December 10, 2023
McHenry County | Northwest Herald

McHenry County | Northwest Herald

‘He was loved,’ foster mother says of AJ Freund

McHenry County State's Attorney Patrick Kenneally points to photographs on a flat screen as Crystal Lake Police Officer Brian Burr testifies in the JoAnn Cunningham sentencing hearing in Woodstock Thursday, July 16, 2020. The photos were of the Cunningham home on Dole Ave. in Crystal Lake. Cunningham 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.

At Thursday’s sentencing hearing for JoAnn Cunningham, the Crystal Lake mother who admitted to killing her 5-year-old son, a foster parent said all that Cunningham had to do was ask for help and the boy would have been alive today.

The foster parent, who is not being named by the Northwest Herald but cares for Cunningham’s two younger children, described Andrew “AJ” Freund as “a beautiful, perfect little boy who was loving and fun, caring and compassionate.”

The small blond-haired, blue-eyed child, a focus of many police and welfare calls throughout his short life, was beaten to death April 15, 2019, at the hands of Cunningham, 37, and his father, Andrew Freund, 61, authorities have said.

Cunningham, who pleaded guilty in December to the first-degree murder of her son, is facing 20 to 60 years in prison.

On Thursday, McHenry County Judge Robert Wilbrandt heard testimony from several witnesses as to the boy’s life and death. Freund is being held on $5 million bond in McHenry County jail awaiting trial.

Wilbrandt is scheduled to hand down Cunningham’s sentence at 1:30 p.m. Friday.

The foster parent who gave a tearful impact statement said that AJ, whom she had known since his birth when he was born suffering heroin withdrawal, loved to play, color and do puzzles. She said that AJ was “never” physical or defiant, and did not steal, as reports have shown his mother said.

“He was not a bad boy,” the woman said. “He was loved beyond anything and he did not deserve what was happening to him.”

The woman said she believed that, from her time with AJ, he died knowing what love and safety were and “he took that with him.”

The woman cared for AJ for the first 18 months of his life before Cunningham and Freund regained custody. The woman was allowed to see the child for some time after he returned to his parents’ home at 94 Dole Ave., until about a year later.

After a day trip to Chicago, when the relative thought they all had a good time together, she received an email from Cunningham and Freund saying they would no longer be able to see the boys, referring to AJ and his younger sibling.

The woman said the parents wrote that she and other relatives were a “bad influence” and AJ tended to act out more after returning home from a visit with them.

“We wanted to be with him as much as we could,” the woman said. “We were just a loving family.”

The woman sobbed as she read a prepared impact statement.

“It’s almost too difficult for words. … Before AJ died, I never stopped trying,” she said.

She worried about AJ’s younger brother, and a sister who was born to Cunningham while she was in jail awaiting trial. She believes they each will suffer with the tragedy the rest of their lives.

“I will do my best to help him to make sense of the insensible,” she said of AJ’s little brother. “We want to give [AJ’s brother] the most normal life possible.”

She described AJ as a “caring little boy who was a caretaker to younger children.”

“He should be here playing with his siblings, playing with kids, drawing pictures and going to school,” she said. “All JoAnn had to do was ask for help and any one of us would have been there in a heartbeat.”

Authorities say that on April 15 Cunningham and Freund beat AJ, and made him stand in a freezing shower then put him to bed cold, wet and naked as punishment for soiling his underwear.

When the boy was found lifeless the next morning, his body was wrapped in plastic and stored in a plastic tote in the basement, described in courtroom testimony as “filthy,” cluttered and overrun with cockroaches, mice and mice droppings. Sometime during the early hours of April 18, the boy’s body was transported and buried in a shallow grave in a field in Woodstock, about seven miles away from the home, authorities said.

That same morning Freund, a former attorney, claimed he awoke early for a doctor’s appointment and when he returned to the home, the boy was missing. Freund then made a false 911 call which drew out the community who searched backyards, parks and lakes, along with police departments from across the state, the FBI and search dogs.

In court Thursday, text messages the couple exchanged during the two days the boy was sealed inside the plastic tote in the basement, while acting as life was normal, were read by a detective.

Crystal Lake Det. Frank Houlihan read through text messages the couple made in the two days after the child had been killed – April 16 and 17 – prior to the fake 911 call made the morning of April 18.

