My cousin Dan Brodsky-Chenfeld is a champion skydiver. He’s won six world titles and also survived a plane crash in 1992 that killed 16 fellow divers. Dan’s the author of Above All Else: A World Champion Skydiver's Story of Survival and What It Taught Him About Fear, Adversity, and Success.
When news broke about Elizabeth Banks’ Cocaine Bear movie, which hit theaters on Feb. 24, Dan had a flashback moment. He was intimately familiar with the story of Andrew “Drew” Thornton, the smuggler who dumped 90 pounds of coke into the Chattahoochee National Forest in North Georgia in 1985. His chute suffered a malfunction and Thornton was found dead in a driveway in Knoxville with another 90 pounds strapped to his body.
Dan knew Drew. Dan grew up in Columbus, OH. He loved to jump out of planes and started working at a drop zone in Xenia. Drew lived in Lexington, KY. He often drove two hours north to visit the drop zone.
“I started jumping in 1980 when I was a freshman at Ohio State University,” Dan explains. “Through all my college years I worked at the Greene County Sport Parachute Center in Xenia, Ohio owned by Jim West. By the time I graduated in 1984 I was a jump master, instructor, parachute rigger and jump pilot. I could run the whole place by myself if I had to and decided to toss my diploma aside and at 22 years old I took over the DZ.
“There were a bunch of jumpers who would come up from Kentucky to jump in Xenia every weekend. One of these jumpers was Drew Thornton. He was one of the few tandem and AFF rated instructors and we were one of the few DZs doing tandems and AFF so in 1985 Greene County became his home Drop Zone.
“He was out every weekend. He was a good Instructor and good to have at the DZ. But he was a bit of suspicious character. Nothing I could point at specifically but there was an air about Drew of always seeming like he was up to something, or hiding something all the time. At the age of 40, he was already a former attorney, police office and narcotics officer. That’s a lot of ‘formers’ for 40. When I asked him what he did I never quite got a clear answer on what his current employment was. But it was 1985 in Ohio and if you were making a positive contribution to the drop zone then we didn’t ask any further.
“One day Drew wanted to buy four of our old round parachutes. I didn’t hesitate and told him to grab as many as he wanted. But then he pulled me aside and quietly told me, ‘Dan, I have something big going down. You want to be a part of this.’ Red flags started flying and every internal warning signal I had was blaring. I could only imagine what Drew was up to and I wanted nothing to do with it. I told him, ‘Nope, I don’t want anything to do with anything. I have a hundred all round rigs in the trailer, take as many as you want, $50 bucks per rig.’ He said, ‘You’re missing out, we’re talking about a lot of money. You could buy all the new square student rigs you want.’ I said, ‘I don’t want to know anything. The rigs are in the trailer.’ The conversation was over, there wasn’t another word.
"Drew said, ‘You’re missing out, we’re talking about a lot of money. You could buy all the new square student rigs you want.’ I said, ‘I don’t want to know anything.'"
“Everything continued as normal for the next few week. I got a phone call one day and a friend told me that Drew had died on a jump. A man on his way to work one morning found Drew in his driveway in a suburban home in Knoxville, Tennessee. Drew was jumping a tandem rig, his reserve was out, main still in the container, wearing night vision goggles, a bullet proof vest, two knives, two pistols, $4,500 of cash and 90 pounds of cocaine valued at $15 million.
“The next day we heard about a Cessna 404 that had crashed 60 miles away in North Carolina with no one on board. Drew had apparently put it on autopilot and jumped from it at night.
“Wow, I couldn’t believe it. This was more than I had ever imagined. I was so glad I told him no and stayed out of this."
The DEA Visits the DZ
“About a week later I was at the DZ by myself at the packing table packing a reserve when six men in suits walked in, the DEA," Dan goes on with his story. "They came over to me without saying anything and stopped, staring at me. They didn’t say hello, they said, ‘Are you Dan BC?’
