'Bluegrass Conspiracy' tale never gets old

25 years since Thornton jumped, book still sells

jbrammer@herald-leader.comSeptember 11, 2010 

Twenty-five years ago this day, an old man who lived in a tree-filled neighborhood in Knoxville woke up to find a dead man in his driveway.

It was the body of Andrew Carter Thornton II, a former Lexington narcotics officer who turned to dealing drugs.

On Thornton were about 75 pounds of cocaine, $4,800 in cash, two automatic weapons, several knives, rope, night-vision goggles, six Krugerrands and keys to a plane.

He wore combat-style fatigues, a bulletproof vest and expensive Italian shoes.

Thornton, 40, died when his parachute failed. His neck broke but cause of death was listed as a ruptured aorta.

The plane in which Thornton was flying was discovered a few hours later crashed in a rugged mountainous area of North Carolina. It was unoccupied. No flight plan had been filed for it.

The shocking death and plane crash brought to light revelations — and allegations — about a scandal involving cops, politicians and high society in Central Kentucky with drugs, weapons and murder.

The scandal produced a book in 1989, The Bluegrass Conspiracy, that drew raves and jeers with big sales.

It still sells well.

Joseph-Beth Booksellers in Lexington reported this week that 385 copies of the book have sold this calendar year at the store — 15 so far this month.

Overall, it has sold about 30,000 in hardcover. About 196,000 copies have been sold in paperback.

The author of the book, Sally Denton, said she is not surprised that the public is still buying the book.

"It's an amazing story, an amazing drama with really colorful characters," Denton, now an author in Washington, D.C., working on her seventh book, said in a telephone interview this week.

She said The Bluegrass Conspiracy will be launched as an e-book on Kindle and iBook in a couple of weeks and "some interested people" have renewed an option on the book to write a screenplay to make a movie.

Denton had met Thornton when she worked as an investigative reporter for Lexington's WKYT-TV from 1980 to 1983.

While at the station, she worked on several reports about corruption in the Lexington police force, particularly in the narcotics division.

On the day Thornton died on Sept. 11, 1985, Denton was at a bar in New Orleans. She learned of the unusual death from a TV news show.

At the time, Denton, who had interned for nationally known investigative journalist Jack Anderson, was working in a private investigations firm in Washington, D.C.

Shortly after Thornton's death, The Washington Post asked her to write an article about him. In 1987, several literary agents pursued her to write a book. She spent two years on it.

The book became extremely popular in Central Kentucky. "It also sold well in Las Vegas, for some strange reason," Denton said.

There was criticism of the book.

John S. Carroll, then editor of the Lexington Herald-Leader, wrote that it "blends fact, rumor and fiction with a recklessness that is breathtaking."

In a review of the book, Carroll also noted Denton's writing style, offering a few samples without comment. They included:

"The nubile beauties lured the politicians to hotel rooms that had been wired for sound and equipped with hidden cameras."

"He was wearing combat-style fatigues and expensive Italian shoes — a seeming non sequitur to those getting their first glimpse into the bizarre world of the sexy, madcap Kentucky blueblood."

Carroll's criticism "stung at the time, made me angry," Denton said.

"But now I consider John a friend of mine. I tremendously admire all he has done for journalism.

"In retrospect, I think he was a bit embarrassed that the Lexington Herald-Leader had ignored the story, had not done enough on the Lexington police force.

"He also criticized my writing, my syntax. I regret that I was not eloquent in syntax, but I was young and that was my first book. I believe I have improved."

Carroll, who retired as editor of the Los Angeles Times and moved back to Lexington, said Friday that he was critical of Denton's book, "but I've got to admit that it dealt with an important story and did so in a way that's had an enduring impact.

"On balance, I think the book was a positive event for the community because it alerted people to a series of dangerous and corrupt events that hadn't been given their due in the media, including the Herald-Leader."

Carroll said Denton "did a good job of digging, but I also thought the package in which she wrapped her findings was a bit too simple and neat. The truth, I suspect, was more complicated."

Carroll added that he "probably ought to read the book again."

In 1989, Carroll oversaw a series in the Herald-Leader written by reporter Valarie Honeycutt Spears about the drug culture in Lexington since the 1960s. He called the events described in the "Birds of a Feather" series "a community tragedy."

Denton said she has no regrets about her book and noted that no one ever filed a lawsuit on any of its contents.

Ken Kurtz, who hired Denton at WKYT and was the TV station's news director, said this week that "the vast majority of Denton's book has been borne out.

"Maybe there were some things in the book that Sally went overboard on, but she updated and revised it in later editions," he said.

Kurtz added, "She captured the essence of a powerfully dramatic story."

It's a story that still reverberates in Central Kentucky, he said.

Jack Brammer: (859) 231-1302. Twitter: @BGPolitics. Blog: bluegrasspolitics.bloginky.com

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