some simple misdemeanor drug charges, and all felony counts against him were dropped. Thornton was sentenced to six months in prison, six years on probation, and was barred from ever practicing law again.

But did that scare Andrew Thornton from his bad behavior? Not one bit. In 1985 during a smuggling run of cocaine from Columbia, Thornton and his partner bailed from their Cessna 404 airplane while it was flying over Knoxville, Tennessee. Thornton got caught up in his parachute, and ended up falling to his death, later to be discovered in the driveway of a local Knoxville resident.

Much was made of how Thornton was found—once again wearing a bulletproof vest, and in the possession of two pistols, along with night vision goggles, $4,500 in cash, a big army duffel bag with 40 kilos or $15 million dollars worth of cocaine. As many also love to note, he was also wearing a pair of Gucci loafers at the time. Mr. Thornton liked the finer things in life. All the gear he parachuted with—especially the duffel bag full of cocaine—this is likely what led to his demise, being too much for the parachute to handle. The private plane eventually crashed over 60 miles away in North Carolina after continuing on via auto pilot.

What does all of this have to do with Waylon Jennings and bears? Well, during Andrew Thornton’s final drug smuggling escapade, apparently an additional 40 bags of cocaine were either discarded or stashed from the plane into the Chattahoochee National Forest in Georgia, somewhere not far from the town of Blairsville. At some point, a 175-pound black bear happened upon the stash, and after sniffing around, decided to partake in the booger sugar. Roughly three months after Andrew Thornton was discovered in some poor guy’s driveway in Knoxville, the bear later to be coined Pablo Escobear was discovered in the Georgia forest, surrounded by forty empty plastic bags that tested positive for cocaine residue.

A medical examiner then studied the bear, and lo and behold, found that its stomach was full of cocaine, which resulted in cerebral hemorrhaging, respiratory failure, renal failure, heart failure, stroke, and eventually death. Say no to drugs kids. Ultimately the medical examiner was planning to incinerate the mammal as was the custom. But since the bear hadn’t passed away from some physical trauma and his body had been well-preserved aside from the incisions made during the autopsy, the medical examiner decided to hand the carcass over to a hunting buddy and taxidermy friend of his, who ultimately stuffed and preserved the bear.

Eventually, the Cocaine Bear ended up in the visitor’s center of the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area, where it remained for a few years. Though a few people in-the-know knew that the black bear was in fact the notorious Pablo Escobear, no such allusions or descriptions were included with the visitor’s center display. It was just another wildlife piece.

But this is where the story of the Cocaine Bear gets even more strange, if you can believe it. In the early 90’s, and impending forest fire had the park rangers of the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area evacuating all the buildings, and putting many of the visitor center’s displays and artifacts into a storage facility in the nearby town of Dalton, Georgia. Along with a collection of Native American blankets, arrowheads, and other artifacts, this also included the Cocaine Bear.

However, when they returned about a month later to retrieve the items, all of the visitor center’s artifacts, including the Cocaine Bear, were gone, and presumably stolen. This hypothesis was later verified when most of the Native American artifacts turned up some 160 miles away in a pawn shop in Nashville, Tennessee. But the Cocaine Bear? It was gone, and apparently in the possession of none other than Waylon Jennings.

Along with being a country music Outlaw, and a fairly famous cocaine connoisseur, Waylon Jennings was also known as a collector of rare items. Along with the usual accompaniment of instruments, trophies, Gold and Platinum records, and other musical memorabilia that would come with most any famous musician, Waylon Jennings had a large stash of some other fairly remarkable items, many of which that had a personal connection to him, and his propensity to be connected with other famous people and events.

For example, in the Waylon Jennings private collection, he owned a genuine pair of Willie Nelson’s braids, which the Red Headed Stranger had clipped off and gifted to Waylon in 1984. Waylon owned the ring robe worn my Muhammad Ali when he fought Leon Spinks in 1978, as well as a pair of Muhammad Ali’s training gloves from about the same era. Waylon also owned a vintage 1958 British-made Cyclone motorcycle once owned by Buddy Holly that was given to Waylon as a birthday gift in 1979.

