“He said it to the person who should be able to do something about it,” said Thomas Valva’s school psychologist, who testified that Thomas told a CPS investigator that he and his brother slept in the garage. NewsdayTV’s Cecilia Dowd reports. Credit: Newsday/Howard Schnapp; File Footage; Courtesy: Justyna Zubko-Valva

Thomas Valva confided in his school psychologist and a Child Protective Services investigator that he and his older brother had been sleeping in the garage of their Center Moriches home several months before the 8-year-old boy died following a night on the garage's bare concrete floor in subfreezing weather, the East Moriches school psychologist testified Wednesday at the murder trial of the boy’s father and ex-NYPD officer Michael Valva. 

"Thomas said he and Anthony slept in the garage," said school psychologist Renee Emin, describing the May 14, 2019, conversation during a CPS visit at the school. "He said they stayed in the garage because they have accidents.

"He said it to the person who should be able to do something about it." 

Undated photograph of Thomas Valva.

Undated photograph of Thomas Valva. Credit: Justyna Zubko-Valva

Valva is on trial on charges of second-degree murder and child endangerment in the death of his son, Thomas, and the alleged abuse of his eldest son, Anthony, then 10. He has pleaded not guilty. 

WHAT TO KNOW

  • A school psychologist testified that Thomas told her and a CPS investigator that he and his older brother slept in the garage months before Thomas died of hypothermia.
  • During weekly counseling sessions with Thomas and Anthony, the Valva boys said they were hungry, the witness testified.
  • Another witness who testified he saw the alleged abuse and neglect acknowledged to a defense attorney that he did not contact CPS or Suffolk police to alert them.

Prosecutors have said Thomas died on Jan. 17, 2020, from hypothermia after Valva and his ex-fiancee, Angela Pollina, allegedly forced the boys, who were on the autism spectrum, to sleep in the unheated garage when the temperature was just 19 degrees, and Valva then hosed the boy off with freezing cold water from an outside spigot. Pollina has also pleaded not guilty and is set to be tried at a later date. 

The school psychologist, who had held weekly counseling sessions with both boys, said Thomas was "very calm" and "matter of fact" as he offered the information and added that he had to go to the bathroom outside and hose himself off afterward. 

Emin said caseworker Melissa Estrada notified her supervisor, but remarked to the psychologist: "I've been in the garage. It's not possible to fit a mattress." 

Emin, in testimony that largely echoed prior witness Edward Schneyer, the school principal, said the boys had a promising start at the school in September 2017, but later cried for food at the school, were often cold and were sometimes bruised. The boys didn’t exhibit bathroom issues initially, but later were sent to school in pull-ups, she said.

Psychologist Renee Emin arrives to testify in Michael Valva's murder trial...

Psychologist Renee Emin arrives to testify in Michael Valva's murder trial in Suffolk County Court in Riverhead on Wednesday. Credit: LiHotShots / Thomas J. Lambui

“Their hands were always red,” Emin said from the stand of Thomas and Anthony. “I can’t even describe it enough to give you a vivid picture. … It’s an image that haunts all of us.”

The brothers were initially "playful" and "happy," Emin said, but soon problems emerged. The boys looked "frail," their skin appeared gray and they had black bags under their eyes, she said.

"They looked emaciated," she told jurors.

During weekly counseling sessions with Thomas and Anthony, the boys said they were hungry, she said.

"Thomas throughout would cry and repeatedly state he was hungry, to the point it was difficult to continue our counseling session," said Emin, who said she began bringing snacks for both brothers.

She also testified that Thomas once "winced" when he sat down and told her, the school nurse and a caseworker from Child Protective Services who came to the school to investigate that his bottom hurt.

The nurse examined Thomas, she said, and took a photo that showed bruising.

"His bottom had a handprint," Emin said, adding that when she asked Thomas who had inflicted the injury "he said his dad."

Emin also testified that three weeks prior to Thomas' disclosure about sleeping in the garage, Thomas came to school with a fresh haircut that exposed a "large bump" on his head as well as a spot that appeared bald "to the root." 

"He said his father threw a backpack with a flower pot at him," Emin said. 

In the weeks before Thomas died, their conditions had seemingly deteriorated, she said. Anthony was hunched over and "looked like he needed a cane and a walker," the witness told jurors. Thomas, who loved gym class, opted out because he was limping and said he was in pain, Emin testified.

"He was crying," said Emin, who recalled that the last time she saw Anthony was at Thomas' wake. 
Earlier on Wednesday, the husband of Pollina’s first cousin, Edward Concilio, testified that he became aware that Anthony and Thomas had been forced to sleep and eat in the garage while he was staying rent-free at the Valva-Pollina home in 2019.

Edward Concilio testified that he became aware that Anthony and...

Edward Concilio testified that he became aware that Anthony and Thomas had been forced to sleep and eat in the garage while he was staying at the Valva-Pollina home. Credit: LiHotShots / Thomas J. Lambui

Concilio, a Florida resident who worked for Southwest Airlines, said he flew to Long Island to work at Long Island MacArthur Airport and stayed three or four days a week at the Bittersweet Lane home between November 2018 and January 2020.

Concilio, 56, said on Dec. 19, 2019, just before he was to return to Florida, Concilio gave Christmas gifts to Pollina’s three daughters and Valva’s youngest son, Andrew. He testified that when he told Pollina he had gifts for Anthony and Thomas as well, she brought him to the garage, where he saw the boys sitting down amid two tents, sleeping bags and a thin mattress. 

Valva, he said, erupted in anger when a teacher sent an email to him and Pollina that said Thomas had stolen a jar of M & M's in the classroom.

“If he wants to be a perp, I’m gonna treat him like a perp,” Valva exploded, according to Concilio, who said Valva planned to handcuff the boy.

“You're not gonna put handcuffs on him, he's a kid,” Concilio testified he told Valva, who then retreated.

Michael Valva is on trial on a second-degree murder charge in the...

Michael Valva is on trial on a second-degree murder charge in the death of his 8-year-old son, Thomas Valva. Credit: James Carbone

Under cross-examination by Valva’s attorney Anthony La Pinta, Concilio affirmed a key narrative to their defense. 

Concilio told La Pinta that he did not confront Pollina about the alleged abuse and neglect because Pollina had a "hair-trigger temper" and would focus her wrath on him.

Concilio also acknowledged that he did not contact CPS or Suffolk police about the alleged neglect and abuse.

“You avoided that situation of the boys in the garage because you didn’t want to deal with Angela?” La Pinta inquired.

“Correct,” Concilio replied.

 Concilio testified that Pollina was the dominant personality in the home who would become furious when Anthony or Thomas had toilet issues. Valva’s defense team has repeatedly sought to pin the blame for Thomas’ death on Pollina. Valva had financial struggles due to his lengthy and expensive custody battle with the boys’ mother, Justyna Zubko-Valva, and felt he had no choice but to go along with Pollina’s demands, the defense has argued.

Valva, who was working as a library security guard in addition to this then full-time job as an NYPD officer, told Concilio about his financial problems and the ongoing tension with Pollina. Concilio testified he suggested Valva and the boys move out.

“Didn’t he say he had nowhere to go?” La Pinta asked Concilio.

“Yes,” Concilio responded. 

The trial continues in Riverhead Thursday.

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