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Records: At least 33 calls made to police from Valva family homes

Keith Scott, director of education for The Safe

Keith Scott, director of education for The Safe Center LI in Bethpage, offers some insight on why Thomas Valva wasn't removed from his father's custody. Credit: Newsday / John Paraskevas; James Carbone

Police on Long Island responded to more than 30 calls over four years from the estranged parents of Thomas Valva, the 8-year-old Center Moriches boy who died after he was forced to sleep in a subfreezing garage, records show.

The 33 calls to 911, between 2015 and 2019 to the Suffolk and Nassau county police departments, ranged from child abuse allegations to disputes over visitation issues, records show. These calls occurred during a time period in which Suffolk prosecutors now say the boy was being beaten, starved and kept in frigid temperatures as punishment, according to the records obtained by Newsday. Thomas' father, suspended NYPD transit officer Michael Valva, and his fiancee, Angela Pollina, have been charged in the boy's death.

Suffolk and Nassau police responded to 911 calls to either Thomas’ parents marital home in Valley Stream or the Center Moriches house where Valva and Pollina lived after Valva separated from his wife, Justyna Zubko-Valva, in 2015, records show.

Zubko-Valva was met with hostile treatment by responding officers in Suffolk, she said in documents to internal affairs and the police, alleging she was frequently yelled at, presented with reports riddled with false statements, denied the ability to file written reports and even once was threatened by a Suffolk police officer. And when she made formal complaints to Suffolk's internal affairs against responding officers and their supervisors — alleging they were siding with her husband because he was a police officer — she said she was ignored.

“Did my complaint get swiped under the rug because my husband is NYPD police officer and Suffolk County Police Department is under his enormous influence???” Zubko-Valva wrote in a Jan. 10, 2018, email to the department’s Internal Affairs Bureau.

Suffolk police said they are investigating all of the department's interactions with the family but that its officers are trained to investigate all complaints "without bias."

Newsday obtained and reviewed thousands of pages of documents in Thomas' case, including police reports and court transcripts in both counties, Child Protective Services reports from several caseworkers and assessments from court-appointed lawyers as well as the East Moriches school district.

The documents show systems intended to protect children ultimately ignored multiple warnings, including those from Zubko-Valva, who painstakingly documented the alleged abuse of her sons. 

Valva and Zubko-Valva, who had three sons — Thomas, Anthony, 10, and Andrew, 6 — were locked in a bitter divorce and custody battle, beginning in late 2015 until Thomas’ death on Jan. 17.

Zubko-Valva lost custody of her sons, who went to live with their father in September 2017 after she failed to follow court directives,  court documents show, and had not seen them for two years leading up to Thomas’ death.  The mother pleaded continuously to various authorities — including police, Child Protective Services and courts in Nassau and Suffolk counties — that her sons were being abused by Valva and Pollina and their lives were in danger. Yet the boys continued to live with their father.

Valva, 40, and Pollina, 42, have pleaded not guilty to second-degree murder and child endangerment charges in the killing of Thomas, who was a third grader at East Moriches Elementary School and on the autism spectrum. Both are being held without bail. 

Authorities have said Thomas was forced to sleep in the unheated garage of the Center Moriches home and starved as punishment. Thomas died of hypothermia, authorities said. 

Valva's newly court-appointed defense attorney, John LoTurco, said this week that an electric space heater was turned on in the garage the night before Thomas died. LoTurco said his client is "emotionally distraught" at what he called a "nightmarish accidental death." 

Zubko-Valva, a correction officer in New York City assigned to Rikers Island, frequently called the police on her estranged husband, complaining he was not complying with her court-ordered visitation and that the children were being abused. He, too, called police on her. 

NYPD probes incidents

The NYPD opened an investigation in 2019 after Michael Valva, a 15-year department member, filed a complaint against Zubko-Valva over an alleged incident that occurred between the two on March 13, 2019, in Suffolk County, according to written correspondence between the department and Zubko-Valva. The allegations and circumstances of the alleged incident were never disclosed to Zubko-Valva, according to the documents. It’s unclear why the NYPD would investigate an incident that allegedly occurred in Suffolk.

The NYPD's Transit Bureau Investigations headed the probe, during the time when Valva worked in transit. The complaint, as of August, was called a "pending criminal investigation" by the department.

