By Larry Bonko
Her life turned into a bad TV movie. That is how Juliet Bickford characterizes the events of the recent past.
Bickford abruptly quit WTKR early in 2014 in a moment of high drama during which she pleaded guilty to filing a false tax return.
Five months after making that plea, five months after Bickford disappeared from the anchor desk on Channel 3’s weekday newscast at 4 p.m., her life was, indeed, playing out like a bad TV movie.
In a bit of irony, the reporter who had worked on a series called “Taking Action Against Crime” for Channel 3 stood before U.S. magistrate judge Tommy E. Miller in a Norfolk courtroom and pleaded guilty to filing a false tax return.
She was ordered to do 200 hours of community service.
After Bickford was placed on a year’s probation, and sentenced to perform the community service, she spent the summer and early fall of 2014 working those 200 hours with Operation Smile. The worldwide charity has performed 220,000 free surgeries in more than 60 countries on children with facial deformities such as cleft palates.
In February of this year, the dark clouds in her life began to part when Bickford gave birth to a son, William. He’s named for his father, William Guglielmo, who married Bickford on April 12, 2014 when he was a Navy lieutenant.
Bickford last fall launched Juliet Bickford Media LLC.
She is available to work as a media consultant, on-air talent and host of special events such as this month’s Fourth of July “Stars and Stripes Explosion” at the Oceanfront. It was her fourth time on the 20th Street stage.
“I am happy to devote most of my time to my family these days. However, if the opportunity presents itself, I would love to return to television in Hampton Roads,” said Bickford. She’s 37.
Here is the Juliet Bickford Q&A Veer Magazine exclusive.
Why did you so suddenly resign and thus end your six-year career at Channel 3?
I resigned from WTKR to focus on my personal life. I didn’t want my court case to get in the way of the great work being done at the station. The management including general manager Jeff Hoffman and news director Tina Luque were wonderfully supportive. I am happy to say that I continue to call them friends. (Hoffman recently became general manager of the CBS affiliate in Orlando, Fla.)
Let’s talk more about giving up that high profile job as both reporter and anchorwoman. Do you think the viewers miss you?
It was hard to leave them and hard to leave my job in news. I still hear from many of the viewers I had the privilege of getting to know over the years. I have been touched by their heartfelt messages and well wishes over the past year. I’m happy to know I had such an impact on those who invited me into their homes. It’s nice to know that so many of them would welcome me with open arms if I go back into TV news.
What events led up to your sentencing in federal court in May of 2014?
In January of 2014, I pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of making a false tax return. I purchased a hot tub for therapy with a prescription and wrote it off. I paid for the hot tub on my parents’ credit card and then incorrectly claimed it as a deduction on my tax return. It was a mistake. I take responsibility for it and have rectified it by filing corrected tax returns and paying all taxes and fines.
(NOTE: Published reports say that the IRS investigators found the $13,500 deduction for the hot tub and related expenses for 2011 to be a higher than justified health care deduction).
How did you spend your 200 hours in community service?
It was a wonderful opportunity to help in Operation Smile’s public relations and marketing department. It is a special place. In the past, I had seen stories and read articles about what the children’s charity does. But it wasn’t until I met the people who make the organization run did I fully realize the incredible scope of what they are doing.
Would you elaborate, please?
The teams of medical volunteers and the staff do so much more than restore children’s smiles with free surgery. They give these kids a new chance at life. Many of the children around the world who suffer with cleft lip or cleft palate do not live normal lives, do not attend school. I feel fortunate to have had a chance to experience what makes Operation Smile so remarkable. I would like to thank Dr. Bill Magee and his wife, Kathleen, for the opportunity to work with their charity and become part of the Operation Smile team.
(NOTE: Founded in Norfolk in 1982, Operation Smile moved its headquarters to Virginia Beach in 2013).
You left WTKR before you were married. You had informed Channel 3 viewers about your engagement but they never heard the details of your nuptials. Will you fill them in?
I’m married to William “Bill” Guglielmo. We live in Hampton. Bill recently finished on active duty as a Navy lieutenant and is transitioning to the Navy reserves. He owns a defense contracting company in Hampton, where we are living. The company specializes in filling equipment needs in engineering and emergency services. We were married on April 12, 2014, at St. Mary Star of the Sea Church at Ft. Monroe. Our reception was at the Chamberlin overlooking Chesapeake Bay. We were blessed to be surrounded by our family and friends on that memorable day.
You traveled after the wedding. To where?
I spent a few weeks with Bill in Mississippi on the Gulf Coast. He was stationed in Gulfport at the time. It was a brief visit because soon after our wedding, Bill deployed to Bahrain. Right before he left we found out that we were expecting a baby.
Was your baby born when Dad was at sea?
Thankfully, Bill returned home from his seven-month deployment just in time for the birth of our son. In fact, he came home a few weeks earlier than I expected and surprised me at my baby shower.
Where was your son born?
