AJ Freund timeline: A little boy from Crystal Lake goes missing, and fallout continues 5 years after his death

A photograph of AJ Freund as McHenry County State's Assistant Attorney Randi Freeze delivers the state’s closing argument the during the trial for the former Illinois Department of Children and Family Services employees Carlos Acosta and Andrew Polovin before Lake County Judge George Strickland on Friday, Oct. 13, 2023, at the McHenry County Courthouse. Acosta, 57, of Woodstock, and Polovin, 51, of Island Lake, each are charged with two counts of endangering the life of a child and health of a minor, Class 3 felonies, and one count of reckless conduct, a Class 4 felony, related to their handling of the AJ Freund case.

Five years ago this week, the body of 5-year-old AJ Freund of Crystal Lake was located in a shallow grave near Woodstock after being reported missing by his parents almost a week before. The ramifications of those events reverberate to this day.

Below is a timeline of events as they occurred, beginning with the first known time that the Department of Children and Family Services had contact with Cunningham before AJ was even born.

• June 7, 2012: DCFS received a call alleging inadequate supervision. JoAnn Cunningham, who would later give birth to AJ Freund, was accused of abusing prescription drugs and neglecting her foster child. The case was labeled “unfounded,” meaning the agency did not find credible evidence of abuse or neglect.

• Dec. 24, 2012: DCFS received a call alleging environmental neglect and an injurious environment causing danger to her oldest son, who now lives with a different family. Cunningham was accused of abusing prescription drugs. The case was unfounded.

• Oct. 16, 2013: Two days after AJ’s birth, DCFS received a report alleging substance misuse and neglect. AJ and Cunningham tested positive for opiates and benzodiazepines. AJ was removed from his mother’s care a month later.

• Nov. 14, 2013: DCFS was granted temporary custody of AJ in juvenile court. He then was placed with his cousin in a “relative foster home.” Cunningham and AJ’s father, Andrew Freund Sr., participated in parenting classes and drug treatments.

• December 2014: AJ’s younger brother was born and remained with Cunningham.

• June 2015: A judge ordered that AJ return to his mother when he was 18 months old. Between June 24, 2015, and April 13, 2016, a Youth Service Bureau worker made 26 unannounced visits to the home and did not see signs of abuse or neglect.

• Aug. 28, 2015: A case worker was informed that a drug test taken by Andrew Freund was invalid.

• April 2016: AJ’s juvenile court case was closed.

• March 21, 2018: DCFS received a report that alleged substantial risk of physical injury/injurious environment and environment neglect against AJ’s parents. The report alleged that Cunningham was brought to the emergency room after being found unresponsive in a car. Hospital staff observed odd bruising on AJ’s face.

• April 25, 2018: A DCFS investigator met with Cunningham, AJ and his younger brother. The investigator observed the boys to be clean and did not find signs of maltreatment.

• May 17, 2018: A DCFS investigator completed a final safety assessment of the home. Both boys were observed to be clean and dressed appropriately.

• May 18, 2018: A DCFS investigator verified Cunningham’s participation in drug treatment programs. The report from March 2018 was closed.

• May 24, 2018: McHenry County State’s Attorney Patrick Kenneally penned a letter to DCFS regarding the handling of McHenry County cases, citing three specifics. Read the letter here.

• Dec. 18, 2018: DCFS received a report alleging environmental neglect as to both boys and cuts, welts and bruises. Police also observed the ceiling falling down and the floor torn up, and the kids’ bedroom smelled of dog urine. Cunningham was arrested for driving on a suspended license, and both children were taken into protective custody.

A DCFS investigator interviewed the boys at the Crystal Lake Police Department. AJ said he received a bruise when the family dog pawed him. Cunningham told DCFS they were remodeling the home and admitted to dog feces and urine being present. A DCFS investigator asked Cunningham to get AJ medical care after she was bailed out.

The children were returned home.

Later on Dec. 18, a physician examined AJ but could not determine how his injury was caused. The doctor said the injury could have been caused by a dog, belt or a football. Still, the doctor was concerned because AJ said, “Maybe someone hit me with a belt. Maybe mommy didn’t mean to hurt me.”

A DCFS investigator contacted the father to pick up the children from the hospital until the home environment could be assessed.

• Dec. 19, 2018: A DCFS investigator conducted an unannounced home visit. The living room and dining room were cluttered with clothes and toys. The father denied any corporal punishment, and he denied that Cunningham used drugs.

• Jan. 4, 2019: DCFS deemed the case unfounded because of the lack of evidence of cuts, welts and bruises.

• Feb. 22, 2019: The Freund home was sold at a foreclosure sale. The couple remained in the house.

• March 4, 2019: Cunningham allegedly took a video of AJ lying naked in a crib, with bandages around his wrists and hips and an ice pack over his eyes. The boy’s chest, neck and eyes were badly bruised. Cunningham appears to berate the boy for wetting the bed in the video, McHenry County court records show.

• April 14, 2019: Freund and Cunningham allegedly forced AJ to take a 20-minute cold shower as punishment for lying about soiling his underwear. Freund told police that he wanted Cunningham to stop with the “hard physical beatings” and do a less violent punishment, McHenry County court records show. The child was put to bed naked, wet and cold.