During that investigation, Zubko-Valva alleged to an NYPD sergeant that the children were abused by both Valva and Pollina and provided the NYPD with multiple reports from school officials that were made to the state CPS hotline, which resulted in the NYPD opening a separate Internal Affairs probe into Valva. The investigation ultimately deemed the abuse allegations "unfounded,” the documents said.

The NYPD did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Wieslaw J. Walawender, a family friend and adviser to Zubko-Valva, called the NYPD’s investigation into Zubko-Valva a “scare tactic” and “something to use against her in the divorce battle.”

“They are accusing her, telling her they are investigating her but not telling her what they are investigating,” said Walawender, who has known Zubko-Valva’s family for several decades, going back to their native Poland. “That sounds worse than a banana republic.”

Police dismiss allegations

Valva, who was suspended without pay shortly before his Jan. 24 arrest, spent most of his career in transit. Zubko-Valva began working as a New York City correction officer in the years since the pair separated.

In an emailed complaint to Suffolk’s Internal Affairs, Zubko-Valva described trying to file a report at Suffolk’s Fifth Precinct on Jan. 15, 2018, alleging Thomas was beaten by his father, alleging the boy had “bruises, coagulated blood, black and blues and dark red spots on his buttocks,” but being met with resistance.

“As soon as PO [Laurie Ann] McManus heard that Michael Valva is NYPD police officer, then she did not want to listen to my whole testimony,” Zubko-Valva wrote. “She started to change my testimony in order to protect Michael Valva because he is a police officer.”

Zubko-Valva wrote that the officer dismissed the seriousness of the alleged beating and told her “you are allowed to spank your children if you want to.”

Zubko-Valva then spoke to her supervisor, Sgt. William Krause. “I told him that my son is autistic and nobody is allowed to hit him to cause physical injuries to his body because that is abuse. He claimed that I am wrong and that it is OK to hit the child, even with special needs,” she wrote.

In a letter to Zubko-Valva later that year, Deputy Insp. John Cahill, executive officer at Suffolk’s Fifth Precinct, said McManus and Krause were "exonerated" and added that their actions were "legal, proper and within department guidelines."

Suffolk police officials did not respond to Zubko-Valva's specific allegations presented in a Newsday inquiry but in a written statement said it was investigating the family's interactions with police.

"The death of Thomas Valva is unconscionable and the Suffolk County Police Department sympathizes with Justina Zubko-Valva’s loss. The Department’s Internal Affairs Bureau is currently reviewing all interactions and reports regarding this case. Our officers are trained to investigate each case without bias and on its own merit. Due to the ongoing criminal and internal investigations currently being conducted, it would be inappropriate to comment further."

Suffolk Police Commissioner Geraldine Hart, during a news conference on the day Valva and Pollina were arrested by homicide detectives, said the department had received “calls for service,” without specifying a number, to the Center Moriches home that “involved the custody arrangement of the family.”

The department later said Zubko-Valva had called 911 seven times since 2017 — six calls related to visitation and another a welfare check call. During the welfare check call, in May 2019, Zubko-Valva said she had not seen the children in 16 months and asked police to verify whether the children were still living in their Center Moriches home, police said.

"No one was home when police responded, but the officer checked with a neighbor who indicated no prior problems were observed at the residence and the individuals were possibly visiting family," police said in the statement. 

In 2018, Zubko-Valva made a domestic report at a precinct, police said, without specifying that allegation. Three internal affairs investigations were conducted in 2018 in response to complaints Zubko-Valva filed, police said. Noting the probes are "confidential," the department did not provide its findings.

Meanwhile, Valva, according to Suffolk police, called 911 12 times in 2017, with two of the calls related to visitation. Three of those calls were related to "other individuals reporting him to CPS" and eight of the calls were unrelated to the case, police said. He also made a report at a precinct in 2018 to document CPS being called on him, police said. 

The department added: "Every call to 911 made by Zubko-Valva and Valva were responded to and documented. As per the department’s Rules and Procedures, when appropriate, the proper referrals were made to NYPD, NYC Department of Correction and Child Protective Services."

Mother keeps the pressure on law enforcement

Zubko-Valva, in addition to writing to U.S. Attorney General William Barr seeking help in her case, also wrote to President Donald Trump and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and filed complaints with the U.S. attorney's office against judges and attorneys in the case in her divorce and family court cases.

