Michael Valva was found guilty Friday of second-degree murder in the death of his 8-year-old son, Thomas, and four counts of endangering the welfare of a child. Jurors came back with the verdict on the same day they began deliberations. NewsdayTV’s Cecilia Dowd reports. Credit: Newsday/Howard Schnapp; News 12 Long Island; File Footage; Photo Credit: Justyna Zubko-Valva, Suffolk County District Attorney's Office

Ex-NYPD Officer Michael Valva was convicted Friday of murdering his 8-year-old son, Thomas, after a Riverhead jury determined he forced the child to sleep in a freezing garage, failed to summon timely medical help and then lied to the first responders and doctors who tried in vain to save the boy.

The jury of eight women and four men sitting in Suffolk County Court found Valva, 43, of Center Moriches, guilty on the top charge of second-degree murder, finding that the one-time transit cop showed depraved indifference to whether his son — a slight boy with hazel eyes who loved school and who witnesses described as loving, intelligent, sweet and a stickler for the rules — lived or died.

Valva was also convicted of four counts of endangering the welfare of a child for starving and beating Thomas, who died from hypothermia, and his older brother Anthony, then 10 years old.

Valva appeared emotionless as he stood facing the jury forewoman as she announced "guilty" for each charge.

WHAT TO KNOW

  • Former NYPD Officer Michael Valva was convicted Friday evening of second-degree murder in the hypothermia death of his son, Thomas, 8, who died after Valva forced him and his older brother, Anthony, to sleep in a freezing garage when the temperature plunged to 19 degrees in January 2020.
  • Valva now faces a potential maximum sentence of 25 years to life in prison on the murder charge when sentenced by Supreme Court Justice William Condon on Dec. 8.
  • His former fiancee, Angela Pollina, is facing the same charges and is scheduled to go on trial in early 2023.

"This guilty verdict will not bring back 8-year-old Thomas, who suffered immense cruelty at the hands of his father, the same person who was entrusted to protect, provide and unconditionally love Thomas and his older brother Anthony," said Suffolk County District Attorney Ray Tierney. "This case is heartbreaking, and it has been one of the toughest child abuse trials for our prosecutors, court personnel and jurors. No child should ever have to endure such evil acts." 

Tierney added: "Michael Valva subjected his sons to horrific abuse, neglect and cruelty. He will now pay for cutting short the life of a young, innocent, defenseless boy who had a lifetime ahead of him." 

The jury rejected the defense's argument that Thomas' death was a tragic accident and declined to convict Valva on the lesser included charges of second-degree manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide. 

Valva now faces a potential maximum sentence of up to 25 years to life in prison on the murder charge when sentenced by Supreme Court Justice William Condon, who presided over the trial that began Sept. 7 with jury selection. Condon set sentencing for Dec. 8.

The jury began deliberating just after 11 a.m. Friday and rendered its verdict just after 7 p.m. The jury listened to the 911 call Valva made on the morning Thomas died, as well as a video that captured audio from inside the home that morning. 

"I think they accepted the prosecution’s argument. There was significant depravity based upon our own client’s words," said lead Valva defense attorney John LoTurco. "There was a significant amount of evidence against our client so we understand the verdict. We’re disappointed in the verdict, but we understand it." 

Asked about his client's reaction to the verdict, LoTurco said: “I apologized to Michael for not coming through for him personally and he actually said he understood." 

LoTurco added: "We preserved a lot of appellate issues in the case and we’ll continue to fight on." 

The guilty verdict came nearly three years after Thomas' Jan. 17, 2020, death and on the first day of jury deliberations, which followed more than a month of trial testimony from some three dozen witnesses.

The trial was marked by weeks of testimony detailing allegations of child abuse at the Bittersweet Lane home that prosecutors labeled a "house of horrors." A crowd of spectators regularly filled the courtroom.

The prosecution — lead prosecutor Kerriann Kelly, Laura Newcombe and James Scahill — displayed a series of graphic videos that provided the jury a firsthand look at the way Thomas and Anthony lived.

