Michael Valva forced his son Thomas to sleep in an unheated garage as the temperature dipped to 19 degrees, and then hosed down the 8-year-old boy with freezing water from an outdoor spigot before Thomas died from hypothermia, a Suffolk prosecutor told jurors Wednesday during opening statements in Valva’s murder trial in Riverhead.
Valva then lied to the Suffolk police, paramedics and emergency room staff who treated Thomas after the former NYPD officer told them the boy lost consciousness after falling on his face that morning, Suffolk Assistant District Attorney Laura Newcombe said.
"This defendant, this father consciously omitted information to the people who were trying to save his son’s life," resulting in emergency room doctors and nurses attempting to treat Thomas for a head injury rather than hypothermia, Newcombe said.
Valva, 43, and his former fiancee and co-defendant Angela Pollina, 45, have pleaded not guilty to charges of second-degree murder and four counts of endangering the welfare of a child in the Jan. 17, 2020, death of Thomas and the alleged abuse of Anthony, then 10 years old.
Newcombe told the jurors there are four numbers they needed to remember: Thomas’ age when he died (8), the number of hours he spent in the garage (16) before he died, the 19-degree temperature on the night he died, and 76.1, Thomas’ body temperature when he was taken to Long Island Community Hospital, more than 20 degrees lower than normal.
Thomas and Anthony suffered through years of abuse and neglect at the hands of Valva before Thomas died from hypothermia, Newcombe told the jury. The boy died after Valva and Pollina forced the brothers, who were both on the autism spectrum but were high-functioning, to sleep in the unheated garage in their home in Center Moriches because the boys struggled with incontinence, infuriating Valva and Pollina, the prosecutor said.
“I will beat them until they bleed,” Newcombe said Valva wrote to his then-fiancee in a text-message exchange. "It is the only thing that works.”
The boys were denied food and access to the bathroom and sometimes arrived to school wearing soiled clothing, the prosecutor said. They were often so hungry, Newcombe said, that they stole food from other students or picked it out of the trash, she said.
“They were observed at school literally eating crumbs off the floor,” Newcombe told the jury.
Valva defense attorney Anthony La Pinta used his opening statement to pin the blame on Pollina.
Doctors told Valva the incontinence stemmed from behavioral issues, La Pinta said during his 40-minute opening statement. But Pollina resented the boys for soiling furniture and bedding and told Valva that he was “too easy on them,” La Pinta said.
Pollina wanted Valva and the boys to move out of their home at 11 Bittersweet Lane, but Valva — who had been engaged in a difficult and expensive divorce and custody battle with the boy’s mother, Justyna Zubko-Valva — did not have the resources to find a home of his own. The couple clashed frequently, La Pinta said, and Pollina accused Valva of being too lenient with the boys.
“Eleven Bittersweet Lane was becoming more bitter by the day,” La Pinta said.
Thomas and Anthony had been toilet trained but regressed after Valva moved them and their younger brother, Andrew, in with Pollina and her three daughters, Newcome said. Valva and Pollina forced the boys to wear pull-ups and withheld food when the children soiled themselves, the prosecutor said.
The boys were forced to sleep on dog pee pads on the floor of the room they shared with Andrew, and then in a tent in the backyard, Newcombe said. When the weather turned cold, Newcombe said, Valva and Pollina forced the boys to sleep in the unheated garage.
Video from the home’s Nest security system, Newcombe told the jurors, will show that the boys were forced to do homework, eat and sleep on the garage floor.
Thomas soiled himself on the morning of Jan. 17, 2020, after spending 16 hours in the garage while temperatures plunged to 19 degrees, the prosecutor said. Valva ordered the boy to strip down in the backyard, where he cleaned Thomas with freezing water from an outdoor spigot, Newcombe said.
La Pinta, meanwhile, said Valva put his son in a warm bath to clean him up after he soiled himself, and that caused a “biological reaction” which resulted in cardiac arrest.
La Pinta said the former NYPD officer was overwhelmed both financially and emotionally in the months before Thomas’ death. Valva’s own father had recently died and the rest of his immediate family lived in Arizona. Without help, he was forced to stay in the relationship with Pollina.
“He tried his best to salvage the relationship,” La Pinta said.
Valva was not comfortable with confrontation — his NYPD supervisors chastised him for not writing enough tickets and making enough arrests — and he felt “intimidated” by Pollina and her demands for harsh punishment for Thomas and Anthony, La Pinta said.
Valva supplied the boys with mattresses, blankets, books and a TV when Pollina banished them to the garage, La Pinta said. But those amenities were removed when the boys again soiled themselves, and Pollina forbid Valva from returning them.
“You are making it too comfortable for them,” Pollina allegedly told Valva, according to La Pinta. “Let them be uncomfortable. That will teach them to control themselves.”
Valva, LaPinta told the jury, often lost his temper with the boys but never anticipated that Thomas would die.
“This was not a senseless act of evil,” La Pinta told the jury. “You need to think with your heads and not with your hearts.”
After opening statements, the prosecution called its first witness, Suffolk County Police Det. Cassidy Lessard, who testified that she responded to the Valva home on the morning Thomas died and performed CPR on the boy.
Jurors are expected to hear testimony from other Suffolk County police officers, homicide detectives, other emergency responders, medical professionals and Thomas’ schoolteachers.
Michael Valva and Pollina were originally slated to go on trial at the same time with each defendant having their own jury. But the judge severed the case and Pollina will be tried separately.
The trial continues Thursday in Suffolk County Court in Riverhead.