The Bodyguard

With a 9mm Baretta strapped to his chest, Iztok Plevnik opened the passenger door of the bulletproof, black sedan and climbed in. Daylight was drawing to a close in the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo, and gray clouds cast a dreary haze over the battle-scarred landscape.

Confident his immediate surroundings posed no threat, the slender, 26-year-old Special Forces agent pulled the door shut noiselessly behind him. Without averting his gaze from the foggy horizon, he nodded silently to the driver. Soon, the red taillights of the vehicle in front began inching forward, and Plevnik's car pulled in behind. Trailing just a few feet back was a third automobile.

Plevnik barely spoke as the convoy journeyed along the capital's busy streets and headed into the mountains. He was concentrating on his work, ensuring the safe passage of the man who occupied the seat directly behind him. (He won't name the individual but says it was a high-profile political dignitary.) It was late fall 1998, less than three years after the end of the bloodiest conflict on European soil since World War II. Much of Bosnia had been reduced to poverty, massive economic disruption, and lawless instability. It was among the world's most dangerous places.

Yet Plevnik was calm. A fifth-degree black belt, he was a highly skilled knife and close-quarter combat fighter who had protected political powerhouses on behalf of the Slovenian government and private clients. None of his charges had ever suffered a mishap, and he had never been seriously injured on the job.

Until that brisk spring morning almost nine years ago.

The trio of cars sped along the narrow mountain pass, flanked on the right by a steep wall of rock and on the left by a perpendicular drop. "We didn't want to go that way because we knew something might happen, but we didn't have a choice," Plevnik says. As the convoy rounded a sharp bend, he spied a bunch of logs strewn across the road just ahead. "We had Special Forces agents in front of us who stepped out of the car," he recalls in heavily accented English, "and I got out too, locked the car, and tried to find out what was going on."

Suddenly, a thunderous roar filled the air, and bullets rained down around him.

"Honestly, nothing goes through your mind at that point. I mean you are trained for things like this," says the six-foot-one bodyguard, who now lives in Miami Shores. "I just started running back to the car because I had to get to my principal." He reached the vehicle, drew his gun, and launched his body across the hood while returning fire. He remembers feeling a throbbing sensation in his leg.

He had been shot — not once, not twice, but four times.

"It was pretty bad," he notes, pulling up his beige pants leg to reveal two one-inch-wide circular scars. The first bullet hit his left inner calf, and the force propelled his torso backward. The second lodged in his right calf; the third ripped through his buttocks. As the impact sent him spinning, the fourth bullet smashed into his right side and shattered two ribs.

His battered body thudded onto the bullet-riddled hood and rolled to the ground. "At the time, I had no idea I was hit," he says, "and my adrenaline was pumping so much that I managed to climb back into the car. But the road was too narrow for us to turn around. The only way out was the way we came."

The driver reversed as far and as fast as he could back down the road.

Plevnik was badly wounded and knew that failure to slow his blood loss could be fatal. So he employed a little-known trade secret. "Every bodyguard has a special jacket, and inside it they carry four tampons," he chuckles. "I'm serious, because if you get shot, you use them to plug up the wound."

Others involved in the incident, he says, were less fortunate. "There were people killed, but nobody on our side. I know exactly who it was, but I can't say. Put it this way: It wasn't good people."

Indeed, this description shows a glimmer of this young man's fascinating ride of a life. He trained as a jazz ballet dancer, was crowned the amateur European kickboxing champion, fled from the onset of war, cheated death, traveled the globe working as a Special Forces bodyguard, modeled for one of the nation's most highly regarded agencies, played professional arena football, published a diet book, and found time to raise a family.

"I'm not sure how much I can talk about," the baby-faced Plevnik states, his face a mask of sobriety. "I have done some very bad things. I've killed people."

Gazing into his son Dylan's stroller, Plevnik beams, revealing a sparkling row of pearly white teeth and dimples on either side of his full, rosy lips. Now 34 years old, he glows with pride as he stares almost trancelike at his son's chubby visage. Tearing his puppy-dog brown eyes away for a brief second, he gushes, "He is so beautiful."

Pulling back Dylan's yellow blanket, Plevnik cups the stocky 4-month-old baby's body in his large hands and lifts him to his chest. Dylan gurgles. Dad smiles. They look like any other father and son enjoying breakfast at a sidewalk café during one of Miami's seasonably warm winter mornings.

"He is so good with Dylan," says his wife of almost a year, former professional ice skater Jill Ann Skrzycki, "and he's one of the most humble men I've ever met."

