Frustrated East Moriches Elementary School staffers, fearful that their reports to Child Protective Services detailing alleged abuse of Thomas Valva and his older brother Anthony were not being addressed, decided to flood the agency’s hotline to bring attention to the boys’ plight, the school’s principal testified Tuesday in the trial of ex-NYPD Officer Michael Valva.
Prosecutors have said 8-year-old Thomas died on Jan. 17, 2020, after his father, Michael Valva, and Valva's ex-fiancee, Angela Pollina, allegedly forced the boy to sleep in an uninsulated garage in 19-degree weather and then Valva sprayed the boy with cold water from an outside spigot.
Valva, 43, and Pollina, 45, have pleaded not guilty to second-degree murder and child endangerment charges in connection with Thomas' death and the alleged abuse of Anthony, then 10. Pollina will be tried separately.
Principal Edward Schneyer told the jurors on Tuesday that Thomas and Anthony were “happy, healthy, clean” when they enrolled at East Moriches Elementary in September 2017. But the boys’ conditions began to deteriorate that school year, Schneyer testified at Valva's trial in Suffolk County Court in Riverhead. He told jurors that the boys appeared "extremely emaciated" by the spring. Anthony, Schneyer said, was especially gaunt.
WHAT TO KNOW
- Center Moriches Elementary School Principal Edward Schneyer testified the school flooded the Child Protective Services' hotline to bring attention to the alleged abuse of Thomas and Anthony Valva.
- Schneyer told the jurors that Thomas and Anthony were “happy, healthy, clean” when they enrolled in September 2017. Schneyer testified the boys' condition appeared to deteriorate by the end of the school year, with the boys appearing "extremely emaciated."
- Defense attorney John LoTurco asked the principal if he called the police in reference to any suspected claimed abuse from the Valva household. He witness answered no.
Administrators filed repeated reports to CPS detailing the boys’ decline, Schneyer testified. Anthony had arrived at school in urine-soaked clothing while Thomas was at times bruised and had lacerations on his face, he said. Both children were chronically hungry and cold, the witness said. The boys' condition would improve after the reports were filed, but those improvements were only temporary, he said.
"We felt like 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,” Schneyer testified.
Valva, according to Schneyer, told him that the boys had “all of a sudden lost control of their bowels and were wearing pull-ups.” The combination of the boys being hungry and cold caused them to be “emotional” and at times throw temper tantrums, Schneyer said. Otherwise, they were good students, with Thomas being a “rule follower” and appearing very bright, Schneyer said.
Schneyer said Valva was combative when school officials raised concerns about the boys, saying his family was being harassed by school officials and threatening to sue. He also told the principal he didn't want school officials to weigh his sons and submitted a doctor's letter saying the boys had healthy weights.
Schneyer was visibly shaken and choked up when asked about the day Thomas died. A volunteer firefighter, he had received a notice informing him that a child on Bittersweet Lane in Center Moriches had suffered a cardiac arrest. “I knew that address because I had to put it in the CPS reports,” he said.
Lead Valva defense attorney John LoTurco, in a brief interview during Tuesday's trial lunch break, attempted to downplay the principal's testimony, saying the prosecution was not calling CPS caseworkers to corroborate his testimony.
"Why is there no CPS caseworkers going to be called at this trial? Ninety-nine percent of the CPS reports came back unfounded," LoTurco said. "Why is the CPS workers not being called to explain their rationale? … There's a big void in the narrative in the prosecution's case."
Asked if he planned to call any CPS workers, LoTurco said, "potentially we might call them."
On Feb. 26, 2019, one day after Schneyer said Anthony arrived to school in urine-soaked clothes, Valva asked officials if his eldest son could be placed in a residential facility for children with severe disabilities, he said.
School officials rejected the request because Anthony did not belong in a residential facility, Schneyer testified.
Valva later called the school and said Anthony would be absent “because he hates school,” Schneyer said.
The following day, March 7, 2019, the principal said Anthony began to exhibit disturbing new behavior, kicking, screaming and refusing to get off the school bus after it arrived at school.
The principal told jurors the behavior appeared coached.
Schneyer said Anthony told him at one point: "I'm supposed to kick and scream. You have to call mom and dad."
Anthony later said that Valva and Pollina promised an outing to Chuck E. Cheese if he kicked, screamed and refused to attend school, Schneyer testified.
"He mentioned they were going to Chuck E. Cheese if he misbehaved," said Schneyer.
Later, on cross-examination, LoTurco asked the principal: "Did you ever call the police in reference to any suspected claimed abuse from the Valva household?"
Schneyer said he had not, and offered: "Actually, there definitely was police involvement."
The witness was dismissed after spending several hours on the witness stand.
Assistant District Attorney Laura Newcombe, during a brief break of Schneyer's testimony, asked state Supreme Court Justice William Condon to allow the prosecution to question him about an incident in the fall of 2019, when prosecutors allege that Valva attended an open house at the elementary school wearing a white tank top and jeans and "openly displayed" his service weapon "on his hip."
Newcombe said Schneyer "approached the defendant and contacted the police over this incident as well."
Schneyer's testimony about the incident would inform the jury to his "intimidated" state of mind regarding his dealings with Valva, Newcombe told the judge.
Condon, however, agreed with LoTurco's objection that the testimony would be "inflammatory" and did not allow Schneyer to relay the story to the jury.
The trial continues in Riverhead on Wednesday.