• April 15, 2019: Someone used Freund’s phone to Google “child cpr” at 3:17 a.m. Freund told police that Cunningham had found AJ unresponsive in bed. Freund later that morning put AJ’s body in a large tote and hid it in the basement, McHenry County records show.

• April 17, 2019: Freund put the boy’s body into garbage bags, then put the body in the trunk of his car, and drove the body to the burial site. Freund tells police that he went to the Crystal Lake Jewel-Osco about 9 p.m. that day. An April 17 photo of a shopping list containing items such as duct tape, plastic gloves, air freshener and bleach later was found by police, according to McHenry County court records.

• April 18, 2019: Freund went to a 6:30 a.m. doctor appointment at a rehabilitation clinic in Elgin. He called the police to report AJ missing about 9 a.m. DCFS received a hotline report alleging environmental neglect and inadequate supervision. Police said the home had ripped-up floors, food lying around and garbage everywhere. DCFS took custody of AJ’s younger brother.

• April 19, 2019: Investigators interviewed AJ’s younger brother at the McHenry County Child Advocacy Center. The 4-year-old boy told interviewers that his parents had told him not to talk about AJ, and said that his mother told him AJ had “fallen down the stairs and has a lot of owies,” according to McHenry County court records.

Cunningham retained Crystal Lake attorney George Kililis and appeared with him outside the home. Kililis told the public that Cunningham is “worried sick” and had nothing to do with AJ’s disappearance.

• April 20, 2019: Freund left the home with police. A vigil was held in AJ’s honor at Main Beach in Crystal Lake later in the day. Both Cunningham and Freund attended.

• April 23, 2019: Freund and Cunningham appeared in McHenry County court together for a shelter hearing to determine where the 4-year-old child living in the home would be placed amid allegations of abuse and neglect.

• April 24, 2019: Freund confessed his role in the child’s death and burying. He led police to an area near ComEd transmission towers off Dean Street near Woodstock, where police discovered AJ’s body wrapped in plastic inside a shallow grave. Police removed evidence from the home, including a shovel, a toddler mattress, several lawn bags and a large tub from the home. Animal control took possession of the family dog, a Boxer named Lucy. Freund and Cunningham each are charged with first-degree murder in connection with the 5-year-old’s death.

Crowds in Crystal Lake and Woodstock gathered to pay respects as news broke that AJ was dead.

• April 29, 2019: Cunningham and Freund agreed to have DCFS care for their younger son. Prosecutors tried to revoke the former couple’s parental rights.

• May 10, 2019: Cunningham and Freund pleaded not guilty to all charges.

• May 31, 2019: Cunningham gave birth to a baby girl and agreed to keep the child in DCFS custody.

• June 18, 2019: Attorneys awaited psychiatric evaluations of Cunningham and Freund.

• Aug. 7, 2019: A McHenry County judge granted prosecutors’ motions seeking AJ’s past medical records.

• Aug. 29, 2019: Prosecutors sought additional medical records of Cunningham.

• Sept. 26, 2019: Cunningham gave a jailhouse interview with CBS, saying “I would rather kill myself than hurt my family.”

• Nov. 27, 2019: The city of Crystal Lake was allowed to move forward with its plans to demolish the house where authorities alleged that Cunningham and Freund caused the death of their 5-year-old son and concealed his remains.

• Dec. 5, 2019: Cunningham pleaded guilty to the first-degree murder of AJ.

• March 4, 2020: The city of Crystal Lake demolished the Dole Avenue home where AJ was killed.

• July 17, 2020: Cunningham was sentenced to 35 years in prison.

• Aug. 6, 2020: Cunningham was taken to the Logan Correctional Center in Lincoln.

• Sept. 10, 2020: In an extremely unusual move, authorities charged two DCFS workers, Carlos Acosta and his supervisor Andrew Polovin, with child endangerment in alleged failures to intervene in AJ’s case and remove him from the home before he was killed. Acosta was a McHenry County Board member at the time. Both men later pleaded not guilty.

Sept. 18, 2020: Freund pleaded guilty to aggravated battery of a child, involuntary manslaughter and concealment of a homicidal death. He was sentenced to 30 years in prison.

• Jan. 21, 2021: Freund, who was licensed as an attorney in 1984, was disbarred as a result of the convictions, according to the Illinois Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission.

• March 28, 2022: Cunningham filed a post-conviction petition pro se, alleging that her constitutional rights were violated, she had ineffectual counsel and she was prescribed psychiatric medication while pregnant, leading to hormonal unbalance.

• June 1, 2022: McHenry County Judge Robert Wilbrandt dismissed Cunningham’s post-conviction petition, saying her constitutional rights were not violated and disputing many of her claims.

• Sept. 11, 2023: The child endangerment trial began for former DCFS child protection specialist Acosta and Polovin.

• Oct. 13, 2023: Acosta was found guilty of child endangerment for mishandling AJ’s case. Polovin was cleared of all charges.

• June 2024: Acosta is expected to be sentenced for a child endangerment conviction related to failures to protect AJ before his killing.