In the early hours of the morning of September 12, 1985, Fred Myers found a dead man in his driveway. He spotted the body through his bathroom window whilst shaving as part of his morning routine. After calls to his elder sisters, both of whom dismissed Fred’s corpse as a figment of his active imagination, he decided not to heed their advice to return to bed, and instead called the police. TheKnoxville police arrived and identified the body as Andrew C. Thornton II. In his bag and on his body were found two hand guns, a stiletto knife, food rations, identification papers for two different names, forty-five hundred dollars cash, six South African Krugerrands, a bullet proof vest, night vision goggles, $75 million worth of cocaine, and a pair of Gucci loafers.
This crashed paratrooper would prove to have been the star of an elaborate drama, involving wealthy backgrounds, inflated egos, governmental corruption, and determined police work, amongst many other moving parts, all of which revolve around our city of Lexington, Kentucky. The events in what would come to be called “The Bluegrass Conspiracy” played out over many years and had deep-reaching roots in the Central Kentuckyarea, and the effects are still being felt today. Many books have been written regarding these happenings, one of which, Sally Denton’s The Bluegrass Conspiracy, I have used as research for the writing of this piece, and all information regarding Andrew C. Thornton II, his associates, and their actions during the 1960s, ‘70s, and ‘80s, is from this source, unless otherwise indicated.
To kick off this drama, a background on its main character must be presented. Begot of a wealthyLexingtonfamily, Andrew (known to those close to him as Drew) attended theSayreSchoolhere in town, and laterTennessee’sSewaneeMilitaryAcademy, where he would meet his future business associate, Bradley Bryant. After enlisting as a paratrooper in the Army and receiving a Purple Heart for injuries received in theDominican Republic, Drew returned home toLexingtonand soon joined the Lexington Police Department narcotics unit in 1968. A thrill seeker, and reported egomaniac, Drew sought adventure and power, both of which he found in the LPD.
Unchecked by his superiors, Drew built a reputation as a brutal leader, often using excessive force in the field. Those under him in the department looked to Drew with admiration and respect, and fed his power with an uncanny obedience. With this new small army of sorts, Drew began selling confiscated drugs and weapons for quite a profit. He and Henry Vance, another youngLexingtonblue blood who entered the Police force the same time that Drew did, began a friendship that would last into future ventures. While Drew got swept up in his new power and escapades, Henry was fired from the force in May of 1973 for forging the sheriff’s signature on a weapons order. Not a year later, Henry had found himself a job in the Kentucky State Legislature through his connections. During the same time, Drew’s friend Bradley Bryant had become established amongst the organized crime and gambling crowds ofPhiladelphiaandLas Vegas.
It wasn’t long before Drew recognized the limits of his position in the LPD, and the monetary benefits of life on the other side of the law (Bell2). Drew left the force and started “Executive Protection, Ltd.” with Vance and Bryant. This was a private security business that served as a front for a massive drug and weapons smuggling ring run by Drew, Bryant, and Vance. Bryant was the real brains behind the money, managing the finances of the operation. Drew dealt with piloting and other transportation and logistics, while Henry Vance served as the look-out, keeping an eye on government activity from the inside. Drew would fly to places as far as South Americato collect drugs and weapons and return them to the U.S.for sale and distribution. Andrew got his fill of adventure, but quickly realized that the operation needed more “employees”. Recruiting a gang of former police officers and drug agents from all levels of government agencies, what would come to be known as “The Company” was founded. All was going well for Drew and his associates until the disappearance of a young Lexingtonnative, Melanie Flynn, started raising eyebrows.
Melanie was the daughter of former state senator, Bobby Flynn, and had been in a relationship with Bill Canan, a former LPD narcotics officer and member of “The Company”. A party girl, Melanie had been charged with possession of marijuana by the LPD. As part of a deal with the police, Melanie agreed to work undercover as an informant for the narcotics department, introducing Bill to her dealers and friends. In 1977, Melanie went missing, and was never seen again. Rumors spread quickly that Melanie had been killed by Drew Thornton and his associates, as she had been highly exposed to their operation. These rumors brought much unwanted attention upon “The Company”, and thus started the beginning of the end of Drew.
Drew’s business relationship with Bradley Bryant had grown tense, as the two sought different directions for the future of “The Company”. Bryant was very interested in joining forces with the international drug kingpin duo, Jimmy and Lee Chagra. Bryant believed that the Chagra brothers ran the largest drug ring in the nation, and that in joining forces with them, profits would be maximized for “The Company”. Drew, on the other hand, knew that the brothers had the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) on their tail, and thought that dealing with them would bring “The Company” out from under the radar.
Despite Drew’s skepticism, “The Company” teamed up with the Chagras, and it wasn’t long until it brought about the demise of both parties involved. Violence spread as Lee Chagra was shot and killed in his office, and judges and attorneys became the target of many attacks. Judge John Wood, Jr. was shot and killed on the same day he was meant to try Jimmy Chagra in court. These high profile attacks focused even more spotlight on “The Company”, and the crew soon crumbled as Drew’s differences with Bryant regarding the direction of business became too much to bear.
