I always enjoy reading nonfiction from time to time, for the purpose of at the very least, of learning something new. Growing up in Kentucky as soon as I heard about this book I immediately wanted to read it. I am not sure how or from who I heard about the book, but the fact that it was set in Kentucky and a true story, I felt I had to check it out. I really had no in depth knowledge of what the story was about. Regardless the taglines of drugs, murder, guns, was something that certainly peaked my interest.
Sally Denton is an investigative reporter and a nonfiction writer. She has written quite a few other books and as far as I can tell are all nonfiction as well. Throughout her career she has won quite a few awards for her work in investigative reporting. Sally has also worked on a few film documentaries including one called The Bluegrass Connection, which I am not sure if it has anything to do with the book. She has also worked for numerous private investigator firms around the country.
Because this is a nonfiction story this review will be a little different. If you do not want any spoilers, you may not want to read this review.
The basis of the story is that a group of police officers in Lexington eventually turn to a life of crime. At first Drew Thornton, who is considered the ring leader, sells drugs that have been confiscated from local arrests. From there he gathers quite a few other high profile individuals to create one of the largest drug and gun smuggling rings in the world. During his height he had contacts with cartels in Columbia as well as high raking government officials. Throughout his escapades a lone state trooper named Ralph was always hot on his trail. Even though there was a multitude of evidence to suggest Thornton was indeed a drug smuggler and gun runner, there was some other evidence to suggest that he may have been working for the government as well.
Living and growing up in Kentucky I had never heard of this story before. Being a relatively quiet state where nothing much out of the ordinary happens, I was somewhat shocked to read the story of fellow Kentuckians and their life of crime, or what appeared to be a life of crime, I will get more into that in a moment. I am not naïve , but in a state known for horses and the sweet nectar of the gods, bourbon, it was somewhat surprising that a group of good o’l country boys had the FBI, CIA, DEA, basically any and every government agency after them. These organizations spent enormous amounts of money and man hours tracking Thornton’s every move at all hours of the day. The crimes themselves did not shock me, but the level of intricacy, and infiltration of their organization is what was surprising to me. It reached all the way from the local police, state police, the governor, and a hand full of other high profile military individuals.
One of the other things that I felt was really surprising was the level of sophistication that the drug dealers had. The state of the art equipment they used, even going as far as stealing equipment from a top secret military research facility known as China Lake. Charges would eventually be brought against them for this theft, but still how the hell did a bunch of country boys pull this off? The reason they stole this equipment was twofold. Mainly it was to use when they were flying large shipments of pot or cocaine and could see if they were being tracked on radar by government officials. But there is also some evidence that Thornton and his group of merry men were dealing in espionage, and by stealing this top secret equipment they were setting up deals to sell it to a third party for government secrets.
This book does an awesome job of presenting the information in an unbiased manner. In a lot of stories about drugs and crime there is a sentiment that the reader is rooting for the bad guy or the good guy for that matter. This story does have some elements of that, but it also does an excellent job of portraying those law enforcement individuals that were trying to track down these criminals. What I am trying to say is that while reading I was rooting for both sides, which is kind of strange given the subject matter.
About half way thought the book I was certain how the book would end and how everything would turn out. I had seen a similar story countless times in movies and other books. Thief or crook rises through the rankings, eventually leading his own cartel or being the main guy, which attracts the attention of the law, and then eventually through a few mistakes the criminal is caught. Well as is almost always the case, real life is much stranger than fiction. Throughout the story the main guy, Thornton, is very crafty and uses any and every connection he has available to get what he is after. That is a major point of contention during the story and as I have already alluded to. Most of the evidence points to Thornton being a drug dealer, while also running guns to South America as well. While there is also some evidence that Thornton with all his skills was also a very secret spy, so undercover that if anyone knew his true allegiance no one, even in his inner circle, or the government agency that employed his talents, spoke up. This idea does have some evidence based on the high tech gadgets and coded messages that seemed to surround him. There is also some evidence based on what is presented in the book, that Thornton was dealing drugs and running guns in order to infiltrate a secret world where he could acquire state secrets and equipment from Russia or other enemies of the United States. Which, given this last idea, makes the title of the book more fitting. When I first started reading I could not figure out the inclusion of the word “Conspiracy” in the title. Early on in the story it looked like Thornton was the bad guy, case closed, but as the story unfolds you there is enough there to really put some doubt in your mind as to which side he was really on.
The other strange occurrence is the manner in which Thornton was killed. He was found just outside of Knoxville, Tennessee having jumped from a plane. At the time he was found he had on him, 75 pounds of cocaine, an AR180 (assault rifle), various other survival gear, and a large sum of cash. He either failed to pull his parachute or was killed before he was pushed from the plane, or his parachute was unable to slow him down because of the excess weight of all his gear. Again this incident just added more mystery to the entire situation. After an autopsy it was determined that it was possible that he was severely beaten before he jumped from the plane, so much so that he may have been unconscious prior to the jump or push. The doctors could not determine exactly what had happened. His death undoubtedly left many more questions about the whole operation than answers. Following his death various members of Thornton’s inner circle mysteriously began dying in very strange circumstances.
My only negative with this book is that at times there is almost too much detail explained in the story. This is nonfiction so I am not sure that even goes into a writers mind when writing a book like this. I assume there is some stuff that is left out, but I would be interested to see what are the guidelines for what makes the cut and what does not. I felt there was some information that could have been left out or that was mostly irrelevant to the story, but I guess you will have that with any nonfiction read. Still I felt that overall this was a minor point, and did not hinder the overall reading experience. Although, I will warn you that this is a longer book for that same reason, as there is quite a bit of information that is presented in the book while incorporating all the major players through at least many years of their lives.
This book also throws in quite a bit of mystery as well. The book talks about quite a few murders that Thornton’s gang was probably involved in but there was not enough evidence to indict Thornton or anyone of his gang. In particular the disappearance of Melanie Flynn which remains an unsolved murder to this day. There are a lot of elements at play in this book. It almost read like a murder mystery as well as a true crime novel.
If you cannot tell I loved this book. Even if you are not from Kentucky it is a great read, but being a native Kentuckian, it just makes the story that much more real. Talking about so many places that I have been to or seen gives a whole other level of realism, even though I know that it is a true story. I recommend this book, it is a great read and will certainly suck you in with each page turn wondering what is going to happen next.