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Suffolk DA Timothy Sini plans to convene special grand jury in Thomas Valva death

A picture of Thomas Valva at St. John

A picture of Thomas Valva at St. John the Evangelist R.C. Church in Center Moriches on January 27. Credit: James Carbone

Suffolk County District Attorney Timothy Sini said Monday he plans to empanel a special grand jury to investigate the death of 8-year-old Thomas Valva, the Center Moriches boy who died from hypothermia after authorities said he was forced to sleep in a freezing garage. 

"It is clear that it is appropriate and in the public’s interest to convene a Special Grand Jury to conduct a thorough investigation of all the circumstances surrounding the death of Thomas Valva, which will have the legal ability to issue a Special Grand Jury Report at the culmination of that investigation," Sini said in a statement. "I have instructed my team to begin the process of working with the Court to convene such a grand jury." 

Thomas, a third-grader at East Moriches Elementary School on the autism spectrum, died Jan. 17 from hypothermia, after authorities said he was forced by his NYPD officer father Michael Valva and his father's fiancee, Angela Pollina, to sleep in an unheated garage as temperatures outside dipped to 19 degrees. 

Valva, 40, and Pollina, 42, were indicted last month on second degree murder and endangering the welfare of a child, charges related to Thomas' death and the alleged abuse of his older brother Anthony, 10. Both have pleaded not guilty. 

Sini, in his statement, said he assembled a team of "expert prosecutors in the area of child abuse and child fatalities to investigate the circumstances surrounding the death of Thomas" after the boy died. Sini said his office's investigation has already included the review of a large volume of records and interviews of numerous witnesses.

The special grand jury would have wide latitude to investigate the conditions leading up to the boy's death and, depending on its findings, could issue recommendations to reforms to the system on a broad number of issues, including the role of Child Protective Services, the judiciary and law enforcement in child abuse and custody cases.

Already, a pair of county-based committees investigating Thomas' death have proposed legislative reforms, including the escalation of scrutiny on CPS cases that have received three or more reports from a school nurse, psychologist or social worker. The New York State Office of Children and Family Services and state court system are also reviewing the case. 

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, citing that legislation known as the CPS Transformation Act, said in a statement Monday evening: " I applaud District Attorney Tim Sini for convening a special grand jury and I am confident this action will be a catalyst to implement additional, necessary reforms.” 

Sini first publicly raised the idea  of empaneling a special grand jury -- a tool used in the past to investigate and offer possible fixes to illegal dumping on Long Island and a 2015 fatal limo crash on the East End -- to examine the case after Valva and Pollina were indicted.

"I am making a pledge to the public," Sini said then. "We will get to the bottom of what happened here and we will be transparent at the appropriate time."

Newsday reported last month that its own review of thousands of pages of documents in the case showed that systems intended to protect children ultimately ignored multiple warnings of Thomas' abuse, including those from Thomas' mother, Justyna Zubko-Valva, who documented the alleged abuse of her sons. 

Valva's court-appointed attorney John LoTurco said last week that Thomas' death was an accident -- not murder. LoTurco also said there was an electric space heater turned on in the garage the night before Thomas' death and the door to the garage was unlocked, therefore Thomas had access to the inside of the home. 

But LoTurco could not explain why Valva placed Thomas and his brother in a garage to begin with, saying the case has "psychological complexities." LoTurco declined to say whether part of his defense would be possible mental health problems, but said his client would undergo a psychological examination. 

Pollina's attorney, Matthew Tuohy, has sought to shift any blame from his client to Valva. He said Pollina was "warned not to interfere with him, and the household situation," and added that she had to "navigate around" Valva's "emotions, temper and behavior." 

But Suffolk homicide prosecutor Kerriann Kelly has described in court the state's video and audio evidence, culled from an extensive surveillance system inside the home, showing Thomas shivering in the garage and laying on bare concrete and without a blanket or pillow before he died. Kelly has also detailed text messages between Valva and Pollina in which they mocked Thomas for being cold and described the pair denying Thomas access to the bathroom and starving and beating him. 

When Thomas arrived at the hospital on the morning he died, his body temperature was just 76.1 degrees, Kelly said. 

Thomas had been living with his father and two brothers -- Anthony and Andrew 6, -- and Pollina and her three daughters from two previous relationships, since September 2017, when Valva's estranged wife, Zubko-Valva, lost custody of the boys during a contentious divorce battle in Nassau County.  She could not be reached for comment immediately Monday.

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