Crime & Courts

'These crimes occur in these hellscapes': AJ Freund's father pleads guilty, sentenced to maximum 30 years

Father of 5-year-old AJ sentenced for role in 2019 abuse, death

Andrew Freund is led into McHenry County Judge Robert Wilbrandt's courtroom at the Michael J. Sullivan Judicial Center, formerly known as the McHenry County Courthouse, after his sentencing hearing Friday in Woodstock.
Andrew Freund is led into McHenry County Judge Robert Wilbrandt's courtroom at the Michael J. Sullivan Judicial Center, formerly known as the McHenry County Courthouse, after his sentencing hearing Friday in Woodstock.

After 17 months of denying before a McHenry County judge any involvement in the death of his 5-year-old son, AJ Freund, Andrew Freund Sr. pleaded guilty Friday to aggravated battery of a child, involuntary manslaughter and concealment of a homicidal death.

The 61-year-old Crystal Lake man was sentenced to 30 years in prison but could serve as few as 18 years under the state’s sentencing laws.

When offered the option to make a statement at his sentencing, Freund declined. He stood emotionless next to his attorney during the proceeding. When asked direct questions by the judge about his plea deal, he simply answered, “Yes, your honor,” or “No, your honor.”

After the sentencing, Freund’s attorney, Special Public Defender Henry Sugden, said his client earned the sentence he received because of his cooperation. It is because of Freund’s own words that authorities were able to find the child’s body and know the manner, cause and time of his death.

“Never in a million years would they have been able to find AJ’s body without his cooperation,” Sugden said. “[They] would not have been able to charge JoAnn [Cunningham] or him, and he is the only one who knew where the body was buried. Without that, there would be no way to find the body.”

McHenry County State’s Attorney Patrick Kenneally also pointed to Freund’s cooperation, as well as to the fact that Freund was not directly involved in causing AJ’s injuries. The physical injuries that led to AJ’s death were caused by AJ’s mother, Cunningham, who pleaded guilty to one count of murder and was sentenced in July to 35 years in prison.

Freund cooperated with police, including by leading them to AJ’s remains, and he continues to work with authorities on the investigation into the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, Kenneally said.

“There is this misconception out there that somehow this case was a slam dunk and that the evidence in this case was overwhelming from the outset,” Kenneally said. “Cases involving missing children and uncooperative parents are by their very nature incredibly difficult.”

The decisions made in the investigation ensured AJ was properly buried and his siblings “are going to be safe for the rest of their lives,” Kenneally said. Neither parent will “hurt another kid for as long as they live,” he added.

Sugden said he is relieved both parties were “reasonable” and that the county was spared from hearing the “disturbing” details of AJ’s death at trial.

The plea deal avoids a lengthy and ongoing process that could result in a reversal or different sentence months, years or decades from now, Kenneally said, noting that his office had the blessings of AJ’s surviving family.

“The decision was made after lengthy discussion and input on the part of AJ’s surviving family members, who we wish to thank for their incredible strength and collaboration through this entire process,” Kenneally said.

The sentences approved by McHenry County Judge Robert Wilbrandt include 11 years in prison for aggravated battery of a child, 85% of which must be served under the state’s truth-in-sentencing laws; 14 years for involuntary manslaughter, 50% of which must be served; and five years for concealment of a homicidal death, 50% of which must be served, Wilbrandt said.

Wilbrandt said the sentences would be served consecutively “for the protection of the public.”

After his prison sentence, Freund also will have to spend some time under supervised release and will be listed on the state’s registry for violent offenders against youth, Wilbrandt said. Freund also must agree to be interviewed by the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit assisting in violent crimes.

At Freund’s age, he likely will spend the rest of his life in prison, Kenneally said. The sentences for both parents ensure that neither will harm another child again, he said.

Cunningham’s 35-year term will be served at 100%. She will be 72 years old when released.

During the sentencing, Kenneally read a 13-page statement of fact detailing the conditions in the Freund home and the life AJ endured there. The statements included some of the questioning between Freund and police April 18 and 24 while the community was searching for AJ.

The details mirrored what was presented in Cunningham’s July sentencing hearing.

