In the past 15 months, the Crystal Lake home where a 5-year-old boy was beaten to death has been leveled, his mother has been sentenced to 35 years in prison for first-degree murder of her son and the boy’s father awaits trial.
McHenry County Judge Robert Wilbrandt handed down the sentence to JoAnn D. Cunningham on Friday.
His ruling came as a disappointment to the family and prosecutors, who had hoped to see Cunningham receive almost twice as much time.
“We were disappointed,” McHenry County State’s Attorney Patrick Kenneally said. “We thought all factors were in place for the maximum sentence.”
Unlike Cunningham’s tears throughout Thursday’s sentencing hearing, the mother of four sat motionless with no expression as Wilbrandt announced the prison term Friday. Her blank stare paled in comparison with the bowed heads of Andrew “AJ” Freund’s heartbroken family, who silently cried from the seats directly behind Cunningham.
“We know that whatever the punishment, it will not ease the loss and pain we feel,” family members said in a prepared statement emailed by their attorney Friday. “AJ was an innocent, precious little boy whose life was taken from him after he endured what we now know was much pain and suffering. We had expected JoAnn would pay for that by spending her natural life in prison.”
During a seven-hour sentencing hearing Thursday, prosecutors presented graphic testimony, photos and videos of the chronic physical and emotional abuse AJ endured at the hands of his parents, Cunningham and Andrew Freund Sr.
For months, Cunningham, 37, denied any involvement in AJ’s death until she pleaded guilty to first-degree murder Dec. 5.
Authorities said that on April 15, 2019, Freund and Cunningham beat and forced AJ into a cold shower, then put him to bed wet, cold and naked, where he died. A false missing persons report the parents filed three days later prompted a massive search that lasted almost a week.
A break in the case came April 24, when police said Freund led them to a shallow grave in Woodstock. There, investigators found AJ’s remains wrapped in plastic.
The boy’s body had been stored in a sealed tote in the basement of the family’s home at 94 Dole Ave. for at least two days before it was moved and buried, authorities said.
Court testimony also elaborated on the ongoing abuse the child endured over the years. Testimony from Crystal Lake police detailed times when neighbors, doctors and a bank employee saw abrasions, bruises and burns on the child. The injuries often were explained away by his parents as being caused by falls or other accidents.
AJ was the subject of many police and child welfare calls to the home over the years. His death has become the catalyst for the restructuring and firing of child welfare employees, as well as training programs to prevent another child’s death at the hands of their abusers.
Cunningham pleaded guilty Dec. 5 to first-degree murder after prosecutors agreed to dismiss 19 additional charges and remove language that could have sent her to prison for the rest of her life. The language, “exceptional cruelty or heinous behavior indicative of a wanton cruelty,” would have allowed Wilbrandt the discretion to order a natural life sentence. Instead, she faced between 20 and 60 years in prison.
At Thursday’s hearing, calling her “diabolical” and “evil,” Kenneally vehemently argued for the maximum sentence. Because she is required to serve 100% of her sentence, Cunningham would have been 97 years old by the time she was eligible for release. She now could be released when she is 72.
In his ruling Friday, Wilbrandt acknowledged the cruelty of Cunningham’s actions and explained how he took into consideration mitigating factors.
“The evidence presented here indicates that she repeatedly struck her son on the head with a metal shower sprinkler, took him out of the shower while he was still alive, locked him alone in his room, and then AJ tragically died from the aftereffects of blunt force trauma,” Wilbrandt said. “It was a horrible death preceded by a horrible life.”
In addition to the amended charge to which Cunningham pleaded guilty, Wilbrandt considered the woman’s childhood, which her attorneys described Thursday as tumultuous. In closing statements, McHenry County Assistant Public Defender Richard Behof said Cunningham dropped out of school in eighth grade, was raped at 15 and lost her brother to suicide in 2001. Cunningham’s beloved older brother served as “her rock” and was the only person she could lean on, Behof said.
Throughout her life, Cunningham struggled with addictions to heroin, Adderall and a number of other substances, Wilbrandt noted during the sentencing hearing Friday.
“Upon reviewing her history and her psychological status, there is no question that she has led a difficult life and has made a series of poor choices,” Wilbrandt said.
AJ was born with heroin in his system, and although Cunningham sought treatment “a number of times,” it was not successful. She lapsed back into what Wilbrandt described as a “drug-addled filth, lying, cheating” and manipulative lifestyle, all while “terrorizing her small son.”
“While her addictions do not justify her appalling behavior toward her son, they perhaps do explain why she engaged in ... filicide, the inhumane, repulsive and frankly shocking course of conduct that ended her child’s young life,” Wilbrandt said. “The use of illegal drugs most certainly played a leading role in that tragic story.”
Another of Cunningham’s attorneys, Assistant Public Defender Angelo Mourelatos, said Friday that the judge clearly took Cunningham’s entire life into consideration.
“This is a tragic case,” Mourelatos said. “AJ’s dead. It’s a tragic case. Obviously she’s remorseful for her actions. She pled guilty. That in and of itself is indicative of remorse.”
Cunningham grew tearful Thursday each time she heard audio clips in which she berated AJ, whose own voice was careful and timid as he tried to stand up for himself.
In the videos, Cunningham was heard swearing at him, telling him to “shut up,” calling him a liar and telling him he did not have a family. AJ was heard saying in a meek voice, “I love you guys,” to which Cunningham replied, “Bull----, you don’t show it.”
Throughout the day Thursday, prosecutors showed photographs of Cunningham and Freund’s dilapidated home, which Crystal Lake police officers described as “filthy” and filled with garbage. Photographs of AJ’s bedroom offered a glimpse at the living conditions within the home, which has since been demolished.
White letters spelling out “love” adorned the door frame inside AJ’s teal-walled bedroom, where he slept in a modified crib. Snapshots of the room showed Ninja Turtle curtains, chipped and peeling paint, and a dirty potty training seat in the corner. Officers additionally testified to seeing a pile of soiled diapers, padlocks outside the bedroom and closet doors, and nails and hooks securing the boy’s windows shut.
“I had sensory overload,” Crystal Lake police officer Brian Burr testified Thursday.
When it came time for Cunningham to read a handwritten statement on her own behalf, she spoke about her motherhood and said her children were God’s “greatest gift.”
“My heart belongs entirely to them. All of my children are sacred, most precious treasures,” Cunningham said. “I miss all of them so much; words cannot describe it.”
Freund remained at the McHenry County Jail on Friday on $5 million bond. He’s due back in court July 30.
Kenneally said Cunningham has not been cooperating in the prosecution of Freund’s case.
“We don’t need her cooperation,” Kenneally said.