TN Truth or Tall Tale: The Cocaine Parachutist

5:43 PM, May 8, 2013   |    comments
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Folklore is part of our culture here in the South. Sometimes the stories are passed around by word-of-mouth. Others times they're handed down through books, songs and on film.

But now, a tale from Knoxville's past is a story-line in a prime-time cable drama. The latest season of "Justified" on the FX Network opens with a 1980's flashback of a man in a faulty parachute falling to his death in a neighborhood with his body surrounded by bags of cocaine. As the story progresses, viewers learn the man has indirect ties to the Knoxville Police Department and the cities of Lexington and Harlan, Kentucky. 

WBIR archive video from 1985 tells a very similar story - one of a drug dealer who fell to his death after his parachute failed to open. A South Knoxville hometown found the man's body in his yard. Records show the man was Andrew Thornton out of Kentucky. At the time of his death, Thornton had on night-vision goggles, was well-armed with various weapons and was carrying 40 kilos of cocaine from South America.

Knox County Sheriff J.J. Jones is one of a few officers still around who worked the Thornton case. At the time, he was an undercover drug officer.  "One morning we got a call from dispatch," Jones remembered. "We proceeded to go to Island Home Airport. Once we got there we did locate Andrew Thornton in the backyard where he had crashed trying to parachute in. He had about 40 kilos of cocaine in a duffel bag with him."

KCSO Capt. Edd Stair worked as Metro Investigator at the time of the Thornton case. Like Jones, he also remembers it well. "80 pounds of cocaine didn't drop out of the sky every day," explained Stair.  "I mean - it's such a weird story. Here's this guy that parachutes with a duffel bag full of cocaine - that just didn't happen around here."

In the weeks following Thornton's death, both local and federal investigators learned much more about his life and the months leading up to his death. Records show Thornton grew-up in Lexington, worked as a police officer then went to law school. Afterwards, he joined a Kentucky-based drug smuggling ring called "The Company."  Members were trained pilots and sky divers who brought cocaine into the states from South America.

It turned out Thornton planned to parachute into Island Home Airport in South Knoxville - not far from where he fell to his death.  His body hit the ground and some time later his unmanned Cessna plane crashed in the mountains of North Carolina.

However, the sky diving operation used by Thornton and "The Company" wasn't unique.

Former State Prosecutor Al Schmutzer worked similar cases in the 1980's and still remembers them.  "It was bizarre - it was obviously a bizarre circumstance," Schmutzer explained.  "But back then, the recreational drug of choice was cocaine [from Columbia]. So it was that kind of scenario at the time and there were planes involved."

It's been 28 years since Andrew Thornton fell from the sky to his death in a South Knoxville backyard. However, the story of his crime lives in books, on television shows including "Justified" and in the memories of investigators who say they'll never forget the case. That makes this tale of drugs, planes and parachutes a "Tennessee Truth."

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