Jurors watched the abuse of the boys, both on the autism spectrum but described by prosecutors as high-functioning, play out in a series of video clips taken from an extensive video surveillance system inside the Valva home — dramatic and emotional evidence that resulted in one juror asking for tissues.

Thomas and Anthony lying on the bare concrete floor of the garage, shivering visibly. On one night, according to trial testimony, Thomas took a dirty towel to use as a blanket. The boys sleeping in a tent on the backyard patio.

The Valva defense team, composed of LoTurco, Anthony La Pinta and Sabato Caponi, conceded Valva was guilty of the child endangerment charges. In his closing arguments, LoTurco also told the jury to convict Valva of criminally negligent homicide, the lowest-level charge in connection with Thomas’ death.

LoTurco urged the panel to evaluate the charges and evidence with “fairness, with composure, with courage,” despite what he said was “the heartbreaking emotional outrage and disgust” and “tsunami of emotions and sympathy” that any human being would experience while hearing the evidence.

“You should have great sympathy for Thomas Valva and Anthony Valva, for the atrocious maltreatment they went through in this case,” LoTurco said, adding: “You should feel angry with Michael Valva and Angela Pollina … we’re not asking you not to do that as human beings. But as jurors, that’s a different story.”

The prosecution was trying to unfairly “demonize” Valva, LoTurco said. The top indictment count of second-degree murder, LoTurco argued, was “an overzealous charge, an overreach.”

The abuse began, according to prosecutors, in 2017 after Valva got custody of his three sons — Anthony, Thomas and the youngest Andrew — and they moved in with Valva's then-fiancee, Pollina, 45, at her three-story home on Bittersweet Lane.

The boys’ teachers testified tearfully to the abuse the elementary school students endured — Thomas and Anthony came to school bruised, complained of being cold and so starving that at times they ate crumbs from the floor, took food scraps from the garbage and stole food from their classmates.

A picture of Thomas Valva at St. John the Evangelist...

A picture of Thomas Valva at St. John the Evangelist Roman Catholic Church in Center Moriches on Jan. 27, 2020. Credit: James Carbone

Thomas also told one of his teachers, according to trial testimony, that he wasn’t fed breakfast for not calling Pollina “mommy” or saying hello to her.

The boys were frequently cold, their hands and cheeks red, trial testimony showed. Anthony refused to take off his coat in class, even during warmer months, and attempted to skip going outside for recess, some of his teachers testified.

Kelly, in her summation, displayed a photo of a smiling Thomas, raising his exceptionally red hand in a thumbs-up gesture. The photo was taken by one of his teachers the day before he died.

“The coldness that was pervasive in Thomas' life is symbolic in that photo … a child that smiled despite the cruelness that waited for him at home," she said.

The teachers’ testimony established, Kelly said in her closing arguments, that Valva was "neither a guardian nor a protector, not even a champion" of his sons.

While calling teaching "an honorable profession," LoTurco argued that the teachers were "judging Michael" in hindsight and questioned if they had "collectively" gotten together to "frame a certain narrative."

"Do they have regret?" LoTurco asked in his summation. "Are they coming in here with an agenda?"

The teachers, along with the school principal and a school psychologist, filed multiple reports describing the abuse to Child Protective Services, they testified. They became so frustrated with the seeming inaction by CPS caseworkers, none of whom were called to testify, that they began “flooding” a CPS reporting line.

Pollina has also pleaded not guilty to second-degree murder and child endangerment charges and is expected to be tried in the coming months. She has blamed Valva for Thomas' death; prosecutors have said the pair acted in concert.

Pollina, according to Valva's defense attorneys, hated Thomas and Anthony because of their autism and demanded they be punished harshly when they had toilet accidents — which prosecutors contended only occurred because they were denied access to the bathroom in their own home.

Despite Valva protesting the boys' sleeping in the garage on occasion, he never broke up with her, the prosecution argued.

"The defendant was obsessed with Angela Pollina so much so that he put his children under her … to the detriment of his children," Kelly said during closings. "He did not want that relationship to end."

That was only because he couldn’t afford to move out because he was struggling financially while in a contentious divorce and custody battle with the boys’ mother, Justyna Zubko-Valva, the defense said. However, the prosecution argued that what Pollina had said to Valva in texts was true: that he only wanted custody of the boys to upset Zubko-Valva and avoid paying her child support.

