News - McHenry County

Updates: JoAnn Cunningham sentencing in death of AJ Freund

JoAnn Cunningham, 37, cries and wipes her nose during a sentencing hearing in Woodstock Thursday, July 16, 2020. With her is Public Defender Angelo Mourelatos. She pled guilty in December to killing her five-year-old son A.J. Freund Jr. in April, 2019 in her Crystal Lake home. His body was found in a shallow grave in Woodstock.

The Northwest Herald will be providing live updates from Thursday’s sentencing hearing for JoAnn Cunningham in the death of her son, AJ Freund. Reporters Amanda Marrazzo and Katie Smith, along with Editor Jon Styf, will update throughout the day.

3:40 p.m.

JoAnn Cunningham spoke on her own behalf before Judge Robert Wilbrandt went into recess until 1:30 p.m. on Friday, when Wilbrandt will return with a sentence.

"I had the privilege of having AJ as a son," Cunningham began. "I love him, I miss him and there’s nothing I wouldn’t do to bring him back. ... Anyone who truly knows me knows how much I love being a mother more than anything in the world. Being a mother defines me. My children gave me a purpose. I miss all of them so much."

She spoke of AJ as "smart, brilliant, handsome … courageous, driven and absolutely loved.."

She said his favorite donuts were chocolate sprinkles, favorite color is green and favorite toy was Legos.

"There is a great sorrow in my heart. I will never be able to justify anything nor do I want to," Cunningham said. "I spent the majority of my life on autopilot, hanging on by a thread … I had become a stranger to myself …. nobody will ever understand unless they have walked a mile in my shoes. ... I was mentally unavailable, even to myself."

Then she finished her statements.

"I would give my life to have AJ back. This is something I will never escape from."

- Jon Styf

3:30 p.m.

McHenry County State's Attorney Patrick Kenneally gave his closing argument first, talking about JoAnn Cunningham's interview at the Crystal Lake Police Department after AJ Freund was reported missing, though Cunningham already reportedly knew he was already dead.

She was "neither frantic nor hysterical" he said.

"She looks right at the video camera and begins to recite the “Our Father” …. Anything to keep others from knowing who she is and what she had done."

Then he described AJ's death.

"She had beaten this little boy to the edge of death … locked in his room. He had to endure the bleak process of death all by himself," Kenneally said.

Kenneally then described the process of AJ's death, from the beating to the swelling brain while he was cold and locked in his room, choking and ingesting his own blood.

"The pain and trauma to AJ’s little body proved too much … mercifully, he died," Kenneally said. "5 years old, locked in a room, wet … totally and profoundly alone."

Then Kenneally described the cost of AJ's death.

"When we think about the harm, it goes well beyond the brutality he endured on April 14, 2019," Kenneally said. "The real harm, the real injury caused by AJ’s death is limitless. AJ is irreplaceable. Nothing that we can do will bring him back …. This wasn’t a quiet, peaceful death … blow after unrelenting blow, all while being buffeted by freezing cold water all while his mother screamed in his face."

"She hasn't been sitting here crying for AJ, she has been sitting her crying for herself," Kenneally said. "... it's evil."

Kenneally then pleaded for the maximum sentence allowed, 60 years.

- Jon Styf

2:45 p.m.

Dr. Robert Meyer, a mental health expert, met with Cunningham three times and determined that she has "Cluster B personality disorder."

He said this is a character disorder which includes anti-social, narcissistic borderline personality. People with this disorder typically have impulse control problems and extreme mood issues. She also meets the guidelines for stimulus abuse disorder.

Meyer said Cunningham suffered a rape and emotional abuse at a young age and exhibits extreme rage, attachment issues and a lack of being able to trust.

Meyer said Cunningham described physical relations with Freund as "disgusting" and that her relationship with him from the beginning when she was 29 and he was 54 revolved around drugs.

Meyer said Cunningham “became somewhat obedient“ to Freund and that she “found him to be a hollow person.”

She described Freund as “not there, not connected in any way,” Meyer said.

She said the relationship “all revolved around drugs” and that Cunningham carried with her “an ongoing feeling of abandonment.”

Meyer found the relationship between the couple and Nowicki, who lived in the home with them during the time she became pregnant with their daughter, as “unusual.”

He said Freund “tolerated” the relationship between Cunningham and Nowicki even getting them a hotel room at one point.

Cunningham suffered from rage and in almost every relationship prior to the death of her son a “great deal of pain emerged in almost every relationship.”

Meyer said Cunningham had an anti-social personality disorder, and would use the opioids to "cope with turmoil in her head, she numbed herself, and she didn’t use Adderall as prescribed," Meyer said.

Meyer said she started using Adderall in at least 2012 and by 2015 she was abusing it.