Zubko-Valva also filed complaints about alleged police misconduct with the Suffolk district attorney's office in December 2018, in which she  said Suffolk police "are unlawfully hiding the criminal actions of Michael Valva and Angela Pollina because Michael Valva is police officer who has close relationship with Suffolk County Police."

A Suffolk prosecutor forwarded her complaint to the police department's Internal Affairs, which Zubko-Valva objected to.

She also filed a complaint with the Nassau district attorney's office that same month but received a letter, in which her name was misspelled, explaining that her allegations would not be prosecuted due to a lack of evidence.

Nassau police have said they responded to 21 calls to the Zubko-Valva Valley Stream home, with 11 of the calls made by Michael Valva and the other 10 by Zubko-Valva.

Most of the calls — 16 — were associated with “visitation disputes and were referred to family court,” said Det. Lt. Richard LeBrun, a Nassau police spokesman. And in 2016, Nassau police’s Special Victims Squad, along with CPS, investigated a sexual abuse allegation, which netted “no evidence to support this allegation,” LeBrun said.

Zubko-Valva has alleged that two of her sons were sexually abused by their father. In a July 2019 letter to Barr, she said Nassau’s Second Precinct “did not conduct ANY investigation” into the sex abuse allegations in 2016. She said detectives didn’t test evidence.

“Whatever medical evidence that could lead to uncovering the truth, were probably destroyed because Michael Valva is police officer who is above the law,” she wrote.

On Dec. 30, 2015 — the same day Valva filed for divorce — Zubko-Valva called Nassau police claiming the children had not "eaten all day" while with their father, according to a CPS document.

LeBrun said police deemed the complaint "unfounded" and said police saw the children returning home with their father who "had [a] McDonalds bag filled with food in his hands." 

LeBrun added that Nassau police notified the NYPD of all the department’s interactions with Valva, as required.

“The Nassau County Police Department stands by our recent statement that we provided and are confident in the fact that all allegations were thoroughly investigated," LeBrun said. "Since this is an ongoing homicide investigation, we cannot provide further details." 

Cops were 'angry and annoyed,' mother writes

On Dec. 17, 2017 — three months after Nassau State Supreme Court Justice Hope Schwartz Zimmerman granted custody of the boys to Valva — Zubko-Valva called Suffolk police at 9:14 a.m. complaining Valva refused to hand over the children for their scheduled visit.

The mother claimed the Suffolk officers responded, but “were angry and annoyed when I told them the report has false information and needs to be corrected.” The officers ultimately allowed her to write her own account, but she said they were “extremely angry that I wrote my own truthful statements regarding this incident.”

She said the sergeant on the scene “threatened me with calling my job and reporting me to Internal Bureau Affair, even though he is responsible to write truthful and impartial police report.”

About two weeks later, on New Year's Eve in 2017, Zubko-Valva called 911 to complain the children were not ready at their 9 a.m. pickup time. She said she told police "children are being abused in father's house and the oldest son lost in a week more than 4 lb."

Zubko-Valva claimed in court papers that the responding Suffolk officers refused to make a report and didn't speak to her at the scene.

But a police report detailing the incident shows the responding officer wrote that Zubko-Valva, who was listed as the victim on the report, “wished to document ongoing visitation problem with husband.” The report had noted there were three prior reports made to police regarding visitation.

Zubko-Vala, according to the report, “made repeated 911 calls” but “refuses to cooperate” and “identified herself as NYC Corrections officer … [and] demanded to pick what officer responds” to the home.

The officer wrote that the mother’s first words to the responding officer were: “Why are you here? Are you the only cop around? I don’t want you.”

The officer checked “no” on the report to the question: “Is there reasonable cause to suspect a child may be the victim of abuse, neglect, maltreatment or endangerment?”

The incident was the subject of testimony in Zubko-Valva’s trial in Suffolk County Family Court on allegations she abused the children. Judge Bernard Cheng found no evidence that the mother abused the children in an April 12, 2019, order, during which he recited the details of the incident in which the mother testified to, which vary from the police report.

