Angela Pollina found guilty of murder in Thomas Valva's death
Angela Pollina was convicted Friday of killing 8-year-old Thomas Valva by exiling him to the unheated garage of their Center Moriches home on a 19-degree night and failing to help the autistic child as he froze to death in what prosecutors described as a final act of cruelty after she tortured and starved Thomas and his brother.
Pollina, 45, cried as the jury of eight men and four women returned a guilty verdict on all charges. The Franklin Square native and longtime medical biller, who has three daughters, faces up to 25 years to life when she’s sentenced April 11.
Pollina attorney Matthew Tuohy said he was “very upset” with the verdict as he made his way to his car surrounded by court officers.
“She’s devastated,” Tuohy said of his client, adding that she’ll appeal. “She’s gonna continue to fight.”
WHAT TO KNOW
- Angela Pollina of Center Moriches was convicted Friday of second-degree murder in the Jan. 17, 2020 hypothermia death of 8-year-old Thomas Valva, her ex-fiance's son.
- She was also guilty of four counts of endangering the welfare of a child for the abuse of Thomas and his older brother, Anthony, who was 10 at the time Thomas died.
- The Franklin Square native and longtime medical biller who has three daughters from other relationships, faces up to 25 years to life when she’s sentenced April 11.
In a social media post shortly after the verdict, Thomas’ mother, Justyna Zubko-Valva, thanked the jury and wrote: “We are absolutely certain that through very powerful intercession of our little angel Tommy … our tremendous fight for truth and justice in both criminal trials was successful.”
Suffolk County District Attorney Ray Tierney said he was satisfied with the verdict in the case, which highlighted failures by Suffolk County's Child Protective Services to respond appropriately to repeated accusations of abuse of Thomas and his older brother, Anthony, at the hands of Pollina and the boys' father, her then-fiance Michael Valva, an ex-NYPD cop.
“We will go forward with the sentencing for the defendant in this case and we will continue to look back and try to learn lessons from what happened in this case and to takes steps to make sure that something like this never, ever again happens in Suffolk County,” he said.
Tierney said he’s “going to use the power of my office” to examine the systems that failed Thomas and Anthony that could include subpoenas and a grand jury investigation.
“We’re going to utilize that power of investigations,” said Tierney, who declined to confirm whether that process has begun.
After about four hours total of deliberations, the jury sent a note at 3:05 p.m. saying it had come to a unanimous verdict on charges of second-degree murder and four counts of endangering the welfare of a child for the abuse of Thomas and Anthony, who was 10 at the time Thomas died.
Juror No. 9 Angela Ehlich, a mother of two teenagers, said afterward that Pollina’s conduct toward the boys was “depraved.”
“How she treated those children, how she exiled them and how she did not give them just the basics that they needed, and would watch them on camera as they suffered — as a mother, I don’t think that was anything that most of us could contend with,” Ehlich said.
“This chapter is closed here, but there needs to be a greater call to action for the safety nets that failed these children, that has to come out of this,” said Ehlich, of Middle Island.
Pollina, who conceded her acts were “evil” when she testified at the trial in her own defense, failed to convince the jury that she was merely a bystander on Jan. 17, 2020 — the day Thomas died from hypothermia.
Pollina had argued it was Valva who was in charge that morning and killed Thomas by hosing him off with cold water outside.
Valva, who turns 44 on Sunday, was convicted last year of the same murder and child endangerment charges and is serving 25 years to life in an upstate prison just south of the Canadian border.
While Valva’s trial lasted some six weeks and featured more than 30 witnesses, Pollina’s jury heard a condensed case of 21 witnesses in under two weeks. But the proceeding featured much of the same material: videos from a surveillance system inside he family home, that Pollina had installed to keep an almost-constant watch on the children, showing Thomas and Anthony shivering on the bare concrete floor.
The boys, who were very thin because, according to prosecutors, Valva and Pollina starved them for much of the two years before Thomas died, slept on the garage floor without a mattress, blankets or pillows.
The boys’ teachers testified that Thomas, who was a third-grader at East Moriches Elementary School at the time of his death, cried for food and ate crumbs off the floor of their school in the two years before he died. Teachers, administrators and a school psychologist testified they flooded CPS with complaints detailing the boys' abuse to no avail.
While Pollina admitted she was “evil” for forcing Thomas and Anthony to sleep in the garage when she testified in her own defense — a rare move for a murder defendant — she said she had no involvement in putting them in the garage the night before Thomas died.
“Yes, I was wrong; yes, I was evil,” Pollina said from the witness stand. “I’m not justifying it. I’m not saying it was right. It was evil. … I put them in the garage. Yes, I did.”
But lead prosecutor Kerriann Kelly, during her closing, said Pollina’s responsibility to care for the boys as their mother figure after their father got custody of them and they ceased visitation with their biological mother, Zubko-Valva, didn’t take a hiatus because their father was home.
Kelly dismissed much of her testimony, saying it was full of “mistruths, misinformation to cover up for herself.”
About two weeks before Thomas died, Pollina, who prosecutors argued was the impetus for the boys’ being banished to the garage “for the sin of their autism,” texted Valva that he had made the garage “too comfortable” by giving the boys books and other amenities. She wanted everything gone.
Casting her as the wicked stepmother, prosecutors said Pollina and Valva’s attempt at presenting their blended family as a sort of modern Brady Bunch — with his three sons from a previous marriage and her three daughters from two previous relationships — was a facade.