Drug abuse can lead to rage and lack of human empathy, the doctor said. But the vast majority of drug abusers do not kill their children, he said.

Though Cunningham's prescription was 20 to 40 milligrams once a day, she was up to 120 milligrams "if not more everyday" at the time of AJ's death, the doctor said.

"People who are abusing Adderall often times become highly aggressive and have violent outbursts," Meyer said.

- Amanda Marrazzo

2 p.m.

AJ Freund's former foster mother, who has custody now of his younger siblings, spoke from the heart about the pain her family has endured and her thoughts on AJ's death and its lasting impact.

She described picking up AJ from the hospital at four months old and maintaining custody until he was 18 months old, when AJ's biological parents took over custody.

"He was compassionate," she said. "He was the most perfect little boy."

She stated that AJ was not defiant to them. After AJ's parents took over custody, the foster mother continued to see AJ. But, eventually, JoAnn Cunningham told them that they would a bad influence on AJ.

"She said that AJ would act out when he returned."

JoAnn also said that it was too much that three family members were there with him at all times.

"We wanted to be with him as much as we could. We were a loving family."

After answering questions from the state's attorney's office, the mother read a statement.

"It’s almost too difficult for words ... Before AJ died, I never stopped trying."

She spoke of triggers in daily life that brought back the trauma of AJ's death and how difficult life with be for AJ's siblings, who will change their last names to avoid a stigma.

"I believe (his brother) will be in therapy the rest of his life. ... When (his sister) is old enough, she will learn of this incredible tragedy …. even doing a family tree for a school project could bring feelings out."

"I will do my best to help him make sense of the insensible," she said. "We want to give (AJ's brother) the most normal life possible."

The foster mother then closed her statement by saying "We miss AJ every single day."

- Jon Styf

1:40 p.m.

The afternoon started with Dr. Mark Witeck, forensic pathologist.

Witeck has described the injuries he found in an April 25, 2019, autopsy of AJ Freund. He fully described the injuries he found on AJ's body during the examination and the blunt force trauma that was his cause of death.

He said the boy had abrasions and contusions all over his head and from his head to his lower legs as well as on his buttocks.

Witeck said the boy suffered from broken ribs and a swollen brain the result of blunt force trauma.

He said during the physical abuse he would have felt pain but once he fell unconscious he would have been out of pain.

AJ's brain was swollen to the point that it caused his death. Many of the injuries were described as consistent with being hit by a shower head.

"He's received multiple injuries to the head, his brain is swelling," Witeck said. The brain crushed itself into the skull to the point that is shut the rest of his body down, Witeck said.

"It's a pretty bad case. Not the worst I've seen, but it's pretty bad," Witeck said comparing it to other cases of child abuse he has seen.

- Amanda Marrazzo and Jon Styf

12:50 p.m.

The court broke for an hour-long recess at noon, and will return to at 1:15 p.m.

The tone in the courtroom has been tense and somber, with 11 of AJ's family members seated directly behind the defense table. Cunningham entered the courtroom accompanied by a McHenry County correctional officer, her blond hair pulled back into two tight braids. She appeared to be wearing a ring with a cross on her left ring finger and had tissues packed into the pocket of her orange jail shirt.

Throughout the hearing, Cunningham sat almost motionless, but for her wringing hands, next to her public defenders. She seemed to become most upset, wiping away visible tears, upon hearing her own voice on camera yelling at and berating AJ. During a video that was played in the courtroom, Cunningham told AJ she was recording him on her cellphone to show the boy's father later.

She also wept quietly under her face mask when prosecutors played a video of a remote jail visit with her then-fiance, Daniel Nowicki. During the call, AJ told Nowicki "I love you," evoking tears and sniffling from Cunningham in the courtroom.

Nowicki was petitioning for custody the child he fathered with Cunningham, and whom Cunningham gave birth to while in Custody. Nowicki, however, died of a drug overdose last summer while custody hearings were ongoing.

12:10 p.m.

After Crystal Lake Police Chief James Black spoke about the staff it took to conduct the investigation, court went into recess until 1:15 p.m.

JoAnn is wearing a cross ring on her left hand wedding ring finger and has tissue shoved into the pocket of her jailhouse orange shirt.

- Jon Styf and Amanda Marrazzo

11:50 a.m.

In the days prior to the fake 911 call - after AJ was killed - the couple exchanged texts about Easter egg decorations, baskets, shopping for a new TV and AJ's behavior and how they planned to help him

On April 17, after AJ was already dead, Freund writes to Cunningham that they will figure out how best to handle AJ’s behavior.

“We will figure it out,” he wrote. “With God’s help. Let’s keep praying.” He then wrote “Have a … blessed day. I’ll see you tonight. Give the boys a kiss and hug for me."

