Wayne Hipp didn’t know Thomas Valva, but he sat in the back pew of a church on Center Moriches’ Main Street at a vigil Jan. 28, sobbing as Pastor Sharon Pizzo described the 8-year-old boy as a "sacrificial lamb" whose death saved the lives of his two brothers.
Ray Castillo, road captain for Knights on Bikes of the Deer Park-based Knights of Columbus Council No. 4428, hadn’t heard of the third-grader either, until recently. But he was among the hundreds who packed Mangano Family Funeral Home in Deer Park last Wednesday to pay their last respects to a boy whose tragic death touched their hearts.
And three local women — Florence Dixon, Sherry Kretsch and Rosanne Yackel — may have only seen Thomas in passing in Center Moriches, a South Shore community of 8,400 people where Thomas lived with five other children. But the women organized vigils and a blue-ribbon campaign to let the community know it had lost a child from what prosecutors say was murder at the hands of his father.
Before and after the three vigils, wake and funeral for Thomas, word of the boy's death spread on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and even across living rooms an ocean away. Strangers have turned out by the hundreds at events honoring Thomas, who was left overnight in the family's unheated garage when temperatures outside dropped to 19 degrees, according to police. He died from hypothermia, officials said.
Thomas' father, Michael Valva, 40, an NYPD transit officer, and his fiancee, Angela Pollina, 42, have been indicted on charges of second-degree murder and endangering the welfare of a child. Both are being held without bail. Through their attorney, they have pleaded not guilty to the criminal charges and also have denied allegations by Suffolk County's Department of Social Services which claimed the two abused the six children in their custody.
Pollina's three girls and Valva's three boys, who have been turned over to their other parents, lived together in the Bittersweet Lane home. The death of Thomas in the home's garage has tapped into a wellspring of sympathy while generating community activism.
“It’s pure evil, pure evil,” said Dixon, who lives in the same development where Thomas stayed with his family. “It goes straight to your heart. There’s been nights that I haven’t been able to sleep.”
A four-panel collage created by Yackel consisting of Thomas' picture and a collection of images of blue ribbons have been shared more than 17,000 times on Facebook and liked more than 4,500 times on Instagram, Yackel said. She said the senders have posted from as far away as Costa Rica, Paraguay and Brazil, as well as U.S. states including Illinois, Pennsylvania, Florida, South Carolina and California.
Tagan Lee, a Los Angeles-based publicist, said she learned details of Thomas’ case on Facebook and felt horrified and angry despite living 3,000 miles away from Center Moriches.
“I think for me personally what was so special about the case was the nature in which he was killed and how inhumane it was,” she said. “That was probably the kicker for me. . . . I cherish children and think they are so beautiful. It was heartbreaking, absolutely heartbreaking. . . . It was a slow, torturous and painful death for a kid who didn’t deserve it.”
Back on Long Island, a candlelight vigil organized by Dixon at Kaler’s Pond in Center Moriches on Jan. 26 drew hundreds, including Justyna Zubko-Valva, Thomas’ mother. It was one of many creative, grassroots expressions of support for Thomas and his family, using blue as a symbol of child abuse prevention.
Along Main Street in Center Moriches, trees and lampposts are adorned with blue ribbons. Storefronts and homes glow under a warm blue light. Dairy Queen ice cream cones are topped with royal blue sprinkles. Mailboxes, school buses and lapels in Center Moriches and beyond sport blue ribbons.
Yackel and Kretsch’s ribbon-making plan is designed to generate $1,000 for each of the children who lived with Valva and Pollina.
“It’s a horrible tragedy and it should never have happened,” Yackel said, adding a quotation she heard at Thomas’ funeral Thursday, “He was a little boy, but he has turned into a giant.”
Yackel explained that she chose royal blue as the color for the ribbon campaign without knowing the same symbol is used in the national awareness campaign for child abuse and for autism. Thomas, who attended East Moriches Elementary School, was on the autism spectrum, according to his mother and officials.
Pizzo said the people coming to the events have been searching for a way to heal themselves of the pain of the loss of a child whom they wish they could have helped.
“I believe people flocked to a pond that night in the cold weather just to hold on to one another for healing and for their grief,” she said after holding a vigil that Hipp attended at Center Moriches United Methodist Church. “There is so much unrest I don’t think people know what to do with their feelings."
Pizzo said the cruelty in the case has motivated people to do or say something.
“I think the atrocity of it, the fact that this is such a quiet community and it happened in our backyard,” she said, speculating on why Thomas’ story has galvanized so many.
“I don’t know this family. I’m just touched by the story,” said Errol Andrews of Freeport, who attended the wake at Mangano Family Funeral Home. “Who wouldn’t be? He’s an 8-year-old boy, he’s almost a baby.
"I have a 17-year-old daughter. I find this to be the kind of thing that makes you wonder: What is wrong with human beings?"
Yackel said children in the community are curious about the ribbons in their neighborhoods.
“Kids are asking why’s everybody wearing blue, a lot of children are asking why he died and parents are actually having real conversations with them about child abuse and opening the conversation,” Yackel said. “It’s a conversation that’s so heavy on people’s hearts."
Hipp, a 60-year-old native of Center Moriches who returned six months ago and participated in the vigil at Pizzo’s church, was visibly moved by the ceremony featuring singing and prayer in the sanctuary.
“It’s just hard not to be angry,” Hipp said.
With Michael O'Keeffe