These were just some of the many famous items in Waylon’s collection. In 1984, Waylon opened a short-lived museum upstairs from the Country Music Wax Museum on Music Row in Nashville that was called “Waylon’s Private Collection.” The Buddy Holly motorcycle, one of the Dukes of Hazzard General Lee cars on loan since Waylon played the narrator on the show, as well as many other personal items were part of the museum display, along with a wax replica of The Hoss himself.

How ownership or possession of the Cocaine Bear went from the Nashville pawn shop owner to Waylon Jennings, and how the pawn shop gained possession itself, depends on who you speak to. When police got involved, the pawn shop said they had no idea of the story surrounding the stuffed bear, and they thought it was just another hunting trophy.

But according to Waylon Jennings, the pawn shop owner sought him out specifically because of the bear’s history, and he relayed the story about Andrew Thornton II, the Colombian cocaine run, the parachute entanglement, and the Gucci loafers to Waylon. Not knowing that the bear was stolen, Waylon Jennings seized on the opportunity to own it, and ponied up the undisclosed asking price, telling authorities later he would have never made the purchase if he knew the item was hot, which is probably true.

Even though Waylon and many of his musical buddies were referred to as “Outlaws,” aside from his taste for narcotics, Waylon was otherwise a pretty law abiding citizen. Another group of items he had in his personal collection were law enforcement badges he’d collected from across the country, including ones given to him by some of his police buddies. For his part, Waylon hated the whole Outlaw nickname, and blamed it specifically on his 1977 drug bust.

But by the time investigators tracked down Waylon Jennings as the end point for Pablo Escobear, it was no longer in his possession. Even though Waylon says the pawn shop owner clued him into the bear’s story, apparently Waylon already knew about Andrew Thornton II, and the two had a mutual friend in high-flying Las Vegas socialite and, well, let’s just say service provider to the stars and elite, a guy named Ron Thompson. It’s a bit unclear if Waylon Jennings ever knew Andrew Thornton personally, or if Thornton knew Ron Thompson, or if they were all associated loosely somehow from their mutual admiration for the Disco dust.

But either way, Mr. Thompson, who owned a big mansion in Las Vegas, eventually took possession of the Cocaine Bear after Waylon Jennings shipped it to him as a gift. And since at this point, custody of the bear had changed hands so many times, it was located way out West in Nevada, and it really didn’t ever have a rightful owner aside from a visitor’s center in Georgia, no effort to retrieve the bear ever transpired. And since both Waylon and Ron Thompson had plausible stories for their possession of the bear, no charges were every brought against them.

But why didn’t Waylon Jennings keep the Cocaine Bear for himself? See, even though the name Waylon Jennings was still synonymous with cocaine in the early 90’s, he had long since given up the drug.

Back in the day, Waylon was one of the biggest cocaine users in country music. He recalls in his autobiography quote, “All that mattered to me was having a good stash. If I got down to a quarter of an ounce, I’d start freaking. I’d hide little security bundles in briefcases around the house, only to come on to them years later. With the pills, I was always chasing the high amphetamines gave me during the first six months. I lost it somewhere along the way, that feeling. And then along came cocaine, and it’s the same thing, only smoother. And more often. I kept a constant level of drugs inside me. I’d do a two-or-three-inch line every twenty minutes or so; more than that sometimes. I inhaled it with such force I’d bypass my sinuses. It just went right down in my lungs. I’d put it in a straw and sniff it so hard it would shoot straight back into my brain.”

But on the night of March 31st, 1984, Waylon Jennings did all of the cocaine he could handle, and then left the rest he had in his possession—which was about twenty thousand dollars worth—on his bus parked outside a remote cabin in the Arizona desert, and started the detox process, assisted solely by his wife Jessi Colter, and a doctor who would come by every once in a while to give him vitamin shots.

Waylon recalls quote, “My body reacted as if somebody had pulled out the plug. I had sudden convulsions. It was like I was caught in a revolution, with snipers on the rooftops and battles being waged on every corner. My nerves were in a constant grind of readiness, waiting, every cell about to explode with anticipation, for some relief that just wouldn’t come. My bones hurt. I didn’t sleep. I’d wake up at all hours of the night with toxins pouring out of my body. I got sick; it was the first common cold I’d had in years, as my body flushed out the cocaine residues.”