Cunningham also writes asking if they can buy a TV from the pawn shop that weekend so she and the boys “can watch movies in bed.”

She also writes “the boys have been so good today” but that AJ had a couple of incidents.

- Amanda Marrazzo

11:30 a.m.

In the hours and days before the fake 911 call the couple exchanged multiple text messages depicting a seemingly normal life with children.

Messages from Freund such as "How are you and the boys doing today? I hope you are playing outside."

And others from Cunningham saying she is researching a psychiatrist to help with AJ's ODD (oppositional defiant disorder) and thanking Drew for all he has done and God.

Prosecutors then played a video of Cunningham in police questioning whispering/praying her son comes home.

She then is questioned and tells the officer Freund asked if she knew where he was and she said no.

She said she looked in and around the house and Freund went to the gas station and to a nearby school looking for him.

She said AJ gets into things so she locks his door at night. She said she is surprised he would leave the house without his jacket because "he is anal retentive."

Cunningham is sobbing saying maybe he thinks he is "gonna get in trouble." She said as she looked around the house and yard for him she would say out loud that he would not be in trouble.

Then she asked the officer "Is anyone in the house in case he comes home?"

In earlier testimony, an officer who came to the home after the fake 911 call said the house was filthy. He also said he found it odd that Cunningham was talking with a friend and laughing while he searched the house for AJ.

- Amanda Marrazzo

11:05 a.m.

Officer Brian Burr of the Crystal Lake Police Department, who went to the Dole Avenue home after Andrew Freund’s 911 call, discussed what he found at the home that day, on April 18, 2018, after AJ was reported missing.

The odor in the home stood out to Burr.

“I was just overwhelmed with how it smelled and the condition of the house,” Burr said.

He then went through a series of photos taken at the home that day throughout the home and outside. One item photographed outside was a bag of used syringes.

The most notable items in the photos were a chain lock and padlock outside of AJ’s room, seemingly meant to lock AJ in his room. There were also locks on the windows in the room and a combination lock on the closet in AJ’s room.

There was also a small toilet inside of the room.

- Jon Styf

10:50 a.m.

Dr. Ashok Mehta, a neonatologist who worked at Centegra Hospital in Woodstock in October 2013, testified that AJ was born with heroin in his system and that he showed signs of withdrawal when he was born.

Assistant State’s Attorney Randi Gara read a statement from Dr. Barbara Knox stated AJ died and showed signs of malnutrition and was a victim of chronic physical and psychological child abuse.

- Amanda Marrazzo

10:30 a.m.

Court went into recess after the state played several audio tapes of AJ Freund arguing with JoAnn Cunningham on March 27, 2019, which is around 14 days before his death. Cunningham was crying in the courtroom as the audio played and family could be seen behind her doing the same.

The main discussion in the audio was between JoAnn and AJ with AJ saying that he would like to have bad people do bad things to JoAnn so that she and his younger brother would leave him with their dad.

"I don’t want a family," AJ could be heard saying.

"You don’t have one," she responded. "Do you really think (your dad) would choose you over me and (your brother? …. Shut up!"

She could be heard asking AJ multiple times why he wanted her to go away.

"Why do you want those bad people to hurt me?" JoAnn said.

"So I don’t ever see you again," AJ responded.

JoAnn asked multiple times who AJ would tell to hurt her.

"There’s no way we could get in trouble," JoAnn said. "Who would you go tell on us to get us in trouble? What would you do? What is your grand plan? How would you get us in trouble? With who? With what people?"

"By bad people, really bad people," AJ said.

- Jon Styf

9:45 a.m.

The testimony started off with the testimony of Crystal Lake police officer Kimberly Shipbaugh, who said on Dec. 18, 2018, she was dispatched the parking lot of a Taco Bell in Crystal Lake where she met with Cunningham who was in her car with AJ and his younger brother.

She said the children were not wearing any shoes. Cunningham said she had been “robbed” at her home referring to someone allegedly stealing her prescription pills from her, the officer testified.

The officer returned back to the home on Dole Avenue which she described as in “not good” condition, parts of the ceiling and floors were missing, bags of clothes were piled up around the house, missing and smelling of feces. The kids were “being kids” running around the house, watching TV. The officer saw a softball-sized bruise on AJ who was wearing a diaper and when she asked him where it came from Cunningham knelt down to AJ’s ear and said “Lucy the dog did that to you right?”

Later that day, she took him to an emergency room at the direction of police before going home.

Dr. JoEllen Channon testified that she took AJ to a separate room away from his mom and asked where the bruise came from and he said he was spanked and hit with a belt and that it was not someone in his family and he got quiet and repeated the story about the dog.