Freund told police that Cunningham was the disciplinarian at home and that he often did not get home from work until after 9 p.m., when he would help get the boys ready for bed and say prayers. He said AJ often spent hours locked in his bedroom as “extended timeouts” for “egregious” behaviors.

Freund called AJ a “disruptive force in the house” and said AJ had a “stubborn” attitude and lying issues, according to the statement.

“Lying in our house is like zero tolerance,” Freund told police. “He thought he was [the] head of the house.”

Freund was questioned about the videos that Cunningham sent him while he was at work in Riverside, where he was in-house counsel for a group of companies, according to the statement. The videos show Cunningham verbally, emotionally and physically abusing the child.

One video showed Cunningham choking AJ and holding him up against the wall until he no longer could breathe, according to the statement. Freund told police that AJ often was put in the shower as a form of punishment, and he sometimes lost his balance and fell. But Freund said he thought the shower punishment was less violent than Cunningham’s usually physical punishment.

In another video, the child was seen in his bed wrapped in bandages with visible bruises on his body and an ice pack over his eye. When the child removed the ice pack, the camera captures his black-and-blue eyes.

When asked why she sent him the videos of the abuse, Freund said maybe she sent him the videos for support in the discipline, according to the statement. Freund told police that if he intervened with AJ’s discipline, it only got worse.

“She just felt a lot of rage,” Freund told police.

The night AJ died, he was beaten and forced to remain in the cold shower for 20 minutes, after which he was put to bed cold, wet and naked, according to the statement. Freund told police that Cunningham woke him up about 3 a.m. and told him AJ was not breathing.

The search history on Freund’s phone showed someone had searched for how to give a child CPR, according to the statement.

When they could not revive AJ, Freund said he told Cunningham he would “handle it” and placed the lifeless child in a tote in the basement, according to the statement.

AJ died of craniocerebral trauma caused by multiple blunt force injuries, said Dr. Mark Witeck, the pathologist named in the statement of fact. He suffered severe swelling of the brain and blood in his lungs, and his head showed abrasions that matched the shower head in his bathroom.

AJ’s remains were kept hidden in the cluttered and filthy basement ridden with bugs and mice as Cunningham and Freund exchanged text messages reflecting a seemingly normal family, according to testimony during Cunningham’s sentencing hearing. They exchanged details about their daily activities and ideas about how to help AJ with his alleged behavior issues.

The two continued the charade until Freund buried his son in a shallow grave in a field in Woodstock, authorities said. Freund then made a false 911 call the morning of April 18, 2019.

He claimed that he had left home early in the morning for a doctor’s appointment and returned to find his son had gone missing. He told police he conducted his own search at a nearby park, convenience store and school before calling 911.

A communitywide search involving the FBI and other police agencies from across the state continued for about a week before Freund led authorities to his son’s remains.

“We had a missing child and two uncooperative parents,” Kenneally said of the days after the fake 911 call made by Freund. “The system is littered with these cases unsolved.

“These crimes occur in these hellscapes. If you want to get information about what happened from witnesses who exist in these hellscapes, you have to deal with and collaborate with demons. These demons are not going to tell on themselves without some type of consideration.”

AJ often was the subject of police and DCFS calls during his short life. Neighbors said they often saw cuts, bruises and burns on AJ. For the first 18 months of his life, after he was born with heroin in his system, he was in the care of court-ordered foster care.

The case has led to the firing of and criminal charges against DCFS caseworker Carlos Acosta, 54, and his supervisor, Andrew Polovin, 48. The two had become aware of a large bruise on AJ’s hip four months before his death, and authorities said they failed to properly investigate before closing the case.

Loading more

Digital Access

Digital Access
Access nwherald.com and all Shaw Local content from all your digital devices and receive breaking news and updates from around the area.

Home Delivery

Home Delivery
Local news, prep sports, Chicago sports, local and regional entertainment, business, home and lifestyle, food, classified and more! News you use every day! Daily, weekend and Sunday packages.

Text Alerts

Text Alerts
Stay connected to us wherever you are! Get breaking news updates along with other area information sent to you as a text message to your wireless device.

Email Newsletters

Email Newsletters
We'll deliver news & updates to your inbox. Plan your weekend and catch up on the news with our newsletters.