But unlike the Cocaine Bear, Waylon Jennings survived the ordeal to live another day, and kick cocaine completely, eventually commanding his wife Jessi to fetch the rest of the cocainee on his bus, and flush it down the toilet. Waylon never did cocaine again. That set of braids from Willie Nelson, which was one of Waylon’s most prized possessions in his personal collection, that was a gift from Willie congratulating Waylon for breaking free of cocaine’s grasp, which had been a source of tension in their otherwise close friendship over the years.

So even though Waylon Jennings saw the value of the Cocaine Bear ending up in the hands of someone who could appreciate it, a piece of cocaine memorabilia would have not been right for him at that time. It was a past part of his life.

As for Pablo Escobear, it remained in the possession of Las Vegas socialite Ron Thompson until his death in 2009. When he died and his estate was auctioned off, the bear was bought by a Chinese immigrant living in Reno for $200 dollars, who ended up using it as a display piece in his traditional Chinese medicine shop. When the medicine shop owner died in 2012, the Cocaine Bear went back into storage, with the famous story behind stuffed animal forgotten.

But then some enterprising individuals from an organization called Kentucky for Kentucky—which promotes Kentucky culture and helps sell Kentucky-based crafts and products—took it upon themselves to track down and locate the Cocaine Bear, and bring it to the bluegrass state due to its historical significance.

Since Waylon Jennings never spoke publicly of his possession of the bear—likely because of the dicey legal entanglements of it—it was Kentucky for Kentucky that tracked the bear from the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area visitor’s center, to the Nashville pawn shop, to Waylon, to Ron Johnson in Las Vegas, to the traditional Chinese medicine shop in Reno, and finally to the shop owner’s wife, who lo and behold still had the bear in her possession when they finally made contact with her after months and months of tireless research. Though she had sold her husband’s store, she kept the bear for some reason, even though she said she never liked it.

She told Kentucky for Kentucky quote, “He was always bringing home junk from auctions and estate sales and things like that. The bear was one of his favorite things. He just loved it for some reason. At first, he wanted to keep it in our living room but I wouldn’t have it. It scared me. I made him take it to the store.” Unquote.

The Chinese medicine shop owner’s wife was so ready to part ways with the stuffed bear, she said Kentucky for Kentucky could have it if they simply paid the shipping cost, which they were more than happy to do. And yes, now Cocaine Bear is officially on display at the Kentucky for Kentucky Fun Mall at 720 Bryan Avenue in Lexington, KY. It is the organization’s official mascot, complete with its own line of merchandise including T-shirts, hats, mugs, patches, a jigsaw puzzle, and more.

I told you country music didn’t have a ton to do with this story, but it does play a small and important role that you should remember whenever the story of Andrew Thornton II or the Kentucky Cocaine Bear comes up, which it commonly does due to the incredible nature of the tale, and which it probably will even more with the feature film.

As for Waylon Jennings, he died on February 13th, 2002 due to complications from diabetes at the age of 64. His years of drug abuse were cited as a contributing factor for his deteriorating health. Many of his famous pieces of memorabilia didn’t eventually end up in a museum, but were auctioned off in a massive estate sale administrated by Guernsey’s in Arizona in 2014—including the Willie Nelson braids, the Muhammad Ali robe, and the Buddy Holly motorcycle—with proceeds going to the local children’s hospital.

Ultimately, it was just stuff, and the renewed appreciation for life Waylon found after kicking cocaine was much more valuable to him. A story involving his son Shooter that Waylon recalls in his autobiography about his life after he kicked cocaine underscores this.

Waylon says, quote, “I was sitting with Shooter in a restaurant booth. He was on the inside and he got his coloring book out. He was all of five years old. He put his left arm through my right, and we sat there for about an hour while he colored. Shooter hadn’t ever done that before. I’d never been able to sit so still for so long with him.

I wasn’t about to move my arm.”


Sources

Kentucky for Kentucky – “Meet Our New Mascot: Cocaine Bear”

Sally Denton – “The Bluegrass Conspiracy: An Inside Story of Power, Greed, Drugs & Murder”

Waylon Jennings and Lenny Kaye – “Waylon: An Autobiography”

Variety – Elizabeth Banks, Phil Lord and Chris Miller Reunite for ‘Cocaine Bear’ at Universal Pictures

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