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'It's heartbreaking': Mourners line up to pay respects to Crystal Lake's AJ Freund

Community comes together to honor slain 5-year-old Crystal Lake boy

Hundreds of people lined the sidewalk and wound through Davenport Family Funeral Home on Friday during a public visitation for 5-year-old AJ Freund.

Many mourners dressed in blue or wore blue pins and ribbons in honor of the Crystal Lake boy. Blue ribbons were wrapped around trees along Route 176 and in nearby neighborhoods. Memorial signs bearing AJ’s face were placed around the area.

People of all ages came to pay respects, many crying as they walked away from the funeral home. Visitors expressed shock, hurt and sadness over the situation.

Johnsburg resident Jodi Hensley, a mother of three, attended the visitation to pay respects to the child whose story she has been following since the first day it made the news, when his parents, who now are charged with his death, reported him missing April 18, she said.

“I feel like [the story] is part of me, as a mother,” Hensley said.

She described her experience at the visitation as “horrible” and said the questions surrounding the boy’s short life haunt her.

“How can you do that to your child?” Hensley said. “I have been wondering this whole time what kind of stuff he had been through. Did he ever feel real love?”

Visitors remained steady throughout the day and early evening at the funeral home.

AJ died April 15. His obituary described him as a loving, affectionate and outgoing little boy, whose smile could light up a room.

A Crystal Lake police officer watched over the small casket as mourners walked through the building. Some stopped to sign visitor books or pet the golden retriever support dogs that were present throughout the procession. Others dropped off balloons, cards, flowers and small toys.

Johnsburg resident James Stapleton said he wanted to show AJ the love he had missed out on while he was alive.

“If he is looking down, I don’t want him to think everyone is like his parents,” Stapleton said. “They are monsters.”

He added that his youngest daughter died in October, and he has grandchildren who are the same age as AJ was, which makes the situation emotionally difficult to handle.

“[AJ] was just a little kid,” Stapleton said. “I would love to have a little boy like that. We had three girls and now have three grandkids. They are so sweet.”

More than 20 support dogs and their handlers from the Northbrook-based Lutheran Church Charities K-9 Comfort Dog Ministry worked during the visitation.

Tim Hetzner, president and CEO of the organization, said the agency provides its services as requested and has provided support at several other funerals in the area, which is why the funeral home reached out for AJ’s visitation.

“When you pet a dog, you relax,” he said. “Dogs are very good listeners. They are confidential. Many times people will talk to the dog, and it’s just a way for people to release and start talking, and that is the magic of it.”

Ushers inside handed out memory cards that showed a picture of AJ in a Cubs baseball cap and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles T-shirt.

The back of the card read:

“In loving memory of Andrew ‘AJ’ Freund

“October 14, 2013 – April 15, 2019

“Perhaps they are not stars, but rather openings in heaven where the love of our lost ones pours through and shines down upon us to let us know they’re happy. – Eskimo Proverb”

AJ’s parents, Andrew Freund Sr., 60, and JoAnn Cunningham, 36, have been charged with beating and killing their son days before reporting him missing to police.

The Illinois Department of Children and Family Services had been in contact with AJ on and off since he was born in 2013 with opiates in his system, including placing him in foster care for more than a year after he was born. 

Crystal Lake resident Misty Bowe said the situation has hit her hard because she has a 5-year-old son.

“You don’t know how somebody could hurt a kid,” she said. “Especially being so young, and over something so stupid. I think everyone is shaken up. I don’t know how to describe it. It’s heartbreaking.”

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