A skydiving smuggler wearing combat fatigues and packing pistols,...


KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- A skydiving smuggler wearing combat fatigues and packing pistols, knives and 79 pounds of cocaine plunged to his death Wednesday in the backyard of a home when his parachute failed to open.

Authorities identified the smuggler as Andrew Thornton, 41, a former Army paratrooper and narcotics officer for the Lexington, Ky., Police Department who joined a notorious drug gang known as The Company.


'I've never had a landing in my backyard before,' said Fred Myers, who saw Thornton's body when he looked out his window Wednesday morning.

Investigators said the cocaine was worth $13 million and they had no idea what happened to the aircraft that dropped Thornton. He broke his neck when he hit the ground a few blocks from Island Home Airport, a small airfield just south of downtown Knoxville.

'Obviously, he came out of some kind of airplane, helicopter or blimp,' said Jack Barker, spokesman for the Federal Aviation Administration. 'There was no flight plan filed that's not accounted for. If anybody was in an airplane carrying coke, they wouldn't be filing a flight plan.'

The ill-fated parachutist died sometime between midnight and 3 a.m. Wednesday, officers said, and no plane landed at Island Home Airport after 11 p.m.


Myers alerted police about 8:30 a.m. 'He was dead,' Myers said. 'I just didn't want to touch him or disturb him. I let the law do it. I just left him laying there.'

Thornton pleaded guilty to conspiracy to possess marijuana in Fresno, Calif., in 1982, served six months on the charge and was free on parole, said Brian Leighton, an assistant U.S. Attorney in Fresno.

Leighton described Thornton as 'dangerous' and said he had been under investigation for a theft of military equipment from the China Lake Naval Weapons Center in California. The equipment was to be traded for drugs in Colombia by The Company, Leighton said.

'These people were smuggling large amounts of drugs into the United States,' he said.

The alleged leader of the smuggling gang, Bradley Bryant, also is formerly of the Lexington, Ky., narcotics squad. Bryant is serving a 30-year federal prison sentence on drug charges.

Thornton was dressed in combat fatigues and carried $4,500 in cash, two handguns, two knives, night-vision goggles, ropes and food in a backpack, Knoxville police said.

In a duffle bag at the victim's side, authorities found 79 pounds of cocaine in football-size bundles wrapped in brown plastic.

Tony Acri, assistant special agent in charge of the Atlanta division of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, said it is not unheard of for smugglers to parachute with drugs.


'That happens sometimes. It's a much more subversive method of smuggling,' Acri said.

'Number one, a parachutist is not picked up on radar, and especially during a night drop there's not much noise and it doesn't arouse suspicion unless you fall on somebody's house or your chute doesn't open,' he said.

'If a plane came in on a regular flight plan and cleared customs, if it was searched of course there would be no contraband,' Acri said.

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