Man on plane with drug smuggler in ‘Cocaine Bear’ has died

"Cocaine Bear" is based on firsthand accounts and official investigative records from state...
"Cocaine Bear" is based on firsthand accounts and official investigative records from state and federal agencies.(Universal Pictures)
Published: Aug. 30, 2023 at 9:41 AM EDT
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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WAVE/Gray News) – The mystery man who was on the plane with the real-life drug smuggler in the Hollywood movie “Cocaine Bear” has died, taking his secrets with him.

Bill Leonard was the last to see the former narcotics detective, Andrew Thornton, alive before Thornton parachuted to his death with millions of dollars worth of cocaine.

Before making the jump, Thornton tossed duffle bags filled with the drug from the plane, which was found by a bear in the Georgia mountains.

The real-life events inspired the Hollywood film, which turned Cocaine Bear into a cult hero.

Leonard is believed to have parachuted from the plane before Thornton jumped and the plane crashed. Although the FBI and the DEA were investigating Thornton, Leonard was never charged and cooperated with police, according to the FBI’s investigative file.

He declined to share his story for the documentary now streaming on Tubi, “Blow: The True Story of Cocaine, a Bear and a Crooked Kentucky Cop,” despite numerous attempts for an interview.

The film is based on firsthand accounts and official investigative records from state and federal agencies.

After the crash in September 1985, Leonard told the Knoxville News-Sentinel Thornton had duped him into coming along for the ride during that fateful night.

“He said, ‘Well, I’m going over to the Bahamas to meet a couple of guys to talk about something, and I need somebody to watch my back. I’ll pay you,’” Leonard told the newspaper.

Leonard continued to describe the plane landing in a swampy area before being immediately surrounded by men with machine guns. Leonard told the paper he was frightened.

Leonard, an accomplished martial arts expert, denied ever knowing about Thornton’s real plans, or that drugs were even involved. The pair had become friends through the sport, according to their longtime friend, Ray Sabbatine.

In an interview for the documentary, Sabbatine supported Leonard’s version of events.

Sabbatine described Leonard as a family man who would never be involved in a multi-million dollar drug-smuggling ring.

Leonard told the News-Sentinel, Thornton threw him a parachute and told him to jump.

That would be the last time anyone saw Thornton alive.

Though he was a paratrooper in the US Army, Thornton miscalculated the weight of the drugs, detectives believed. His parachute did not open properly.

When he crashed, the homicide detectives who worked the case told the documentary’s producer he’d broken every bone in his spine.

Leonard went on to live a successful life in Lexington, KY where he owned and operated Shaolin-Do Martial Arts.

He was known as Eldest Master Leonard, who according to the studio’s website, is the highest-ranking student in the Shaolin-Do system. It also states Leonard was the only American to ever obtain the rank of 10th-degree black belt.

“He touched the hearts and lives of so many and broke the bones of others,” a friend wrote after his passing.