After spending a freezing night locked in the garage, 8-year-old, Thomas Valva died of hypothermia on January 17th 0f 2020. Despite being remembered by those at his school as a “tender, loving boy who made tremendous gains” during his time as a student, this sweet child’s life was intentionally ended by the two people meant to take care of him.
On the surface, this seems like a straightforward case of child abuse and murder, but below the surface is a story that is more sinister and shocking than I had initially anticipated. This episode will be longer than most because of all the details that are publicly available. It tends to be rare to have much background information when it comes to cases involving children, but with this case, I just won’t be able to fit everything in.
Let’s get into it.
In 2017, Michael Valva, Thomas’ father and NYPD transit officer, had recently been
awarded custody of his three sons, Anthony, Thomas, and Andrew in his divorce from Justyna Zubko-Valva. Also involved in this story and subsequent murder trial is Michael’s ex-fiance, Angela Pollina.
Long Island News 12 reported on January 19th, 2020 that police “were called to a home on Bittersweet Lane in Center Moriches around 9:40 a.m. Friday for a report of a child who fell in a driveway. Police say the 8-year-old boy was taken to Long Island Community Hospital, where he was pronounced dead.” Thomas died at the hospital from organ failure with his cause of death documented as hypothermia.
I would like to pause here and say that some of the articles that I came across initially report that Thomas was a healthy young boy who seemed well cared for and who tragically died in what seemed to be a “shocking” accident.
According to the Bronx News 12, “Thomas Valva was in the 84th percentile for his body mass index at the time of his death for children his age and was described by Dr. Caplan as a well-developed child.” During the trial, Dr. Melian Khwaja testified on behalf of Michael’s defense about how during Thomas’ visit to her urgent care facility in May of 2019 that “at the time of the exam all of his vitals were recorded as normal.”
However, in other stories, like the one published by the Independent UK, one of Thomas’s teachers tearfully testified in court hearings that “she recalled giving snacks to the boy, who “was so emaciated” that he would “eat crumbs off the school floor,” and hoping that (Angela) Ms. Pollina wouldn’t find out and retaliate against the children. The school’s principal also testified “that the children often arrived at school with scratches on their faces, their cheeks red and cold to the touch, and covered in feces and urine.”
So was little Thomas a “well-developed child” or was he “emaciated” and begging for food? This was the first major bit of inconsistent reporting I came across.
‘Where does Thomas’ mother, Justyna Zubko-Valva fit into this story?, you may ask.
After her divorce from Michael, Justyna spent the next several years fighting the custody decision. In an ugly battle that would continue to rage, Justyna claimed that “she lost full custody of the children two years ago because of false allegations”, reports the Long Island News 12. In addition to actively documenting and reporting the physical signs of abuse on the children and pleading with CPS to award her custody, The Long Island News 12 reveals that Justyna “kept telling the judge – ‘If you’re not going to remove the children, they are going to die under his care and custody”. Justyna went on to say that “There was evidence, hard evidence. Reports filed. Children were telling me, too, about the abuse”, but nothing was ever done to protect her children.
Since the trial started in late September of 2022, Michael Valva and his fiancée Angela Pollina have been charged with second-degree murder and child endangerment charges, and since then, more has come out that reveals the true conditions that the children and Thomas lived in.
In February of 2020, in an article titled, Prosecutors outline ‘house of horrors’ abuse that led to Thomas Valva’s death, the Long Island News 12 reports how “Prosecutors outlined what they say was a long history of physical and psychological abuse at the hands of Michael Valva and Pollina”. The abuse revealed in court includes, all three boys being denied food to such a degree that “the boys would go to school and eat crumbs off tables and searched for scraps in garbage cans and under the bleachers.”
The Long Island News 12 also reports that “Police say” Michael and Angela “repeatedly subjected Thomas and his older brother to cruel forms of punishment, including food deprivation and exposure to extreme cold. The family’s former nanny says the two boys, both having autism, were often mistreated.” In fact, the NY Post reported that in a letter written by the school psychologist, his “Biggest concern is that Mr. Valva and his fiancée Angela do not understand the depth of Anthony and Thomas’s disabilities”.
It is important to note that Angela Pollina was just as actively involved in the abuse perpetrated against the children as Michael was. In fact, it is reported that Angela sent videos of Thomas, freezing and laying on the cold garage floor on the night of his death. Temperatures during the night in the garage that led to Thomas’ death were frigid.