The boys initially slept in a tent in the backyard, but then moved inside the garage, where they slept on a crib mattress on the floor, prosecutors said. But when that mattress was soiled, it was taken away, too, and the boys were forced to sleep on the bare concrete of the garage.

That crib mattress, prosecutors alleged, was found by investigators partially burned and in black trash bags outside the garage on the day Valva and Pollina were arrested.

Valva at times resisted some of Pollina's demands and on occasion brought the boys back in the house, according to text messages between the pair displayed at trial.

Angelina Pollina inside court in Riverhead on Feb. 6, 2020.



	 

Angelina Pollina inside court in Riverhead on Feb. 6, 2020.

Credit: James Carbone

His attorneys also argued Valva was often not home — and instead was working overnight shifts at the NYPD — when Pollina, whom they described as a domineering figure, meted out the boys’ punishments.

Edward Concilio, a cousin by marriage of Pollina who was staying part time in the basement of the Valva and Pollina home when Thomas died, testified that he knew the boys slept in the garage but didn’t confront Pollina. Concilio was having a sexual affair with Pollina, according to the defense.

But, prosecutors argued, Valva was home the night before Thomas died and he knowingly allowed the boy to remain in the garage when the low temperature was just 19 degrees.

Thomas and Anthony spent 16 hours straight in the garage of their Center Moriches home leading up to Thomas' death, prosecutors said.

Valva then ordered Thomas, who had soiled himself, outside, where he was hosed off with cold water from a spigot. The boy fell to the ground several times as he struggled to stand while battling the effects of hypothermia, prosecutors have said.

"Wake up! Are you alive?" Valva screamed repeatedly, according to audio of the 8:50 a.m. encounter played for the jury. Prosecutors have said slapping sounds heard on the audio appeared to be Valva striking his son's face.

"If he's concerned and worried and loved his child and thinks he had a head trauma, why is he slapping him?" Kelly asked the jury during her summation.

While video from much of the morning of Thomas’ death was deleted by Pollina, testimony showed, a series of clips that captured audio of Valva and Pollina from a combination pantry and laundry room was used by prosecutors to bolster their case.

Thomas was “catatonic," Valva said, but he continued to berate him even after Pollina urged him to tone it down, worried that neighbors could hear.

“I’m [expletive] suffocating him, is what I’m doing,” Valva told his then-fiancee.

Valva’s attorneys have said their client put Thomas in a warm bath in the basement bathroom. He went upstairs to find Pollina and after he returned about five minutes later, found Thomas unconscious and "slumped” over in the tub.

Valva told police he called 911, according to then-lead homicide detective Sgt. Norberto Flores, and began administering CPR to his son, who was then on a couch. But it wasn’t until about a minute and a half into the 911 call that Valva began CPR, prosecutors alleged, and some of the first responders testified that Thomas appeared lifeless when they arrived at the home.

Valva told police and emergency responders that Thomas had gone unconscious after he fell on the driveway while running to the school bus, which both the prosecution and defense agreed was untrue.

Kelly urged the jury to dismiss the testimony of Dr. Ken Zafren, an Alaska-based doctor and hypothermia expert, who testified that Thomas went into cardiac arrest because Valva put him in a warm bath, which contributed to his hypothermia.

Thomas was already suffering from severe to profound hypothermia that morning, Kelly said.

Valva lied about giving Thomas a bath that morning, Kelly said, pointing out that there was no water in the tub and any residual moisture was from Concilio showering earlier that morning.

Four days after Thomas' death, Valva didn’t feel any remorse or regret over the loss of his son, Kelly said in her summation. He was, instead, focused on Pollina.

He texted his then-fiancee, who had on several occasions mocked and ridiculed his sons in a series of text messages displayed for the jury.

“I understand if you want to be alone but ignoring me is not the answer right now,” Valva wrote. “I need you just as much as you need me."

He added: “I feel 30 times worse since you left. Please come home soon. I love you."

With Michael O'Keeffe and Bart Jones

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