Officer Charged in Murder of Son, 8, Kept in Freezing Garage, Police Say

Rebecca Liebson
1 / 2

Officer Michael Valva

Officer Michael Valva was arrested and charged with killing his 8-year-old son. (Johnny Milano for The New York Times)

The voices were captured by household surveillance equipment.

“Get your hand off his mouth,” a woman says. “There’s people everywhere.”

The woman, Angela Pollina, was talking to her fiancé, Michael Valva, a New York City police officer. The mouth she was urging him to remove his hand from belonged to his son, Thomas, an 8-year-old with autism, officials said.

Not long after the recording was made, the authorities said, Thomas Valva was dead. He had been kept overnight in the couple’s unheated Long Island garage as the temperature outside plunged to 19 degrees, the police said.

His body temperature was just 76 degrees when he was brought to the hospital, the police said.

On Friday, Valva and Pollina were charged with second-degree murder in the boy’s death. Valva, who joined the New York Police Department in 2005 and was most recently assigned to the transit bureau, was suspended after his arrest, the New York department said.

Timothy Sini, the Suffolk County district attorney, described the killing as “one of the worst crimes I’ve ever seen.”

“The depravity of these defendants is shocking,” Sini said. “They caused the death of this little boy and then they watched him die.”

There had been warnings that Valva, 40, and Pollina, 42, might be harming at least some of the six children living with them — his three sons and her three daughters — at their home in Center Moriches, New York.

For at least two years, Valva’s estranged wife, Justyna Zubko-Valva, sought to sound the alarm about what she said was his abuse of their sons, according to court filings in their divorce.

Sini said Friday that the county’s child welfare agency had also been contacted about the family. He declined to elaborate. The couple’s other children have been placed in a “safe environment” for the time being, Geraldine Hart, the Suffolk County police commissioner, said.

Valva and Pollina called the police to their home early on Jan. 17, officials said. Valva was in the basement when the police arrived, and he appeared to be performing CPR on the boy.

He said that Thomas had fallen in the driveway while waiting for the school bus and had then lost consciousness, officials said.

Thomas was taken to Long Island Community Hospital, where he was pronounced dead, officials said. The county medical examiner ruled the death a homicide and found that hypothermia was a major contributing factor, officials said.

“Thomas Valva was subjected to freezing temperatures in the home’s unheated garage overnight when the outside temperature was 19 degrees,” Hart said.

“We have determined Thomas was never in the driveway that morning, and he suffered head and facial injuries that were not consistent with the father’s account,” the chief added.

The police said they were working with the local school district, social services agencies, the FBI and others to try to piece together what had unfolded in the home over time.

“We are still investigating the extent of the abuse and if it extended to all the children,” Hart said.

Thomas’ mother, Zubko-Valva, told Newsday, “Thank God, the justice is being served.”

Her son “had such an amazing good heart,” she told Newsday. “Everybody who knew him, they instantly fell in love with him. He was just a joy of everybody’s life.”

She and Valva were married in 2004 and began divorce proceedings in 2015, according to court records. Zubko-Valva suggested in court filings that Valva had abused the boys.

She cited a 2018 report from a school psychologist that said that Thomas and his 10-year-old brother Anthony “come into school hungry” and that Anthony, who also has autism, had “lost a significant amount of weight.”

Amanda Wildman, who said she worked for Valva and Pollina as a nanny from 2017 to 2018, said she noticed that the couple treated the boys more harshly than they did the three girls.

“They were just always very verbally abusive,” Wildman said. “I’ve never seen them put their hands on them, but they were always very assertive. It was sad.”

Video and audio recordings cited by prosecutors at the couple’s arraignment suggested they had some sense of the effect of how they treated the boys.

Video shot two nights before Thomas’ death, prosecutors said, showed him and Anthony shivering as they slept on the garage floor with no mattress, no pillows and no covers.

Audio recorded Friday before the police arrived, prosecutors said, included a child’s voice asking, “Why can’t Thomas walk?”

“Because he’s hypothermic,” prosecutors said Pollina replied. “When you’re washed with cold water and it’s freezing, you get hypothermia.”

Later, prosecutors said, Pollina can be heard asking, “What are you doing?”

Valva, prosecutors said, replied that he was “suffocating him, that’s what I’m doing.”

That, prosecutors said, was when Pollina asked him to remove his hand.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


© 2020 The New York Times Company