The temperature outside was 19 degrees while Thomas was inhumanely locked in the garage, nearly naked, with his sweatpants down around his knees and no blankets in sight. Suffolk County District Attorney Tim Sini said Michael Valva and Pollina “watched him die” and “showed not only any regard for his life, but they showed callousness that I certainly have never seen in my time as a prosecutor or as a police commissioner.”
As more autopsy information was revealed, Bronx News 12 reports that “The jury was also shown photos taken during the autopsy of bruises to Thomas Valva’s head, including his forehead, nose, eyelid and upper lip.” Dr. Caplan, who performed the autopsy testified that the injuries must have been recent and that those injuries “could not be sustained from one fall”. In addition, Thomas’ stomach “had brown spotting in it” which is common in hypothermia cases.
According to New Jersy News 12, during the trial when the defense tried to sell the jury on the idea that Michael did not intend for Thomas to die and tried to save his life, the prosecution presented compelling, yet heartbreaking audio from the Valva’s home security footage showing that Michael “could be heard” “screaming and hitting his son as he was dying, saying, “Are you alive? Are you alive? Are you alive?” Each question was followed by the sound of a slap.” Lead prosecutor, Kerriann Kelly “says that is not someone who cared if the child lived.”
The prosecution also revealed how “the boys were also forced to stay in their rooms without access to the bathroom. If they soiled themselves, they were allegedly made to sleep in the cold garage as punishment – without a mattress, sheets, pillows, or blankets.” In addition to making Thomas sleep outside in the garage, prosecutors stated that Michael sprayed Thomas down with the hose outside, despite the freezing temperatures.
School officials have testified in court that “they “flooded” the CPS lines with reports of abuse.” The Independent UK, article goes on to say that “It is unclear why the children were not removed from Mr. Valva’s care after the many alleged reports but Ms. Zubko-Valva filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the school and CPS workers claiming that her desperate calls for help and their children’s suffering were blatantly ignored.”
While I completely understand Justyna’s wrongful death lawsuit against CPS, I get the impression that the school did more than is usually required of them on this front, and if what the school board claims are true, I am sure they have handed over plenty of evidence that would corroborate how often they reached out to CPS.
I’m going to venture a guess here and say that Michael’s status as an NYPD officer might have played a role in why this wasn’t fully investigated, but let me also be clear here that CPS time and time again fails child after child who desperately needs help, which more often than not, ends with a child being murdered.
The Independent UK article goes on to report that another teacher testified that “Thomas was hungry so often that she decided to keep journal entries every time that he asked for food, according to the New York Post. She often gave him snacks and sent him to the cafeteria, but would later face disapproval from Ms. Pollina, who allegedly said Thomas was “manipulative” and a “liar.” “He was so skinny,” said Ms. Cagliano as she held back tears. “I could feel the bones in his body.” In one instance, Ms. Cagliano recalled before the court, she gave Thomas a pear and cracker after he soiled his pants in 2018, which unleashed Ms. Pollina’s rage.“She was not happy with me,” Ms. Cagliano said.”
Justyna “gave News 12 documents that she said are from the East Moriches school district. The paperwork alleges Thomas Valva and his older brother Anthony were crying in school because they were not allowed to eat at home.” “Her paperwork also says Thomas Valva once came to school with a black eye, another time with a bruise on his forehead, because the father threw a book bag at his head.” There’s a report my older son was locked up in the garage with no heat. He came to school with frostbite on his hands and feet”, Justyna says.
Now to return to my thinly veiled suggestion that Michael Valva’s NYPD status played a part in the lack of response from CPS. More school officials testified that “Thomas was “extremely emaciated” and his older brother Anthony, then 10, would attend school soiled in urine, and one school official stated that “We felt as a team we were not getting the results we wanted to see”. We decided as a team we were going to just flood the CPS hotline with calls.” The principal said that the reports led to accusations from Mr. Valva that school officials were harassing his family.”
And, let’s make a note here that even though “Michael Valva was later suspended without pay by the NYPD” it does not mean that this case was investigated in a completely above-board manner.
In fact, Justyna posted to social media that:
And before we go judging Justyna as being hysterical or letting her pain put crazy thoughts in her head, the NY Post seems to corroborate the claims of tampering saying that Michael “ Valva put the boy’s body in a warm bath in order to raise his body temperature. Medics rushed the boy to Long Island Community Hospital and when he arrived there his body temperature was just 76 degrees, according to Hart”.
On the first day of the Criminal Trial Proceedings in The People vs Michael Valva, Justyna posted this to social media: