McHenry County top prosecutors named ‘heroes’ for work in AJ Freund case

McHenry County state’s attorney says honor is ‘bittersweet’

McHenry County’s top prosecutors were recognized as “heroes” recently by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children for the prosecution of the Crystal Lake parents who killed 5-year-old AJ Freund in 2019.

McHenry County State’s Attorney Patrick Kenneally, First Assistant State’s Attorney Randi Freese and former First Assistant Rita Gara were recognized as heroes by the organization in 2021. However, due to COVID-19 restrictions, they were formerly honored with their belated Heroes’ Award at an event in Chicago this month.

The recognition is an annual accolade honoring law enforcement at local, state and federal levels who have made significant contributions to the prevention and resolution of cases involving missing and exploited children, according to the organization.

“The case of AJ was difficult and challenging,” Michelle DeLaune, president and CEO of the organization, wrote in a letter to Kenneally, which also addressed Freese and Gara’s, as well as the Crystal Lake Police Department and the FBI’s efforts in AJ’s case. “While it did not resolve with the happy ending that we all hoped for, it shines a spotlight on the impact of the work you do for the families and communities who desperately need our help.”

Kenneally described the award as ”bittersweet.”

Assistant State's Attorney Randi Freese listens as defense attorneys Chuck Bretz and Kristine Honiotes speak representing Ryan Yarber inside McHenry County Judge Michael Coppedge's courtroom Friday, Aug. 14, 2020.

“We are certainly honored by the award and grateful that the many incredible people at CLPD and FBI involved in resolving this heart-wrenching case received similar acknowledgement,” Kenneally said.

Joann Cunningham, 40, pleaded guilty to the first-degree murder of her son on April 15, 2019, at their home and was sentenced to 35 years in prison.

During her sentencing hearing in 2020, court testimony detailing the child’s death revealed that Cunningham beat AJ and made him stand in a freezing shower for about 20 minutes as punishment for lying about soiling his underwear. After the shower, the child went to bed bruised, naked, cold and wet, according to court testimony.

He died from the aftereffects of blunt force trauma, caused by being struck repeatedly on the head with a metal shower sprinkler, the judge said at her sentencing hearing.

AJ’s father, Andrew Freund, 64, made a false report to authorities – after storing the child’s lifeless body in a tote in the basement of their home – that he was missing.

We are certainly honored by the award and grateful that the many incredible people at CLPD and FBI involved in resolving this heart-wrenching case received similar acknowledgement.

—  McHenry County State's Attorney Patrick Kenneally

Community members and police agencies from across the state and Wisconsin searched throughout the county for days before Freund confessed that AJ was dead and he had buried him in a field in Woodstock.

Freund, a former attorney, is serving a 30-year prison sentence.

Before his death, AJ had been the focus of many police and social work visits and reports.

In a rare move, the McHenry County State’s Attorney’s Office has charged Illinois Department of Children and Family Services employees, Carlos Acosta and his boss Andrew Polivin criminally in connection with AJ’s death.

Their trial could be held in McHenry County by a Lake County judge this fall.