One year after the slaying of 5-year-old AJ Freund, the Crystal Lake community and beyond continues to feel the aftershock of what prosecutors called “an unspeakable, horrifically sad tragedy.”
A police search for AJ gripped the nation as investigators discovered the blond-haired, 70-pound boy’s body in a shallow grave miles from his home April 24. The revelation shifted eyes toward the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, which had contact with AJ twice earlier that year.
A federal lawsuit and a wave of recommendations soon were born out of AJ’s death, including the firing of two DCFS employees and a proposal to do away with McHenry County’s DCFS office.
In the meantime, AJ’s parents, JoAnn Cunningham and Andrew Freund Sr., remain behind bars. Their dilapidated Crystal Lake house was demolished last month upon the city’s request. AJ’s death still is felt throughout the county, however, evidenced by “Justice for AJ” bumper stickers and the tattered blue ribbons that remain fastened to telephone poles in his honor.
Although little has been said publicly about the moments just before AJ’s death, more details likely are to be revealed at Cunningham’s July 16 sentencing hearing.
“It’s an unspeakable, horrifically sad tragedy, and what we can take away from it is we now have that responsibility in this county … to go beyond the requirements to meet the needs of kids in the community and make sure something like this doesn’t ever happen again,” McHenry County State’s Attorney Patrick Kenneally said.
Cunningham’s attorneys, Assistant Public Defenders Angelo Mourelatos and Richard Behof, declined to comment while the case is ongoing. Reached by phone Friday, Freund’s attorney, Special Public Defender Henry Sugden, said he had no new information about the case, which has been continued to May 19.
Cunningham remained at the McHenry County Jail on Friday. The mother of four, including AJ, pleaded guilty Dec. 5 to first-degree murder in connection with her son’s death. Freund, also charged with first-degree murder and other felonies tied to AJ’s death, continues to be held on a $5 million bond.
“There’s been preliminary discussions, but we’re not close to a negotiated plea,” Kenneally said.
It began with a fake 911 call.
“We have a missing child,” Freund told the emergency dispatcher April 18. “Woke up this morning and he wasn’t, he wasn’t, uh –”
Investigators now believe AJ died about three days before the 911 call was made, and that the boy’s parents knew where he was all along.
“I think that, in and of itself, increased the attention of this case to a fever pitch not only in McHenry County but also throughout the rest of the country,” Kenneally said.
On the morning of April 24, Freund led police to an area near the ComEd transmission towers off Dean Street near Woodstock, court records show. It was there that Freund, 61, buried AJ’s body in a shallow grave and covered it with straw, McHenry County Sheriff’s Detective Edwin Maldonado wrote in a search warrant affidavit.
Freund also told investigators how he and Cunningham, 37, forced the child to take a cold shower on the evening of April 14 as punishment for lying about soiling his underwear, Maldonado wrote. The pair found AJ dead early the next morning, Freund allegedly told police.
In a matter of days, AJ became a household name: the smiling boy from the missing persons alerts, pictured in a blue Cubs hat and a “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” T-shirt. Neighbors who lived near the home at 94 Dole Ave. have said they rarely saw AJ outside, although some recalled seeing the boy hand-in-hand on the sidewalk with another man, Daniel Nowicki.
At the time of AJ’s death, Cunningham was about seven months pregnant with Nowicki’s child, although she continued to live with Freund, with whom she had two children.
Nowicki was in jail on unrelated charges the day AJ was reported missing. The criminal complaint from his Dec. 18, 2018, arrest lists Freund and Cunningham’s address as his own. Eventually freed on bond, Nowicki was preparing to pursue custody of his newborn daughter when he died of a drug overdose Sept. 29 in Howard County, Indiana.
As of Friday, AJ’s younger brother and sister remained wards of the state. Under different circumstances, prosecutors would have called Nowicki to testify at Cunningham’s sentencing hearing, Kenneally said.
“Daniel Nowicki would certainly have been called as a witness, without a doubt,” Kenneally said. “Daniel Nowicki provided us with information, and that background is relevant to the criminal prosecution.”
An internal investigation after AJ’s death resulted in the firing of two DCFS employees who questioned AJ’s parents about abuse and neglect allegations months earlier.
McHenry County Board member and longtime DCFS employee Carlos Acosta and his supervisor, Andrew Polovin, were fired from the agency in December.
Acosta, who declined to comment Friday, has previously recounted in detail his Dec. 18, 2018, investigation regarding a large bruise on AJ’s hip. Although AJ told a doctor in private that his mother might have hit him with a belt, the boy was returned to Freund that day after an inconclusive doctor’s examination.
After consulting with fellow DCFS employee Kathleen Gold about her previous interaction with the family, Acosta and Polovin determined the allegations were unfounded.
Representatives from DCFS’ Springfield office could not be reached for comment on this story.
Kenneally, who has been critical of DCFS, said Wednesday that the agency seems to be improving.
“They’re referring a lot more cases to us, probably cases that should have been [referred] in the past,” Kenneally said.
Since AJ’s death, the McHenry County DCFS office has brought on at least six new staff members for a total of three supervisors and 15 investigators, Kenneally said. The state’s attorney’s office also has assigned special prosecutor and criminal supervisor Sharyl Eisenstein to oversee the McHenry County juvenile abuse and neglect courtroom.
State Rep. Steve Reick, R-Woodstock, additionally proposed that McHenry County replace its Woodstock DCFS office with a locally controlled, state-funded child welfare agency.
Under “AJ’s Law,” county employees would be responsible for the duties previously carried out by the state’s DCFS agency.
“All of that hopefully will lead to improvement in the overall function and output of DCFS,” Kenneally said.
Prosecutors expect to call between seven and 10 witnesses at Cunningham’s sentencing hearing in July. Those witnesses, which include family, police and medical experts, will provide testimony that prosecutors believe support Cunningham’s guilt and drive home the nature of the crime. Among other factors, prosecutors intend to highlight the opioids in AJ’s system at birth and the details of the Dec. 18, 2018, DCFS investigation, Kenneally said.
On the other hand, Cunningham’s attorneys will have a chance to call their own witnesses, whose testimony may lend itself to a more lenient sentence. It wasn’t clear Friday who the defense might call, although it isn’t likely Freund will testify for either party, Kenneally said.
Before McHenry County Judge Robert Wilbrandt hands down the sentence, AJ’s surviving family members will have an opportunity to express in open court how AJ’s death has affected their lives.
“For a sentencing hearing, there’s going to be a fair amount of evidence,” Kenneally said.