In January of 1980, Bradley Bryant was busted at a hotel inPhiladelphiawhen a maid reported a marijuana smell in his room. The police found “a ledger with a list of names and phone numbers, a telephone scrambling device, $25,000 in cash, semi-automatic weapons and a lease to a warehouse in Lexington.” (Bell5) In Bryant’s warehouse, $250,000 worth of weapons and ammunition that had been stolen from China Lake Naval Air Weapons Station inCaliforniaby Bryant’s cousin were found and confiscated. Bryant was charged with possession of illegal weaponry and released on bond until his trial in 1980. To the shock of the judge and other members of the community, Bryant was acquitted. This luck wouldn’t last, as Bryant fell victim to a sting operation run by the DEA when he tried to sell marijuana to undercover agents inIllinois. Tried for this, and also inCaliforniafor theChinaLakeweaponry theft, Bryant was sentenced to 15 years. During the investigation, much evidence was found implicating Drew Thornton. Fearing prosecution, Drew went into hiding in 1981.
Over the next several years, other members of “The Company” came under pressure and many were arrested. One of the prosecutors involved, Eugene Berry, was shot and killed at his home inFlorida. His murderer, wife of “Company” member Mike Kelly, was sentenced to life, and after several years of incarceration, she gave up the identity of several key “Company” members, including Henry Vance, who was eventually sentenced to fifteen years. Drew Thornton was caught and tried once on grounds of conspiracy to import marijuana, but served a very short sentence of five months, and was soon back in business.
It was during this business that Drew realized he was being tracked by drug agents on a flight returning fromColumbia. It was on that night that Drew’s parachute failed, and he ended up in Fred Myer’s driveway. This was the end of Andrew C. Thornton II and his “Company”, and their reputation goes down as one of the most successful drug rings in theUnited States.
Ralph Ross, head of Organized Crime and Intelligence for the Kentucky State Police, had been suspicious of Drew Thornton since Drew’s days back in the LPD. It was Ralph Ross who investigated Melanie Flynn’s disappearance, and it was Ralph Ross who appeared at the scene at Fred Myer’s house. After Drew’s body was found, it was Ralph Ross who put it all together, and thus was the first to have a broader view of this elaborate drama.
This bigger picture was made up of many smaller happeneings and events. That is to say that the roots of the “Bluegrass Conspiracy” run deep in our very own soil. In an attempt to gather more information about the subject on a personal level, I decided to call Dan Murphy for an interview. Mr. Murphy was my neighbor at one point in time when me and my family lived next to him onMcGee Lanein southernJessamineCounty, one county south ofLexingtonand Fayette. I was aware that Mr. Murphy had been involved in the Conspiracy in one sense or another simply due to his reputation. Friends’ parents had talked about him at dinner tables. Even my own parents knew he had been involved. When I called, I got an answer after several rings. A pleasant man’s voice said “Murphy. Who’s calling?” I replied with my name, and that I was calling to see about doing an interview for a class project. After a pause, I was asked what the project was about, I said very plainly, “The Bluegrass Conspiracy.” The reply was a short and dry, “Oh,” followed after a few seconds with a click. The phone had been hung up. Somewhat discouraged, I went down to Common Grounds Coffee Shop here inLexingtonwhere my sister works. In a moment of some odd coincidence, a woman receiving her coffee at the counter as I was telling my sister what happened interrupted me to tell me that she had been involved many years back with several of the men that had been involved in the “Conspiracy”. She was a kind woman, and she said very quickly, with a big smile on her ace, that “that was many years ago, and life has taken me a long way from there.” Sadly, I neglected to realize the usefulness of her words until after she had left, and I never got her name. This does go to show, though, that some Kentuckians remember the days of Drew Thornton as a piece of the past, in a world much different from ours today, while others choose to forget those days, hanging up phones on unsuspecting college students.
I would urge that these days not be forgotten. The saying that “history repeats itself” proves true more often than not, and in aLexingtonin which corruption is still present, history appears to be making its second go-round. Christopher Hignite, a contributor for the Lexington Herald-Leader, writes often of corruption and injustice here inLexington. He writes of child support cases turned into harassment, and the denial of confidentiality regarding one man’s harassment case against local Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government. In both cases, corruption within the Lexington Police Department plays a major role, and several officers have been reprimanded in light of these cases.
Due to this level of corruption, I hope that you will not forget the happenings surrounding Andrew C. Thornton II, “The Company”, and the greater “Bluegrass Conspiracy”. This world could use more Ralph Rosses to keep an eye out for corruption and injustice within our very own governments. Kentuckyis an incredible Commonwealth, and it is up to us to keep it that way.