Plevnik exudes an almost childlike naiveté that belies his violent past. The middle child — and only son — of a Yugoslav army major and a school principal, he was born in May 1972 in Otocec, a town southeast of Slovenia's capital, Ljubljana. His father, Vilei, who died recently, was stern and uncompromising with regard to raising his three children. "He was really, really strict," Plevnik says, rolling his eyes. "We were raised the army way, even my sisters."

Vilei Plevnik enrolled his son in kickboxing lessons at age 4. "My mom wanted me to take dance classes, but my dad pushed me into martial arts," he recalls. "I didn't really like it at first because we had a very tough coach." But the young boy warmed to the sport, and he soon began to rise through the ranks. By age 15, he was a fifth-degree black belt.

"Martial arts is all about coordination, and my coach sent me to study jazz ballet to help me with my flexibility," he laughs. "I said no problem, make my mom happy." Though he claims he didn't get bad grades in school, he does admit that his focus was fighting. "I was pretty much raised in the army. I went with my dad to the bases all the time, to the shooting range. I didn't know anything else other than that."

At age 15, he moved out of his parents' home to study at an army-run school located near Belgrade, the Yugoslav capital. When he was 19, he graduated and transferred to a military academy: "One of those places where they put 12 guys in a room and you have to wake up at 6 a.m."

In June 1991, war broke out between the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and Slovenia. "We weren't allowed to watch TV, so we really didn't understand that much, but we knew Slovenia didn't want to be part of Yugoslavia anymore," he says. "But remember, I was being trained by the Yugoslav army, and they wanted me to fight for them against my own country."

Less than 24 hours after receiving the news, under cover of darkness, he and three Slovenian friends fled to the train station and made the six-hour journey home. The punishment for desertion would have been jail — or worse. "Yugoslavia was a Communist country," Plevnik says. "They could do whatever they wanted, but I was not going to fight my own people."

The conflict was over in ten days, with just a handful of deaths. (For Croatia and Bosnia, which followed Slovenia's lead months later, the bloodshed would be catastrophic and last for years.) Plevnik, meanwhile, had reported to the Slovenian army and continued with his training. He fought 11 matches throughout the year, which earned him a shot at the Amateur European Kickboxing Championship being held in Brussels. He won and within 12 months was competing with guys from more than 40 nations for the 1993 WAKO World Championships at the Taj Mahal in Atlantic City, New Jersey. He finished sixth.

Upon returning to Europe, Plevnik secured a position with the military police and began working at the Slovene version of the Pentagon. He was assigned as one of three people to protect the minister of defense. (Though he won't reveal the name, Janez Jansa held the title from Slovenia's independence until March 1994.) "That's when I started bodyguarding," he says. "It's a different world. People listen to your phones; they follow you around because you are working for powerful people. You have to be careful what you do, what you say.

"There are different 'rings of protection,'" he adds. "I was ring number one, me plus two others, which means we were closest to the VIP. Ring number two, who is further out, was the local police. Ring number three was the snipers, the Special Forces guys so if we saw something we didn't like, we would tell them 'Three o'clock' and the third ring would take care of whatever it was."

At age 22, he garnered a spot on the Special Forces team. "Special Forces are considered the top of the top," he says. "One guy from Special Forces is worth ten marines, put it that way." From 1994 on, Plevnik contends he traveled the globe bodyguarding for four high-profile political dignitaries — he adds that he is prohibited from divulging their names.

"We traveled all over the world. You name it: Italy, London, the Middle East, Russia, South Africa, South America, Asia. I remember one incident when 30 or so presidents and prime ministers were in Germany for a conference, and they were all at one table having dinner. My boss could never start eating until I told him he was allowed to eat. [Janez Drnovsek was prime minister then. Milan Kucan served as president from 1992 to 2002.]

"I went to the kitchen where the chef was and either I tasted the food or I told him to taste the food. Then I waited about ten or 15 minutes to see if anything happened. Nothing. So I put the Slovenian flag on top of the plate, and I stood back and followed the caterer as she took it to my boss. When she dropped the plate down, my boss looked at me. I nodded. Then, only then, did he start eating. If I don't nod, he will not pick up the fork."

Richard Fike, a now-retired U.S. military officer, says he met Plevnik at a spring 1996 training session that he conducted in Slovenia. Fike, who among other things has taught close-quarter combat fighting skills to U.S. marshals and Secret Service agents, was the instructor.

"I was impressed by Iztok," notes the 50-year-old father of two, who lives in Ohio with his wife. "He had a little more desire, a little more hunger than the other guys, and you can't teach that. And in a business like ours, where you might have to die for your teammates, you want someone like him around you.

