Former Suffolk County Medical Examiner Dr. Michael Caplan took the stand...

Former Suffolk County Medical Examiner Dr. Michael Caplan took the stand in the trial of ex-NYPD Officer Michael Valva on Wednesday. Credit: James Carbone

Eight-year-old Thomas Valva’s autopsy revealed he died of hypothermia and also suffered damage to multiple organs due to prolonged stress, the former Suffolk County medical examiner testified Wednesday at the Riverhead murder trial of the boy’s father, ex-NYPD Officer Michael Valva. 

"In my opinion, the cause of Thomas Valva's death was hypothermia," Dr. Michael Caplan said from the witness stand Wednesday. 

The doctor said his ruling of hypothermia as the cause of Thomas' death was consistent with a person sleeping in a garage and then being taken outside in cold weather and sprayed with water, which prosecutors have alleged happened to Thomas at the hands of Valva on the morning of his Jan. 17, 2020, death.

The doctor said he also considered other facts, such as Thomas' 76.1 degrees body temperature taken at the hospital before he died. 

Dr. Michael Caplan, now a deputy coroner in Ohio, testified that Thomas' thymus gland – which produces white blood cells called T-cells that help build the immune system – was “profoundly shrunken" at the time of his death. Thomas’ thymus weighed nine grams at the autopsy, while the thymus of a healthy 8-year-old weighs 43 grams, he said. The organ is supposed to be "fleshy," he said, but Thomas' was "so thin," like a "wafer." 

Thomas’ kidneys were also inflamed, a condition that could have been caused by his urine "not being drained" from his body, Caplan said. Prosecutors have alleged both Thomas and Anthony were denied access to the bathroom and forced to wear pull-ups while living with Valva and Pollina. 

Thomas’ stomach lining also had five or six dark brown spots, clustered near the esophagus, that are indicators of short-term stress, Caplan said. Those spots, created by a combination of blood and gastric acid, are often caused by hypothermia or starvation, he said. 

The doctor added that Thomas' level of body fat was three millimeters, which is "on the lower side of what I'd expect to see" and as a result Thomas' "ability to retain heat would be limited." 

Caplan testified that he began Thomas' autopsy on the day of Thomas' death — with an external examination that revealed many scrapes and bruises. Under a microscope, Caplan said, the wounds to his face revealed masses of red blood cells, indicating "fresh" injuries.

 "Thomas Valva's head injuries did not contribute to his death," he said.

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

Presented with a photograph of a smiling Thomas, making a thumbs up sign with his right hand, Caplan said Thomas' hand appeared "a deep red to pink" in color and said it "certainly could be consistent with being exposed to a cold environment." 

Suffolk prosecutors have alleged that Thomas died after Valva and his ex-fiancee, Angela Pollina, forced the boy to sleep in the garage of their Center Moriches home in freezing weather and then sprayed him with cold water from an outside spigot.

Thomas allegedly “face-planted” on concrete that morning and was a “bloody [expletive] mess,” according to audio of Valva speaking that morning that prosecutors have presented during the trial.

Caplan, under questioning from prosecutor Kerriann Kelly, confirmed that he did not agree that Thomas' scrapes were from a single fall, but rather multiple impacts on a hard surface.

Valva had told police and emergency responders that Thomas fell on the driveway while running to the school bus, but prosecutors have contended that is a lie, and Thomas actually fell multiple times on concrete as he struggled against the effects of hypothermia. 

Valva's defense has argued Valva, while a terrible parent, loved his son and did not want him to die and is therefore not guilty of the murder charge.

Standing in front of the jury box Wednesday, Caplan displayed an autopsy photo of Thomas' face for the jury as he detailed the external injuries the boy suffered — scrapes and bruises on the midline and right side of his forehead, scrapes on the bridge, the folds and the tip of his nose as well as an abrasion inside of his mouth, a bruise inside his right cheek, bruising on his upper eyelid and on the inside of inside of his right cheek and on the mucus membrane on his lower jaw.

Caplan said it was possible that Thomas' injuries to his cheek and the mucus membrane over his lower jaw could be caused by a slap on Thomas' cheek and putting a hand over the child's mouth, respectively.

But asked on cross-examination by defense attorney Anthony La Pinta, Caplan agreed that it was "possible" that the injury could have been caused by breathing tubes inserted at the hospital.   

Caplan said Thomas, who he described as having brown hair cut in a “fade pattern,” hazel eyes with “long eyelashes,” was “thin” at the time of his death and weighed 64 pounds and stood at 4 feet two inches, putting him in the 70th percentile among children his age in terms of weight and the 50th percentile for height. His body mass index, or BMI, was in the 80th to 84th percentile, Caplan testified.

In July 2019, according to medical records Caplan received from a Valley Stream doctor who performed an annual physical evaluation on Thomas, he then stood at 50 inches and weighed 51 pounds.

La Pinta also drew the jury's attention to Caplan's autopsy findings that Thomas was "well developed" and "fairly nourished" as an alternative to testimony from Thomas and Anthony's teachers that they appeared "emaciated" and were always hungry at school. However, the doctor also pointed out that Thomas' ribs and right hip bones were prominent. 

"You didn't find that he was emaciated, right?" La Pinta asked. 

"That's correct," Caplan said. 

La Pinta also attempted to call attention to the level of medical care Thomas received the morning of his death. Asked about possible medical treatments for hypothermia, Caplan agreed a machine to oxygenate the blood can be used for hypothermia patients, as well as those in cardiac arrest. 

Thomas was in cardiac arrest when he arrived at the hospital the morning of his death, multiple medical officials have testified. The attending emergency room physician, Dr. Michael Volpe, testified earlier in the trial that the hospital didn't have such a machine that day.

The trial continues in Riverhead on Thursday.