“I said, ‘I am.’ They asked me what I knew about Andrew Thornton and I told them Drew jumped at our DZ and had been an Instructor with us. They asked, ‘That’s it?’
“They said we assume you know how Mr. Thornton was found. I told them I did. They told me they suspected he had an accomplice who was in the plane with him who also jumped out. Someone who was also a TI and a pilot. They asked if I was a TI and pilot. I hesitantly told them that I was.
“They said that Drew and his accomplice had made a smuggling run from Colombia and before they jumped they had dropped several 200-pound loads of cocaine in Georgia under military round parachutes. They also suspected Drew had a team on the ground that was supposed to retrieve those loads. They asked me, ‘You don’t know anything about this?’
"At this point they had almost convinced me that I was involved but I wasn’t."
“I said, ‘Nope. I don’t know anything.’ One of the agents said, ‘That’s very odd, because on the risers of the parachutes was a label that said Greene County Sport Parachute Club and had your phone number on it.
“The interrogation began. They thought for sure I was involved and were strongly recommending that I cooperate. But I wasn’t involved and I didn’t know anything!
“They finally left giving me the reassurance that we’d be talking a lot more. They were at the drop zone nearly every day for the next month, asking me the same questions over and over again. After the first week we were on a first name basis. Sometimes they’d act like they were trying to help me out, other time they’d threaten me, other times both. It seemed like this went on forever.
“Finally they came in one day looking the most serious I’d ever seen them. They told me this was it, it’s over. They sat me down and circled around me. They said they’ve uncovered everything and they knew of my involvement. They understood that I was a small player but that this went all the way to the highest government offices. There wasn’t any chance I could get out of doing jail time but if I helped them they’d do their best to help me. They finished their interrogation and ended with ‘We know Dan. It’s over. It’s time to talk.’
“At this point they had almost convinced me that I was involved but I wasn’t. I didn’t know anything. I called their bluff and told them I didn’t know anything other than Drew used my parachutes. I told them they couldn’t have anything on me because I didn’t know anything and hadn’t done anything. And by the way, Drew never even paid me for the parachutes. They owed me $200 out of the $4,500 they found on him!
“At that point they left and the whole thing was over … I thought,” Dan continues, wrapping it up. “Months later, as we were holding an AFF certification course, the phone rang. It was someone who said he was an old friend of Jim West’s and he used to fly the Loadstar with him. He said he was in the neighborhood and asked if Jim was around and if it was OK for them to fly in and see him. I said sure.
“I was descending in the Cessna after dropping a load and saw a twin engine Cessna landing on our grass strip. I figured that must be him. I landed the Cessna and went inside to finish some rigging work I had started on the sewing machine. Suddenly my six friends from the DEA with about a dozen uniformed police officers came running in yelling, ‘Who just landed in that plane?!’
“I was shocked and said, ‘The Cessna? I just did.’ They said, ‘No, the twin!’ I thought what the hell is going on now. I told them, ‘I don’t know but I’ll find out!’
“A dozen or so people in the AFF instructor course were gathered together listening to a briefing. There was one guy I didn’t recognize trying to fit into the group. I knew he didn’t and pointed him out to the police. I looked back towards where the twin Cessna had parked and saw a guy running through the field. I pointed to the guy running through the field. The DEA with help from the police caught them both.
“Later that day after things had quieted down the DEA guys came back in. I was back at the sewing machine. They all grabbed a chair and sat around me in a circle. I asked them what that was all about. Apparently, these guys had stolen the plane, flown it to Colombia and were on their way back. Nothing was found in the plane when it landed in Xenia so they assumed they dropped the load under parachutes on their way back.
“’So Dan, I suppose you don’t know anything about this one either?’ one of them asked me. And it all started again. But I didn’t know anything about anything. And being that I was completely innocent of all their suspicions I was never charged with anything. Pretty soon after I decided to head west and focus on four-way formations.
“It was just a year in the life of skydiving in the ’80s in the Midwest.”
These days you can find Dan at the Dropzone Waterpark in Perris, CA.