Pollina called Thomas and Anthony “dirty, stinky, filthy,” said Kelly, and “she locked them up like caged animals” because she didn’t want foul odors in her house. She even banned them from sitting on the couch.
But the boys only had incontinence issues after moving in with Pollina, who refused to let them use the bathroom inside the house, forced them to relieve themselves in the backyard and put them in Pull-Ups, prosecutors said.
Pollina’s “relentless” text messages to Valva, complaining about the boys, “are the reason the boys were in the garage,” Kelly argued.
Dr. Michael Caplan, Suffolk County’s then-chief medical examiner, testified that Thomas had organ damage that indicated prolonged stress, including a chronic kidney infection, which may have been caused by a lack of bathroom access.
In a piece of evidence newly revealed during Pollina’s trial, she berated Andrew, who was 6 at the time and excited that morning to lead the Pledge of Allegiance at his school. And Andrew was the boy that she liked best, because he didn’t have autism, Kelly said.
The jury also heard from a piano teacher who said she frequently heard Pollina yelling at the boys, but Tuohy dismissed that testimony as the prosecution’s attempt to “vilify” his client.
Yes, she was “mean” to the boys, Tuohy acknowledged. The defense attorney even repeatedly referred to his client as the expletive for a female dog, but said that wasn’t a basis to convict her of murder.
Tuohy's trial strategy saw him choosing to not question most witnesses, including the lead detective on the case, Sgt. Norberto Flores, and having his client take the stand, where she underwent a prolonged cross-examination.
Although Pollina deleted video from the home’s surveillance system — which showed Pollina used to monitor the children and frequently sent clips of the boys’ suffering to Valva — the video from inside the room used by the family dog labeled “Bella’s room” captured much of what occurred the morning Thomas died.
One of Pollina’s daughters was heard on the video asking Pollina why Thomas couldn’t walk. She answered: “Because he’s hypothermic. Hypothermic means you’re freezing. Washing yourself in cold water when it’s freezing outside, you get hypothermic.”
Prosecutor James Scahill said in his opening statement to the jury that Pollina’s words showed she was “fully aware” of Thomas’ perilous condition that morning, but she did “nothing” to save him, showing a depraved indifference to his life.
Pollina, while testifying on direct testimony, said she was “shocked” when she saw Valva hosing off a naked Thomas outside from a spigot.
“That day, to me, he took a punishment to a whole other level,” Pollina told the jury.
Prosecutors have argued that when Valva called Pollina in the garage that morning, calling her “Ang,” Thomas was already unconscious or possibly dead and the pair concocted a story to tell authorities.
But Pollina claimed Thomas was “alert” and “sitting on the garage floor” crying when she entered. Pollina said she sat on the floor and took Thomas on her lap.
“I kind of kept consoling him,” Pollina testified. “I wiped his tears.”
Pollina cried as she recounted touching Thomas’ scraped forehead and nose — injuries that prosecutors said Pollina and Valva used as a ruse for investigators when they falsely claimed Thomas fell on the driveway that morning while running for the school bus. Surveillance video from the next door neighbor’s house showed that Thomas was never on the driveway that morning.
The prosecutor dismissed the notion that Pollina, who complained about what she perceived as the boys’ lack of cleanliness, would have held Thomas after he soiled himself and urinated on the garage floor, as she testified.
”Do you really believe she went into the garage and held that child on her lap?” Kelly asked. “That’s absurd.”
Pollina said she noticed Thomas was cold, but she didn’t think he was in any immediate danger. She, Valva and Thomas walked from the garage to the kitchen and then Valva picked up his son and carried him downstairs to the basement bathroom, Pollina said.
Tyrene Rodriguez, who was cleaning the Pollina-Valva house that morning, testified as a defense witness at Valva’s trial that she briefly looked over her shoulder while cleaning the first-floor bathroom and saw Thomas walking with Valva and Pollina and heard whimpering and crying. But prosecutor Laura Newcombe confronted Rodriguez with the “Bella’s video” audio that didn’t indicate any crying after she arrived. Rodriguez had also previously told police that Valva was “cradling” Thomas.
Tuohy emphasized it was Valva who put the boys in the garage the night they died and hosed Thomas off outside while naked and then put him in a warm bath. Tuohy argued Pollina was not acting with depraved indifference to Thomas' life because she had tried to save Thomas by bringing blankets and a heater — acts that Kelly dismissed as part of a cover-up.
The jury saw a video from that morning showing a crying Pollina go into one of her daughter’s rooms and retrieve a small, black space heater — before Valva called 911 at 9:41 a.m. — a time period in which Pollina had testified that she didn’t perceive Thomas to be in danger.
Pollina claimed it was when she returned to the basement and Valva was talking his son out of the bathtub — she said she had warned him against that bath — that Thomas fell unconscious.
But first responders who testified at trial said Thomas was blue, had no pulse, was in cardiac arrest and appeared to be already dead when they arrived to the home. Thomas was pronounced dead at 10:28 a.m. at a hospital. His temperature was 76.1 degrees.
In the days after Thomas died, Pollina and Valva lost custody of their other children. The pair remained living together at their Bittersweet Lane home, although Pollina testified that she no longer wanted to be in a relationship with Valva.
But when Suffolk County police arrested them at the house about a week after Thomas died, Kelly, the prosecutor, noted they were warm in their bed together.
With Grant Parpan