Andrew Carter Thornton II, a former narcotics officer and suspended lawyer who plunged to his death from a plane holding cocaine with a street value of $14 million, had a history of drug and arms involvement across the nation.
“I’m glad his parachute didn’t open. I hope he got a hell of a high out of that (cocaine),” said Brian Leighton, an assistant U.S. attorney in Fresno, Calif. He once prosecuted Thornton on a marijuana trafficking charge.
The body of Thornton, 40, a native of Paris, Ky., was found Wednesday on a driveway in Knoxville, Tenn. He was heavily armed, carried 77 pounds of cocaine in an Army duffel bag, and was attached to a parachute that had failed to open.
A key that investigators found on his body bore an identification number matching that of a plane that crashed while on autopilot earlier that morning, 60 miles away, Knoxville Detective Allen Hale said today.
Tennessee police believe he was supposed to meet someone on the ground to deliver the cocaine.
Knoxville Police Lt. Jerry Day described Thornton as “a kind of survivalist, an individual who was expecting trouble and ready for it.”
Thornton, known to his friends as “Drew,” served in the 101st Airborne Division in the mid-1960s, and was among soldiers sent to the Dominican Republic after a revolution. He was wounded and received a Purple Heart.
“He was an expert sky diver and the type of guy who wouldn’t even let anyone touch his pack. He was a fanatic” about his equipment, said a friend in Lexington.
He joined the Lexington police in 1968 and stayed for nine years. In 1981, the Lexington Herald quoted sources as saying Thornton had set up the department’s intelligence squad.
Police Chief John McFadden verified that Thornton served on the department’s narcotics squad from 1970 to 1973. He described him as an average officer and said he had worked his way through law school at the University of Kentucky while on the force.
After resigning in 1977, Thornton practiced law in Lexington.
Four years later he was among 25 men accused in Fresno, Calif., in a theft of weapons from the China Lake Naval Weapons Center and of conspiring to smuggle 1,000 pounds of marijuana into the United States.
Numerous news reports in 1981 and 1982 linked the ring, which included several former Lexington policemen and other Kentuckians, to a larger group known as “The Company.”
The larger group was described by a 1980 federal indictment in East St. Louis, Ill., as a dope- and gun-running syndicate with more than 300 members and $26 million in boats and planes.
Thornton wasn’t charged in the China Lake weapons case, but was indicted at Fresno on one count of conspiracy to import a controlled substance and one count of conspiracy to distribute a controlled substance. The indictment said the charges involved the flight of a plane on a drug run from South America to Kentucky in 1979. He was named as the pilot.
Thornton left California after pleading innocent and was arrested as a fugitive in North Carolina, wearing a bulletproof vest and carrying a pistol.
He pleaded no contest at Fresno to a misdemeanor drug charge and the felony charges were dropped.
He was sentenced to six months in prison, fined $500 and placed on probation for five years, and his law license was suspended.
Thornton “was one of the smartest fellows I ever met,” said a friend. “In school he did very well. He came from a very good family and had everything in the world going for him.”