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Teachers noticed he was starving. Then he froze to death in a garage. What happened to Thomas Valva?

Thomas’ father, former NYPD officer Michael Valva, and his then-fiancée Angela Pollina have been sentenced to life and 25 years in prison, respectively. Andrea Blanco outlines the egregious case

Andrea Blanco
Wednesday 12 April 2023 16:34 BST
Thomas Valva murió congelado en el garaje de su casa en enero de 2020
Thomas Valva murió congelado en el garaje de su casa en enero de 2020 (Handout)

Thomas Valva died of hypothermia on 17 January 2020, after spending the night on the frigid floor of his NYPD officer father’s garage. He was only eight years old.

Thomas and his brothers Anthony and Andrew spent half of their time with their father, former NYPD officer Michael Valva, and his then-fiancée Angela Pollina after Valva divorced the boys’ mother Justyna Zubko-Valva in 2017.

Ms Zubko-Valva fought hard against the decision. She documented the bruises on her children’s bodies and send the Department of Child Protectives Services a flash drive with 320 files of evidence of abuse.

But the gruesome extent of the abuse that Thomas and his brothers endured only came on full display after Valva and Pollina were charged with his murder after locking Thomas in their Long Island home’s unheated garage and letting him freeze to death.

Pollina sent videos of Thomas lying in the cold and freezing to Valva, who was on a shift that night, local journalist Lisa Finn reported on Patch. When paramedics arrived the next morning, it was 19 degrees outside and they found Thomas naked, with no blankets and his sweatpants pulled down to his knees.

He died at the hospital from organ failure caused by hypothermia.

Valva and Pollina have since been found guilty of murder and child endangerment. Pollina’s sentence to 25 years in prison this week comes nearly four months after Valva was handed down a life sentence with the possibility of parole after 25 years served.

Pollina was sentenced to 25 years behind bars on 11 April, nearly four months after Valva was handed down a life sentence with the possibility of parole after 25 years served.

During Pollina’s sentencing, Suffolk County Court Judge Timothy P Mazzei had harsh words.

“My only regret, Miss Polina, is they don’t have a garage with no heat and no mattress and no blankets and no pillows,” he said.

Here’s everything we know about the egregious case:

The Valva house of horrors

According to a 2020 indictment, Patch reported that Thomas and his brothers slept in a room that had no access to a bathroom. The garage was often referred to as “the children’s room.”

Any time they soiled themselves, they were punished by being forced to sleep on the floor without blankets or pillows, prosecutors said.

(ABC/Screengrab)
(Michael Valva/ Suffolk County )

A Suffolk County assistant district attorney at the time also said that a video of Thomas was recorded as he was shaking on the cold floor “with pleading eyes for someone to help him.”

Text messages around the time of Thomas’ death also show that Pollina allegedly sent a video of the boy to his father before going to bed, and asking whether she should send him to school the next morning. Valva allegedly answered: “F*** that piece of s*** Thomas. He’s not going anywhere.”

Two hours before the 911 call was made, surveillance footage captured Pollina hosing Thomas down with water, according to Fox.

Thomas’ body was 76.1 degrees when he was found

When paramedics arrived at the home, they found Thomas’ lifeless body. He only had sweatpants on, which were pulled down below his knees.

As EMTs tried to bring his pulse back, Valva reportedly showed no emotion, according to Patch.

His body temperature was 76.1 degrees and he died that same day at the hospital of organ failure.

Angela Pollina is seen in court (NY Post screenshot)

According to the 2020 indictment, Pollina had been doing her hair when paramedics arrived at the home and only arrived at the hospital 45 minutes later. When Valva was pressed on how he felt about the situation, he allegedly said he had been through more stressful circumstances, Patch reported.

After Thomas died, Valva reportedly tried to delete the damning videos of the abuse on his phone, but authorities were able to retrieve the evidence.

Mother’s fight to stop abuse

Ms Zubko-Valva has been outspoken about her fight with the court system to gain full custody of her children. In a video posted by Ms Zubko-Valva in 2018, one of the children tells their mother that “daddy is going to put me outside” and “in the backyard” if they say that they love their mother.

Following Thomas’ death, Ms Zubko-Valva filed a $200m wrongful death lawsuit against several CPS caseworkers and investigators, school officials at East Moriches Union Free School District, her children’s attorneys in the custody battle and Nassau County Supreme Court Justice Hope Schwartz Zimmerman.

Valva and Pollina are also named in the lawsuit. The Suffolk County Department of Social Services filed a motion to dismiss the complaint, but a judge ruled in June that some parts of the suit could proceed.

According to Ms Zubko-Valva’s lawsuit, “Tommy’s death was not only foreseeable but completely preventable.”

“For over three years, Plaintiff Justyna Zubko Valva begged, implored and pleaded with Defendants to remove Tommy, as well as his two brothers, Anthony and Andrew,” the filing, reviewed by The Independent reads, “from the custody of [Valva and Pollina] who had abused, starved and tortured the children for years. The Defendants did nothing.”

Thomas was ‘emaciated’ before he died

Testifying in Suffolk County Court, Thomas’ teachers recalled giving snacks to the boy, who “was so emaciated” that he would “eat crumbs off the school floor,” and hoping that Pollina wouldn’t find out and retaliate against the children. The school’s principal also testified during the trial that the children often arrived at school with scratches on their faces, their cheeks red and cold to the touch, and covered in faeces and urine.

Michelle Cagliano, who taught Thomas’s second-grade class at East Moriches Elementary School, testified in Valva’s trial last year.

She said that Thomas was hungry so often that she decided to keep journal entries every time that he asked for food, according to the New York Post. She often gave him snacks and sent him to the cafeteria, but would later face disapproval from Pollina, who allegedly said Thomas was “manipulative” and a “liar.”

“He was so skinny,” Ms Cagliano as she held back tears. “I could feel the bones in his body.”

In one instance, Ms Cagliano recalled before the court, she gave Thomas a pear and cracker after he soiled his pants in 2018, which unleashed Ms Pollina’s rage.

“She was not happy with me,” Ms Cagliano said.

CPS lines were ‘flooded’ with complaints of abuse

School principal Edward Schneyer also took the stand in the trial against Valva.

Mr Schneyer said that Thomas was “extremely emaciated” and that he and his older brother Anthony, then 10, would attend school soiled in urine and feces.

“We felt as a team we were not getting the results we wanted to see,” Mr Schneyer said. “We decided as a team we were going to just flood the CPS hotline with calls.”

The principal said that the reports led to accusations from Valva that school officials were harassing his family.

School officials said they “flooded” the CPS lines with reports of abuse. It is unclear why the children were not removed from Valva’s care after the many alleged reports but Ms Zubko-Valva filed a wrongful death lawsuit against school and CPS workers claiming that her desperate calls for help and their children’s suffering were blatantly ignored.

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