She stopped the interview and said she wanted DCFS to get a forensic interview. She said Carlos Acosta, a DCFS employee said that was not possible at the time.

“We did not want AJ to leave with JoAnn that day,” the doctor testified.

Assistant State’s Attorney Randi Freese then played a video of a remote online jail house meeting between Cunningham and Daniel Nowicki - the father of her then unborn daughter whom she gave birth to in jail after her arrest.

AJ and his younger brother are in the video. Those present in the courtroom heard AJ’s little voice talking to Nowicki asking where he is and why. AJ and Nowicki have a friendly exchange.

“What’s up buddy,” Nowicki says to AJ. “Hi AJ.”

AJ says “I love you.” To which Nowicki replies “I love you too buddy. I’ll see you soon."

During the playing of this video in court, Cunningham kept her face down and was crying and wiping her face.

In the video, AJ’s small voice is heard telling Nowicki “I love you,” Nowicki, who has since died of a drug overdose replies “I love you too buddy, I’ll see you soon.”

Nowicki can be heard speaking to AJ Freund and his younger brother.

"I’m in the jail. I’m in jail buddy," Nowicki said.

Cunningham brought up going into a program called "Focused Priorities" after his release, which involved spending 40 days in the wilderness.

“What the (expletive) do I want that for? We’ve got the kids. How are we going to do 40 days in the wilderness with two children?” the late Nowicki said.

Nowicki closed the meeting by telling the children "I’ll see you soon, alright?"

The exchange between AJ and Nowicki was far more loving than what the courtroom heard next. Prosecutors played three recordings where Cunningham is heard berating her son, swearing at him, calling him a liar. The child is heard crying and saying he doesn’t want a family anymore and does not want anyone around him.

- Jon Styf and Amanda Marrazzo

9:30 a.m.

Before the first witness took the stand, McHenry County State's Attorney Patrick Kenneally read statements of fact into the court record from witnesses not present including neighbors.

One neighbor described a snowy evening when she saw Cunningham’s car running in the driveway. She walked over to see the younger sibling strapped in a chair and AJ pop his head out, and said “boo,” surprising her.

The neighbor heard arguing inside the home and AJ said his mommy and daddy were fighting and they were off to a hotel. Cunningham said to the neighbor “Better not (explective) ... call the cops on us … leave me the (expletive) alone.”

Other neighbors stated that in the years prior to his death they had seen AJ with dark bruises, dark black eyes, cuts and scrapes on him. Many times his parents said that he had been hurt falling down the stairs.

One Halloween a neighbor said AJ had bandages on him and thought it was part of his Halloween costume. Later it was discovered that he had been burned by hot boiling water which Cunningham said spilled on him on accident.

Next on the stand were Crystal Lake Police Department Officer Kimberley Shipbaugh, who was the officer on scene when a bruise was found on AJ Freund's hip on Dec. 18, 2018 after meeting the family at the Crystal Lake Taco Bell.

The second witness on the stand was emergency room doctor JoEllen Channon, who saw AJ at the hospital and looked at the bruise that same day.

- Amanda Marrazzo and Jon Styf

9:15 a.m.

Prior to the hearing, McHenry County Judge Robert Wilbrandt gave instructions to the small group in the courtroom and said the courtroom has been thoroughly cleaned and sanitized, warned people not to leave they wouldn’t be let back in, no assigned seats or reserving of seats except for press coverage, judge and all others in the wearing mask and said masks must be warn at all times for safety of everyone.

– Amanda Marrazzo

9 a.m.

Prior to the hearing beginning court administrator Dan Wallis warned the group of about 30 sitting six-feet away in the overflow room against any outbursts or court security would escort them out and they would not be allowed back in tomorrow.

McHenry County Judge Robert Wilbrandt entered the courtroom at 9:04 a.m. Northwest Herald reporter Katie Smith is the pool reporter in the courtroom and Daily Herald photographer John Starks is there as the pool still photographer along with WGN's Ted Parra.

- Amanda Marrazzo

8:15 a.m. Thursday

The jury assembly room is serving as overflow for the sentencing hearing. Eight members of the media and about 36 total seats are in the room.

Katie Smith is in the courtroom but won't have her cellphone available for use during the sentencing.

There are about eight seats reserved for the FBI in the room as well. The FBI worked directly with the Crystal Lake Police Department throughout this case, soon after the missing person report. State Rep. Steve Reick, R-Woodstock, is also here.

Sheriff Bill Prim arrived just as the proceedings began in the jury assembly area.

- Jon Styf

• Check back throughout the hearing Thursday and Friday for live updates.

Amanda Marrazzo

Amanda Marrazzo is a staff reporter for Shaw Media who has written stories on just about every topic in the Northwest Suburbs including McHenry County for nearly 20 years.