The exchanges sound like that of a typical family interaction about the upcoming Easter holiday, Cunningham wanting to buy a TV from the pawn shop so the boys could watch TV with her in her bedroom. They also exchanged messages about AJ’s supposed lying and the need to “get that figured out,” and how best to get help for AJ’s so-called occupational defiance disorder and contacting a psychiatrist for him.

One text from Freund to Cunningham read that he hoped they were playing outside and asked how the boys were behaving. Cunningham responded “they are doing well so far.”

In another text, Freund asks Cunningham to search for a psychiatrist if she gets a chance to “pinpoint what’s happening” with AJ.

To that, Cunningham responded: “We’ll get the help this family desperately needs for the little guy … all our prayers have helped tremendously and will continue to."

Freund replies: “God is good.”

Later that same day, Freund writes “How was your day today mama?”

Cunningham responds that it was a good day and she and her sons were starting to decorate Easter eggs. “I just wanted to do something fun with them.”

In other testimony, McHenry County State’s Attorney Patrick Kenneally questioned Crystal Lake Police Officer Brian Burr on what he saw when he first responded to Freund’s 911 call.

Burr, the first officer to arrive, said Freund said he put AJ to bed at about 9:30 p.m. the night before.

Freund said he went to an early morning doctor’s appointment and, when he returned, he could not find his son. Cunningham told the officer she woke up about 7 a.m., showered, put on make-up then Freund came home and asked if she had seen AJ.

After Freund said he checked a nearby gas station and a school, he called 911.

Burr said that when he entered through a side door, the house was “filthy.” He said it was cluttered and that he was overwhelmed by a “stale, musty” stench and the smell of urine and feces. He noticed garbage and piles of clothing scattered around the house, exposed subfloor in the kitchen, parts of a collapsed ceiling and a dog in a cage.

“Upon entry, [I had] sensory overload,” Burr said. “When you first walk in there is so much to take in. I didn’t expect to see that.”

Burr said he also found used syringes outside in the yard.

He said AJ’s upstairs bedroom door had a lock on it from the outside, his closet door also had a lock on it and the windows were nailed shut. In the room was a toddler’s potty-training chair and a tiny crib mattress.

When he searched the basement, Burr saw more clutter, garbage and debris.

“I was overwhelmed with the condition,” he said of the basement. “The floor was dirty, sticky, mice, mouse droppings, cockroaches.”

But what Burr found particularly concerning was Cunningham talking and laughing with a girlfriend outside the home.

Cunningham told police she was searching all over the house and yard for AJ, yelling for him to come out and that he would not be in trouble.

In a videotaped police interview played in court, Cunningham is seen looking at the camera, praying to God to bring her son home and reciting the Lord’s Prayer.

In closing arguments, Kenneally rebuked her performance, saying it was all an act and the tears she was crying in court throughout Thursday’s hearing were for herself and not her son.

He described AJ as “sweet, cheerful” and “defenseless” in the midst of his mother’s rages, three of which she videotaped and prosecutors played in court.

Noting earlier testimony by a pathologist, Kenneally said the boy was beaten and put to bed cold, naked and wet, his head injuries so severe his brain swelled and pressed into his skull. Blood filtered into his lungs until “mercifully, he died.”

In asking for the maximum sentence of 60 years, Kenneally called Cunningham “diabolical” and “evil.” Describing AJ’s final moments, the prosecutor said AJ suffered “blow after unrelenting blow” while his mother sprayed him with freezing water and screamed in his face.

“This wasn’t a quiet, peaceful death,” he said.

Cunningham’s defense attorney, assistant public defender Richard Behof, said he was not going to “defend, explain or justify” her actions.

But said that she is the product of an abusive upbringing and an estranged relationship with her mother. Behof said she was raped at about 15 years old, dropped out of school in the 8th grade and her “rock” was a brother, who committed suicide.

After a verbally and physically abusive marriage, she met Freund, who worked as her divorce attorney for free, and whose “motives,” Behof said, were “somewhat suspect.”

While with Freund, Cunningham developed a drug addiction leading to depression. His passiveness with her led to her having an affair with another man which resulted in a pregnancy.

Behof said she took all her pain and “handed it physically and verbally to her son.”

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.