As a young man, Steven Hedrick parachuted from an airplane for the movie Red Dawn, but it was the rest his life that read like a script for a Cold War thriller.
Once, the St. Petersburg native and seven others were captured trying to smuggle a boatload of guns out of South America.
Imprisoned for nine months in Brazil, they became known as the Rio 8. They escaped after getting four hacksaw blades smuggled to them in a carton of powdered milk. Mr. Hedrick claimed the CIA and the National Security Council had backed the mission. The U.S. government denied it.
"My son was an adventurer, and he did anything and everything, mostly dangerous work," said his father, Warren Hedrick of Seminole. "Many times, he'd write me or tell me, 'Dad, I'm going on a mission, and I can't tell you about it. I'll tell you when I get back.' "
Later in life, Mr. Hedrick handled security for executives at a steel company, worked as a private investigator and tracked down fugitives as a bounty hunter. Given the risks, his father said he wouldn't have been surprised to get a phone call telling him that his son had been killed on the job.
Instead, Steven Hedrick, who had lived in Nederland, Texas, for about 10 years, died under hospice care on April 3. He was 53, and had lung cancer.
"He started smoking in high school, and he smoked himself to death," his father said.
Growing up in St. Petersburg, Mr. Hedrick joined the police Explorers as a teenager and talked of becoming a police officer like his father.
After graduating from Lakewood High School, Mr. Hedrick studied criminology at what was then St. Petersburg Junior College and worked as a security guard before joining the Air Force.
During seven years in the Air Force, he served as a security police officer in the United States and Europe. In a 1986 interview, he said he went on his first covert operation in 1982, before he was discharged from the service as a sergeant, and participated in secret missions in El Salvador, Honduras and Costa Rica, mostly as an adviser.
After one mission, "he talked about eating snakes in the jungle and eating monkeys and things like that," Warren Hedrick said.
"He told me once, 'You wouldn't want to know everything I did,' " said his mother, Arlene Stewart Hamburger of Pinellas Park.
It was also in 1982 that Mr. Hedrick became friends with John Early, who owned a parachute center in New Mexico. Through Early, he got a job as an assistant technical adviser for Red Dawn, in which he said he trained actors in weapons-handling and worked as drop zone coordinator for the parachute scene.
In early 1986, Mr. Hedrick was working as an investigator for the Marion County Medical Examiner's Office when he got a call from a Texas businessman asking if he was interested in doing two weeks of bodyguard work in South America. The job paid $10,000.
Mr. Hedrick, John Early and six other Americans flew to Argentina, where they met Mr. Hedrick's Texas contact and Ghanian dissident Godfrey Osei.
According to Mr. Hedrick, the two men told the group the CIA and NSC were backing the expedition. The group was to ship a boatload of munitions to the Ivory Coast, where they would be met by 70 to 100 Ghanian rebels. From there, they were to take over the capital of Ghana and depose Jerry Rawlings, who had taken over in a military coup in 1979.
Instead, the eight were captured off the coast of Brazil aboard the Nobistor, an Argentine ocean-going tugboat crammed with six tons of rifles, automatic weapons, grenades and ammunition.
The Rio 8 were convicted and later cleared of the Brazilian gun smuggling charges. But before they could be released, Argentina filed an extradition request alleging they had illegally shipped seven rubber rafts out of the country.
"From the start, this has been a CIA-backed job that went bad," Mr. Hedrick wrote to his family in a letter from prison.
The government said it had no connection to the Rio 8 or their mission.
In a prison diary, Mr. Hedrick wrote of living in a 32-by-20-foot cell with 45 Brazilian prisoners. The toilet was a hole in the floor. The Americans slept in shifts so that someone could always watch for rats. Mr. Hedrick said one night he woke to find a rat on his chest, gnawing through his blanket.
Mr. Hedrick and several others broke out after receiving a care package from home with a container of Carnation powdered milk. Inside were four hacksaw blades they used to cut their way to freedom.
Once out, the escapees covered 1,500 miles through Brazil, staying at brothels because they didn't require him to fill out what were known as "police cards." They used the contacts of fellow prisoners, including a cocaine supplier, to cross the border into Bolivia and paid bribes with cash that had been smuggled into them in prison.
Mr. Hedrick caught a flight out of La Paz, Bolivia, throwing $20 bills to customs agents to let him leave without a passport. In Miami, he talked his way through customs by showing his Florida driver's license and a Sears charge card.
Despite his adventures, Mr. Hedrick didn't want to be known as a soldier of fortune.
"I don't consider myself a mercenary," he told the Times shortly after his escape. "I've never worked for the big money. I've never sworn allegiance to another country. Everything I've worked has always been sanctioned by the U.S. government."
Times researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report.