Andrew “AJ” Freund, a 5-year-old kid from Illinois, made global headlines after his parents reported him missing. As his distraught parents pleaded with the public for his safe return, an image of AJ smiling in a baseball cap was posted in the hope that he’d be discovered alive. When a thorough search of the woods around the family’s house brought up nothing, hope gave way to worry.
Concern about AJ’s parents swiftly morphed into suspicion as they refused to cooperate with detectives. AJ’s father, 61-year-old Andrew Freund Sr, ultimately led detectives to a small grave in a field near their Crystal Lake home. AJ’s damaged body was discovered wrapped in plastic and buried there. AJ’s parents were detained and charged with first-degree murder in their son’s death.
An autopsy revealed that the boy had been smacked in the head several times and had also ingested his own blood before succumbing to blunt force trauma. JoAnn Cunningham, AJ’s 37-year-old mom, pled guilty to first-degree murder and acknowledged to beating her son to death, burying his body, and then fraudulently reporting him missing. Sadly, this was not the child’s first experience with physical violence.
The misery that was AJ’s life was disclosed to the court at Cunningham’s sentence hearing. Prosecutors in McHenry County aired a recording of a family quarrel between Cunningham and toddler AJ only two weeks before his death. AJ was overheard expressing to his mother that he would like very bad individuals to do terrible things to her.
Cunningham can be heard asking why he wants those bad individuals to hurt her, and AJ responds, so he never sees her again. AJ died alone in the dark two weeks after the tape was discovered, his head sporting the outlines of the showerhead his mother confessed beat him with after compelling him to stand under freezing water as a punishment for soiling himself.
Cunningham sobbed and wiped her nose in court as the footage was aired, yet prosecutors claim she had been cruelly beating AJ for years before his death. Despite hearing the sad circumstances of the boy’s existence in court, Cunningham played the role of a heartbroken mom, behaving as though her kid had been murdered by someone else as she asked the judge for compassion.
Cunningham said in court on her own behalf that she had the honor of having AJ as her son. She adored him, and missed him, she went on. She talked of AJ’s love of sprinkled doughnuts and his habit of carrying a briefcase since he aspired to be a lawyer, and she only mentioned her son’s death in passing, preferring to focus on her own terrible life. She is a live example of the devastation that physical and emotional abuse can cause, she wailed.
Cunningham’s impassioned remarks contrasted sharply with the proof of AJ’s unthinkable physical and mental torture for years until he died as his brain enlarged and he choked on his own blood. She had pummeled this little kid to the brink of death,” McHenry County State’s Attorney Patrick Kenneally explained, locking him in his room where he had to experience the dreary death process all by himself.
The prosecutor recounted testimonies from witnesses who saw the youngster with scratches and bruises years before his murder. A Crystal Lake cop and an emergency room doctor both claimed that they spotted a softball-size bruise on AJ’s hip four months before he died. Officer Kimberley Shipbaugh and Dr. Joelle Channon both inquired about AJ’s injury. Cunningham, according to Shipbaugh, instructed her son on what to say.
Dr. Channon stated that the youngster told her, perhaps mother didn’t want to hurt him, leading her to stop questioning him as she determined that he should visit with a forensic interviewer and be assessed by a child-abuse doctor. She claimed she contacted child services but was told there were no investigators available at the time. They didn’t want AJ to leave that day with JoAnn, she said.
Police claimed they also went to the house and discovered it unclean and stinking of excrement, yet arguably the most unsettling evidence provided was text messages exchanged by the boy’s parents after Cunningham killed him but before his body was discovered. The pair appeared to be attempting to disguise their tracks in those texts, writing items they believed police would discover. They made plans for AJ and his sibling while believing their kid was still alive, and Freund even instructed Cunningham to give the boys a kiss and hug for him.
Cunningham asked Freund about getting a television so she could “watch movies in bed” with the boys in another text, but it’s the recordings from Cunningham’s phone that are truly terrifying. Only a few weeks before his death, video footage showed him covered in bruises and bandages, nude on a mattress, with a woman’s voice, likely Cunningham’s, chastising him for wetting his bed.
Freund pleaded not guilty after admitting to putting AJ to bed cold, damp, and nude on the day he died. Rather, he blamed Cunningham for much of the long-term physical abuse. He stated that rather than the alleged beatings, he proposed disciplining AJ with cold showers. AJ was put in the shower on the night of his death when Cunningham discovered filthy underpants that he had attempted to conceal.
Cunningham pummeled AJ in the icy shower, as indicated by the tiny, circular bruises on his face that resembled the detachable showerhead. Freund claims Cunningham discovered AJ unconscious and admitted to placing his corpse in a plastic container and hiding it in the basement until it could be buried.
Based on an image taken via a search warrant, a shopping list was produced that included duct tape, plastic gloves, air freshener, and bleach. Furthermore, when officers entered the garbage-strewn residence, they were met with an unpleasant odor. Even more concerning were the chain lock and padlock located outside AJ’s bedroom, as well as the locks on his windows, all of which appeared to be designed to confine the youngster inside the room.
The saddest aspect is that Cunningham was not a stranger to child protective services. Even before AJ was born, she was the subject of two complaints: one for inadequate supervision and the other for risk of injury and environmental negligence. Furthermore, when AJ was born, both he and Cunningham tested positive for opiates, causing the Department of Children and Family Services to remove the infant into care.
Even when AJ was returned to his mother 20 months later, child welfare workers came to the filthy residence that reeked of dog excrement on several occasions. Unfortunately, despite apparent police pleadings, those visits concluded with child welfare authorities concluding that the claims of maltreatment were false and departing without the youngster.
According to court records, a youngster was in danger his whole life and nothing was accomplished to save him. It took AJ’s death to spark inquiries into the child protection system, as well as the dismissal of a state child welfare worker and a supervisor. Is losing their employment, however, truly sufficient? Honestly, I believe they, along with his mom, should be imprisoned. Sharing a jail with the monster mom could enlighten their eyes to the misery they put this small guy through.