“A police officer arrived at about 9:30 a.m. or 9:45 a.m. but he refused to make a report and left the scene,” Cheng wrote, citing the mother’s testimony. “Ms. Zubko-Valva surmised the officer refused to make a report because Mr. Valva, the father, is a New York City Police Officer. A little while after the officer left, the father's girlfriend, Ms. Pollina, came out of the house with the children. The children were placed in the car and the mother got back on the phone with a police supervisor to make a report of the incident. While on the phone, the mother was told Ms. Pollina had also called the police. The mother continued to wait for the police to arrive to make a report. Then at around 10:30 am three police cars pulled up and went into the father's home. They stayed for about 15 minutes then left without speaking to the mother. The mother testified she left when the police left.”

CPS informed of police contacts with Zubko-Valva

The police contacts were reported to CPS, which wrote its own reports on the calls to police. CPS case worker Michele Clark, in a report on Jan. 2, 2018, wrote that she spoke to a Sgt. David Kopycinski, who said he had responded to Valva’s home on both Dec. 17 and Dec. 30, after Zubko-Valva reported the children “were not ready on time.”

Kopycinski, according to Clark, said the mother was “not satisfied” with the way that any responding officer or supervisor “handled the situation as she wants to be able to hand-pick the officer that comes to the home and take her statement word for word.”

Kopycinski, whose first name was not in the paperwork, also told the caseworker that the mother alleged the father and Pollina abused the children but “there is no indication of any kind that this is going on.”

“He reported that Ms. Pollina’s home is immaculate and all 6 children residing in the home appear healthy and well cared for,” the caseworker wrote, adding: “He is aware the situation is in court in Nassau County and is wondering if the situation should be looked at more closely. Sgt. [Kopycinski] reported that the children do not seem to want to visit with [their mother] and they appear reluctant to go with her during the exchange. He stated he can tell something is not right.”

Three months after Valva filed for divorce, his estranged wife made allegations of violence against him in court papers. She claimed he was "physically abusive towards her" and when she attempted to call 911, "He would threaten me that he will lose his job and he will take financial support from me and kids."

Shortly after they married, she wrote in the March 14, 2016, answer to the divorce filing, "My husband pointed his work gun at me and he told me if I disobey him, he will put a bullet in my head."

In bold type, she wrote: "There is a record of it at the NYPD Early Intervention Unit," referring to the unit that offers emotional assistance to officers.

After that, she wrote, she forbade him from bringing his service weapon home and "instead insisted that he left it at work."

Experts differ on police response

Zubko-Valva's assertion that her estranged husband got preferential treatment because he is a police officer looms large in the case. Experts disagreed on whether Valva's status as an NYPD officer meant he received preferential treatment from his fellow officers as he and his wife battled for custody of their sons.

Anthony Zenkus, an adjunct professor who teaches family violence and trauma at Adelphi and Columbia universities, said even if Valva was not given special treatment, he might have had an advantage. 

“He’s a guy who knows how to talk to police, because he’s a police officer,” Zenkus said. “If one parent seems like they have it together, and the other doesn’t, this is where being a cop can come in handy.”

Joseph Giacalone, a former NYPD sergeant and adjunct professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, scoffed at the notion that officers would give a fellow cop a pass on child abuse allegations. 

"Everyone wants to blame the cops for not doing this or doing that, but these custody battles are absolutely outrageous," said Giacalone, pointing to the dynamic of police officers having to referree warring exes. 

Timeline of the case

Aug. 4, 2016 — Justyna Zubko-Valva reported — in graphic detail — to police that two of her sons were sexually abused by their father, Michael Valva, according to a police report contained in divorce paperwork. Nassau Det. Lt. Richard LeBrun, chief spokesman for the police, said an investigation found no evidence to support the allegation.

Zubko-Valva said she spent a couple of hours in Nassau County Police's Second Precinct waiting to receive a police report, according to her letter to U.S. Attorney General William Barr requesting help. After receiving the police report, she said she noticed that on the first page the police officer wrote that she was “going for the custody," she said.

“I requested that such statement be removed from the police report because I never said those words,” she wrote. “Unfortunately, police officers from the Nassau County Second Precinct refused to do it.”

Dec. 17, 2017 — Zubko-Valva called Suffolk County Police at 9:14 a.m. because, she said, Valva had refused to hand over her children for a visitation, according to a copy of a complaint she filed with the police department. She said the police officer who responded included false information in the report. After some back and forth with the officer and a sergeant, she was allowed to write her account on a separate page of the report.