Eight-year-old Thomas Valva’s autopsy revealed he died of hypothermia and also suffered damage to multiple organs due to prolonged stress, the former Suffolk County medical examiner testified Wednesday at the Riverhead murder trial of the boy’s father, ex-NYPD Officer Michael Valva. 

"In my opinion, the cause of Thomas Valva's death was hypothermia," Dr. Michael Caplan said from the witness stand Wednesday. 

The doctor said his ruling of hypothermia as the cause of Thomas' death was consistent with a person sleeping in a garage and then being taken outside in cold weather and sprayed with water, which prosecutors have alleged happened to Thomas at the hands of Valva on the morning of his Jan. 17, 2020, death.

The doctor said he also considered other facts, such as Thomas' 76.1 degrees body temperature taken at the hospital before he died. 

Dr. Michael Caplan, now a deputy coroner in Ohio, testified that Thomas' thymus gland – which produces white blood cells called T-cells that help build the immune system – was “profoundly shrunken" at the time of his death. Thomas’ thymus weighed nine grams at the autopsy, while the thymus of a healthy 8-year-old weighs 43 grams, he said. The organ is supposed to be "fleshy," he said, but Thomas' was "so thin," like a "wafer." 

Thomas’ kidneys were also inflamed, a condition that could have been caused by his urine "not being drained" from his body, Caplan said. Prosecutors have alleged both Thomas and Anthony were denied access to the bathroom and forced to wear pull-ups while living with Valva and Pollina. 

Thomas’ stomach lining also had five or six dark brown spots, clustered near the esophagus, that are indicators of short-term stress, Caplan said. Those spots, created by a combination of blood and gastric acid, are often caused by hypothermia or starvation, he said. 

The doctor added that Thomas' level of body fat was three millimeters, which is "on the lower side of what I'd expect to see" and as a result Thomas' "ability to retain heat would be limited." 

Caplan testified that he began Thomas' autopsy on the day of Thomas' death — with an external examination that revealed many scrapes and bruises. Under a microscope, Caplan said, the wounds to his face revealed masses of red blood cells, indicating "fresh" injuries.

 "Thomas Valva's head injuries did not contribute to his death," he said.

An undated photo of Thomas Valva.

An undated photo of Thomas Valva. Credit: Courtesy Justyna Zubko-Valva

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

Presented with a photograph of a smiling Thomas, making a thumbs up sign with his right hand, Caplan said Thomas' hand appeared "a deep red to pink" in color and said it "certainly could be consistent with being exposed to a cold environment." 

Suffolk prosecutors have alleged that Thomas died after Valva and his ex-fiancee, Angela Pollina, forced the boy to sleep in the garage of their Center Moriches home in freezing weather and then sprayed him with cold water from an outside spigot.

Thomas allegedly “face-planted” on concrete that morning and was a “bloody [expletive] mess,” according to audio of Valva speaking that morning that prosecutors have presented during the trial.

Caplan, under questioning from prosecutor Kerriann Kelly, confirmed that he did not agree that Thomas' scrapes were from a single fall, but rather multiple impacts on a hard surface.

Valva had told police and emergency responders that Thomas fell on the driveway while running to the school bus, but prosecutors have contended that is a lie, and Thomas actually fell multiple times on concrete as he struggled against the effects of hypothermia. 

Valva's defense has argued Valva, while a terrible parent, loved his son and did not want him to die and is therefore not guilty of the murder charge.

Michael Valva inside Suffolk County Court in Riverhead in September.

Michael Valva inside Suffolk County Court in Riverhead in September. Credit: James Carbone

Standing in front of the jury box Wednesday, Caplan displayed an autopsy photo of Thomas' face for the jury as he detailed the external injuries the boy suffered — scrapes and bruises on the midline and right side of his forehead, scrapes on the bridge, the folds and the tip of his nose as well as an abrasion inside of his mouth, a bruise inside his right cheek, bruising on his upper eyelid and on the inside of inside of his right cheek and on the mucus membrane on his lower jaw.

Caplan said it was possible that Thomas' injuries to his cheek and the mucus membrane over his lower jaw could be caused by a slap on Thomas' cheek and putting a hand over the child's mouth, respectively.

But asked on cross-examination by defense attorney Anthony La Pinta, Caplan agreed that it was "possible" that the injury could have been caused by breathing tubes inserted at the hospital.   

Caplan said Thomas, who he described as having brown hair cut in a “fade pattern,” hazel eyes with “long eyelashes,” was “thin” at the time of his death and weighed 64 pounds and stood at 4 feet two inches, putting him in the 70th percentile among children his age in terms of weight and the 50th percentile for height. His body mass index, or BMI, was in the 80th to 84th percentile, Caplan testified.

In July 2019, according to medical records Caplan received from a Valley Stream doctor who performed an annual physical evaluation on Thomas, he then stood at 50 inches and weighed 51 pounds.

La Pinta also drew the jury's attention to Caplan's autopsy findings that Thomas was "well developed" and "fairly nourished" as an alternative to testimony from Thomas and Anthony's teachers that they appeared "emaciated" and were always hungry at school. However, the doctor also pointed out that Thomas' ribs and right hip bones were prominent. 

"You didn't find that he was emaciated, right?" La Pinta asked. 

"That's correct," Caplan said. 

La Pinta also attempted to call attention to the level of medical care Thomas received the morning of his death. Asked about possible medical treatments for hypothermia, Caplan agreed a machine to oxygenate the blood can be used for hypothermia patients, as well as those in cardiac arrest. 

Thomas was in cardiac arrest when he arrived at the hospital the morning of his death, multiple medical officials have testified. The attending emergency room physician, Dr. Michael Volpe, testified earlier in the trial that the hospital didn't have such a machine that day.

The trial continues in Riverhead on Thursday.

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