"I was training Iztok to sharpen his skills, to understand, say, the click of a knife. My guys can be playing pool and they are trained to hear that click across the room," Fike says, rubbing his beard. "I teach guys about observation skills — knowing how many doors there are, how many people are around, where they all are, so that it becomes a sixth sense."

After he was shot four times in the Bosnian mountains in 1998, Plevnik took almost seven months to recover. It was then that Plevnik "realized that maybe I might need to change my career." So he called Fike, and several months later, he was standing at an airport in New York.

"Since I was small, I have been in love with America," Plevnik says.

Fike made a few calls and introduced Plevnik to a series of wealthy clients in Pittsburgh who were looking for personal trainers. Soon, Plevnik began earning what he describes as an average wage, and he settled into a modest life in America. "I learned English from watching news channels like CNN and Fox," he says, "and I had a therapist, Sam, help me out with some of the more difficult pronunciations, like 'th,' because we don't have that in my language."

"He came across as very serious," speech therapist Sam Chwat recalls. "But he was absolutely fascinated with the United States and this idea of it being a land of opportunity."

By 2003, Plevnik had developed a good command of his host country's tongue, as well as a roster of clients. But one fall evening at a Pittsburgh Steelers football game, his life took a bizarre turn. "I was with a client who knew the Steelers' owner," he says. "After the game, I made a joke about being able to kick the ball further than the team's kicker, so he led me down onto the field and told me to try.

"I walked onto the field, and I'd never even tried it before," he laughs, "but I guess I had a lot of strength in my leg because of the kickboxing, and I slammed the ball almost 50 yards and made a field goal."

A short while later, he was showing his skills to the coach of a semiprofessional football team, the Penn-Ohio Raiders. "I can honestly say he was the longest and most accurate kicker we have ever had try out," says the team's co-owner and head coach, Chris Brown. "He kicked that ball so far, he was denting up cars in the parking lot. We had to move them further away from the field."

Brown says Plevnik played two games with his team. "We never hold our guys back, and with the right coaching, he certainly had the talent to be playing for the NFL," Brown says.

After a friend arranged a tryout, Plevnik snagged a spot in late 2004 with the Miami Morays, who then played at the Miami Arena and were part of the National Indoor Football League. So he moved briefly to Fort Lauderdale and then Miami. Soon after arriving in South Florida, he learned of a modeling competition sponsored by the Wilhelmina Agency, one of the nation's top firms. He took third. "I only entered because the top three got a trip to Aruba, and I'd never been," he says. "They paid for everything — why not?" (Karen Medina, the Miami-based director of the agency's lifestyle division, confirms he worked briefly for the company.)

It was around that time that he met Michigan-born beauty Jill Ann Skrzycki, who as a 15-year-old was among the nation's top skaters before being hurt in the nationals. She performed for several professional companies in New York and elsewhere, then modeled with agencies including Wilhelmina after moving to South Florida in 2000. "A mutual friend of ours was throwing a party, and he wanted to introduce us," she beams. "There's Iztok standing on this boat surrounded by girls. We said 'hi' and that was it."

The next day, her friend called and said: "'Iztok really likes you.' And I thought, no way, he's a player," she says. "Yeah, he was gorgeous, but I thought his shy, nontalkative approach was just an act to get what he wanted."

Shortly thereafter, Wilhelmina called the five-foot-seven, 119-pound single mom about a local casting call for a Verizon TV commercial. "Guess who was there? Iztok." They both got the roles.

"He asked me out for lunch, and I said no," the brown-haired Skrzycki says. A few weeks later, the two were cast together again for a Bud Light commercial. "They were in an ad for responsible drinking that featured Cedric 'The Entertainer' Kyles," says Anheuser Busch spokesperson Gayla Daugherty. "The scene is inside a club, and Cedric was the designated driver, and he's waving his keys in the air. The clubbers see him and think it's some new crazy dance, so they start to follow suit."

When filming wrapped, the two went together to Segafredo on Lincoln Road. "He's talking about where he's from and what he's done, and I start thinking this guy thinks he's James Bond," Skrzycki says. "I'm not going to fall for that; he's full of it."

That spring, he finally played for the Morays. He didn't earn much with the team — he was paid per game, though he won't say how much — but an April 2, 2005, photo in the Miami Herald shows Plevnik and Ethenic Sands, a former University of Miami receiver, practicing at Gibson Park before the Morays' first home game. "I tried out for the Miami Dolphins," Plevnik says, "but they wanted to send me to NFL Europe. I had just left Europe, and I didn't want to go back, so I said no."

