Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

"The Company" Drug Smuggling Ring

No Way Out

Despite their efforts to avoid any hint of involvement in the murder case, an investigation by the Florida police led directly to Thornton and Vance, although there was no direct evidence of their involvement. The investigation then focused in on Bonnie Kelly who was eventually arrested for Berry's murder. Even though she was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison, she never implicated Vance or Thornton or revealed any knowledge of "The Company."

Just when it seemed that Thornton and Vance would get away with murder, their luck, like Bryant's, took a change for the worse. In January 1982, customs agents intercepted a radio transmission from Thornton leading to his arrest at a Southern Pines, N.C., airfield, Dunne reported. Less than six months later he was found guilty of conspiracy to import marijuana but received a shockingly short sentence of six month in prison, of which he served only five months.

Similar Cessna plane
Similar Cessna plane

The moment he was released, Thornton went right back to work, smuggling drugs from South America into the U.S. In fact, business was better than ever. However, federal investigators, working from a tip, were moving in on him and Thornton felt the heat. In September 1985, flying his twin-engine Cessna back from a drug run in Columbia, he realized that agents were right on his tail, tracking his every move.

Thornton panicked. He was carrying $37 million worth of drugs and knew that if he were caught he would spend the rest of his life behind bars. In a frantic effort to evade police and separate himself from his precious cargo, he began dumping bags full of drugs from the plane before bailing out himself. He would not survive the jump: his parachute failed to deploy properly, and he plummeted to his death in the yard of Mr. Myers' Knoxville home. Yet, the story didn't end with Thornton's death.

In January 1987, Bonnie Kelly finally broke her silence. She implicated Vance in the murder of Eugene Berry, claiming that it had been his idea and that he had supplied her with the gun to kill the prosecutor. It was the breakthrough investigators had long hoped for. Vance was eventually indicted on murder charges, found guilty and sentenced to 15 years in a state penitentiary. His imprisonment signalled the inevitable end of "The Company" and lead to the prosecution of many others involved in one of America's largest drug smuggling rings on record.

 

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