“Sgt. [David] Kopycinski and PO Malloy were extremely angry that I wrote my own truthful statements regarding this incident,” she wrote. “Sgt. Kopycinski threatened me with calling my job and reporting me to Internal Bureau Affair, even though he is responsible to write truthful and impartial police report.”

Dec. 31, 2017 In another complaint, Zubko-Valva said she called 911 at 9:09 a.m. because Valva did not want to produce the children. She said the responding police officer refused to take a report, though records show a report was made. When she finally picked up the children at 10 a.m., she saw three police cars at the Center Moriches home. She was told that Angela Pollina had made a police complaint against her and they wrote an “unlawful report.”

“I cannot count on their help because those members of the service are acting in a partial manner,” she wrote in her written complaint to Suffolk Police.

Jan. 2, 2018 In a report from the Suffolk County Child Protective Service agency, caseworker Michele Clark notes that she spoke with Sgt. (Kopycinski) of the Seventh Precinct. “Sgt. [Kopycinski] reported that mother had alleged abuse going on by father and Ms. Pollina, however there is no indication of any kind that this is going on,” wrote the caseworker. The sergeant said the house is immaculate and that all six children in the home appear healthy and well cared for. He said that in regards to the Dec. 31, 2017, incident, the mother called police when the kids were 5 minutes late for visitation.

“Sgt. [Kopycinski] reported that mother began videotaping the situation and he advised her that her video can be subpoenaed,” the caseworker said.

Jan. 15, 2018 Zubko-Valva tried filing a report at the Fifth Precinct, when she believed Valva had beaten her son Thomas. Police Officer Laurie Ann McManus did not want to hear her full story, then the officer tried to change it to support Valva, she said in a complaint filed with the police. She said she tried to explain that Thomas had “bruises, coagulated blood, black and blues and dark red spots on his buttocks.” But the officer, she said, refused to take that down. Then the sergeant on duty, Sgt. William Krause, engaged with Zubko-Valva in a debate, telling her that it’s legal for a parent to spank a child. But the mother said she explained that this was a beating, according to the complaint.

“Police officers from the 5th Precinct did not want to conduct the investigation pertaining to my allegation against Michael Valva,” she wrote in the complaint.

June 20, 2018 Deputy Inspector John Cahill, who is executive officer at Suffolk’s Fifth Precinct, writes in a letter to Zubko-Valva that in regard to her complaints against Officer Laurie Ann McManus and Sgt. William Krause, the two were “exonerated,” meaning that they acted in a way that was “legal, proper and within department guidelines.”

April 12, 2019 Suffolk County Family Court Judge Benjamin Cheng referenced the Dec. 31, 2017, incident in which Zublo-Valva called the police when Valva declined to produce the children for a visitation. The judge determined, “Her explanation of why it took almost two hours was credible and under the circumstances not harassing. Furthermore, there is no evidence the mother suffers from mental illness.”

May 21, 2019 The NYPD opened its own investigation after Michael Valva filed a complaint against his estranged wife over an alleged incident that occurred between the two on March 13, 2019, in Suffolk County, according to written correspondence between the department and Zubko-Valva. The allegations and circumstances of the alleged incident were never disclosed to Zubko-Valva, according to the documents. It’s unclear why the NYPD would investigate an incident that allegedly occurred in Suffolk.

Jan. 17, 2020 Suffolk Police officers respond to the Valva home on Bittersweet Lane in Center Moriches at 9:40 a.m. after receiving a 911 call reporting that Thomas had fallen in the driveway. Thomas was transported to Long Island Community Hospital, where he was pronounced dead. An investigation by Suffolk police homicide detectives revealed that Thomas and Anthony had been forced to sleep without blankets, mattresses or pillows in the garage on the night of Jan. 16, when the temperature outside dipped to 19 degrees. The Suffolk County medical examiner determined Thomas’ cause of death to be hypothermia.

February 2020 — Valva and Pollina were arrested by Suffolk police Jan. 24. An indictment unsealed Feb. 6 charged Valva and Pollina with second-degree murder and four counts of endangering the welfare of a child. Both pleaded not guilty at their arraignment Feb. 6. If convicted, they face up to 25 years to life in prison.

SOURCE: Documents obtained by Newsday

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