Patricia Lorie, who met Skrzycki six years ago during a day of boating, remembers the pair's courting and the wedding this past June. "They got married on a cruise that left from Fort Lauderdale and sailed to St. Martin and St. Thomas — in 40-foot seas," Lorie laughs. "I yakked the whole time! We had a tropical storm following us the entire way, and the boat was rocking so much during the ceremony, they had to take the cake apart because the tiers were going to topple over."

The couple now lives in Skrzycki's three-bedroom Miami Shores townhouse with her 12-year-old son, Zach Brockett. "I look up to [Plevnik] as a role model," the charismatic, sandy-haired teenager says. "He was teaching me kickboxing for a while, and I got to a red belt in tae kwon do. And you know what else? He's really good at cooking too."

"I tried a bunch of different jobs here in America," says Plevnik, grinning, "but I missed the bodyguarding. I wanted to get back into that world."

So in summer 2005, once again, he called up Fike and suggested opening a firm. "I worked for Uncle Sam for 26 years," says Fike, who retired from the armed forces in 2001. "I met a lot of people in my time, good and bad, and in our line of work, it sometimes pays to know both. Between us, we have the skills and the connections, so I said, 'Sure, why not?'"

In September 2005, Plevnik incorporated Z7 Force Protection, a private security firm. (The name is taken from a term for a knife stroke that hits all the vital organs.) He was the president and Fike the director of operations. "We don't have an office," says Plevnik, adding that the company headquarters is his Miami Shores home. "We don't need one because most of our work is in the field.

"Right now, we have six full-time clients, and they all signed a one-year contract with us. Then we have other [people] we work for when they need us." He declined to discuss fees, company earnings, or names of clients — for obvious reasons. Most of those who have hired Z7, he explains, are in Europe and South America.

"We have about 20 or so operatives we can call on," adds Fike, noting that they too are scattered across the globe. All are ex-military or former law enforcement officers. Eighteen months after its launch, the company is doing well enough to maintain six private jets (initially financed by Skrzycki's parents), Plevnik says.

Mike R. Miller, director of marketing for Equiflor, a Miami-based flower company, met Plevnik last year at a celebrity-studded affair thrown for a luxury yacht company. "He was handling security at the event, [which included] the likes of Don Johnson and Pam Anderson," Miller says. "Even though he works with celebrities, he's a very humble guy, and he seems to understand that people want to be made to feel important, and he's good at that."

For Fike, this kind of scene is a welcome change. "The people we've worked with in the past were really bad guys," he says.

Skrzycki is even happier. "I don't want him doing these dangerous jobs anymore," she says. "I don't know what I'd do if something happened to him."

Now the partners are turning their attention to Hollywood.

Standing in front of a 145-foot yacht perched on the moonlit waters of Biscayne Bay, Plevnik raises his right arm and waves to a friend.

To his left is a bar, complete with a black-clad bartender who's busy mixing a variety of specialty cocktails for the thirsty onlookers lined up at his makeshift station. Milling about on the lavishly decorated deck are approximately 50 guests. They're chattering among themselves as they munch hors d'oeuvres. To Plevnik's right, muffled laughter erupts from invitees strolling around a second, smaller vessel.

It's March 8, and this is the launch party for his newly published 46-page diet book, The Bodyguard Diet: The Life You Save May Be Your Own.

"It took me so long to do because of my English," Plevnik jokes. "It was actually published last April, but I wanted to wait until the spring to release it, because that's when everyone starts thinking about getting into shape, ready for the summer."

The book offers suggestions on exercise and nutrition. Among other things, it takes a shot at the many low-carb diets. "There are so many diets out there that come and go, and nobody can follow them," he says. "That's why people are getting fatter, because no one can stick to them. I tried to come up with a small book that's not 200 pages long but one that people can flip through easily and learn something."

Charles Holland, a Los Angeles-based writer whose credits include New York Undercover, Third Watch, and CSI: Miami, flew out from California for the event. "He's an amazing guy with an amazing story," he says, "a man I genuinely admire and respect. We've actually been working together on telling his story. We might have a TV show, we might have a movie, we might have nothing."

Indeed, if all goes according to plan, this fall, Plevnik may become a household name. He hopes to sell a reality TV show. "It would be a series of episodes that follow me on various missions," he says. He recently pitched the idea to the Discovery Channel. "I want to show what bodyguarding is all about. It's a dangerous job but in a kind of glamorous way, because you are protecting glamorous people, important people."

Judging by the rest of his professional life, it seems whatever Plevnik touches, even if for a brief moment, turns to gold.

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Joanne Green