With the help and support of the wonderful women of the Birth Matters Virginia group and my doula, Amara Minnis, I had a beautiful birth at the DePaul Medical Center in Norfolk. Little William is the most amazing blessing for me and Bill. I love being a mother, love being at home to care for our baby. There’s nothing like the pure joy if seeing his giant smile. (FYI, a doula is a birthing companion and a post-birth supporter).
Did your former colleagues at WTKR attend the wedding?
They were at our wedding. I couldn’t have imagined our special day without them. I can’t give enough thanks to my dear friends at the station for their love and friendship. There are days when I do miss being in the TV business. But more than anything, I miss spending every day with the people who made up my Channel 3 family. As crazy as it sounds I even miss those hectic 12-hour shifts during storm coverage.
We’d like to know more about the folks in the WTKR newsroom. Will you help us out there?
No one has a better sense of humor or a bigger heart than Barbara Ciara. No one can make me laugh until I cry like Blaine Stewart. And no one leads a newsroom dance party like Laila Muhammad. I should mention Kurt Williams’ generous spirit, Kristen Crowley’s friendly charm and Patrick Rockey’s quick wit and warm heart. Can you tell? I love those guys. We had such a great time together. We remain close. My former co-workers are my dearest friends.
(SIDE NOTE: While it must have been difficult to report on the woes of their popular former colleague, Ciara and others in the WTKR newsroom thoroughly covered Bickford “in the middle of this mess,” to quote Ciara. From WTKR and other sources, we learned that Bickford had dated and lived in the Fox Hill section of Hampton with a Canadian, Theodoros “Terry” Grontis, who federal prosecutors said was guilty of three counts of tax evasion while involved in an international conspiracy ring. He reportedly funneled more than $500,000 through one of Bickford’s bank accounts. Bickford, in a sit-down interview with Ciara after her sentencing, said, “I was completely fooled by him. You think you know this person. I felt very betrayed. I felt very sickened, absolutely sickened. I hate the fact that he and his business partners are involved with these terrible crimes. It makes me sick.”)
The Ciara interview was a gutsy thing to do. What compelled you to do it?
It was a great first opportunity to talk about what happened to me, an opportunity to answer questions since I wasn’t able to tell my story when it first broke in the media. I’m thankful that Barbara and WTKR gave me the chance to address the many questions the viewers may have had for me.
Let’s talk more about this Grontis dude. What was he like?
When we were dating, I thought he was a successful businessman. I would never have dreamed that he turned out to be a fraud. It was both terrifying and heartbreaking. If you had told me in 2011 that I would soon be in the middle of federal investigation, I would not have believed it possible. It was like my life had turned into a bad TV movie.
How come he had the use of your bank account?
We lived together while we dated. We decided to share finances. I thought that was the normal thing to do, to share an account when you live together, to share bills and things like that. I gave him access to my bank account so he could transfer money into our account and we could pay our shared bills. I didn’t know that I could get into any kind of trouble doing that.
When did your life with Grontis begin to unravel?
One fall day in 2011, I got a call from a federal prosecutor who said he wanted to ask me some questions. The day after that, Grontis, the man who at the time I loved and trusted, disappeared. I never saw Grontis again. In the weeks after he left, I continued to talk to federal prosecutors who revealed to me that he was not the businessman he portrayed himself to be to me, my family and friends. The investigators told me that he was suspected as being a key member of an international fraud scheme. I was in shock. I felt used and betrayed.
(NOTE: The feds contend that Grontis, now believed to be in Greece, was involved in a wire fraud and money laundering conspiracy in connection with his “asset location” business. Two fellow Canadians who took part in the business have since been sent to prison for five and a half years).
How does your filing a false tax return fit into all of this? How did you land on the IRS radar?
My error (on the return) was discovered as a result of the overall federal investigation. It was a separate matter from anything my ex-boyfriend was involved in. I take full responsibility for my tax error. I have corrected that error in filing a revised tax return and paid all the taxes and penalties. I had nothing to do with nor had any knowledge of Grontis’ fraudulent activities. (In a move that some may say is unfair, it’s been reported that the federal magistrate judge ordered Bickford to pay $10,000 in restitution to victims of Grontis’ fraud although she was never charged in the Grontis’ case).
You appeared to have weathered this rough spot in your life wonderfully well. What should we know about the Juliet Bickford of 2015?
I’m still the same positive, optimistic person you saw all those years on your TV. All I have to do is to look at my son’s sweet smile to know that I am so blessed. I have never been happier that I am today with my husband and son. The past year was truly the best one of my life. I believe that God has a way of looking out for us and I am happy for the blessings He has showered on me and my family.
Any final thoughts about the years since 2011?
As time moves forward, the events of the past (the court case and investigations) become smaller and smaller dots in my rear view mirror. I want to focus now on what the future holds for me, my family and friends and for my career.
This is the first of two columns devoted to catching up with men and women who once had a large presence in local TV and radio. Next month, I’ll report on former WTKR meteorologist Duane Harding and former Chopper 10 pilot John Massey among others.
Have a question or comment about local TV or radio? Contact Larry at firstname.lastname@example.org