Parents’ texts suggest effort to cover up killing of 5-year-old son
The voice of a 5-year-old boy who was beaten to death and buried in a shallow grave filled a northern Illinois courtroom Thursday during a hearing in which a judge will decide if his mother, who admitted to killing the child, should die in prison.
McHenry County prosecutors played a tape of an argument between JoAnn Cunningham and Andrew "AJ" Freund two weeks before his death in April 2019.
The boy, who prosecutors said Cunningham beat long before his death, can be heard telling his mother that he would like to have "really bad people" do bad things to her so she would leave him with his father.
Cunningham asked why.
"So I don’t ever see you again," AJ answered, according to the Northwest Herald.
The hearing is expected to end on Friday with McHenry County Judge Robert Wilbrandt sentencing the 37-year-old mother. Cunningham has pleaded guilty to first-degree murder in her son’s beating death.
McHenry County State’s Attorney Patrick Kenneally said Cunningham should receive the maximum 60-year sentence — meaning she would die in state prison — for what he says was years of physical abuse that ended with AJ’s murder. The boy’s battered body was found in a shallow grave, not far from his Crystal Lake home just days after his parents reported him missing.
The story started with hope that the missing boy in the photograph, a smiling kid, a baseball cap pulled tight on his head, would be found alive. After an intense search of woods near the family’s home turned up nothing, hope turned to fear, and concern for the parents quickly turned to suspicion when they stopped cooperating with investigators.
A few days later, Cunningham and the boy’s father, Andrew Freund Sr., were arrested and charged with first-degree murder.
Authorities have revealed that a video on Cunningham’s cellphone dated March 4, weeks before the boy’s death, showed AJ lying naked on a mattress covered in bruises and bandages. On the video, a woman believed to be Cunningham can be heard berating him for wetting his bed. .
When investigators confronted Freund with that video, he led them to where his son was buried in a shallow grave, his body wrapped in plastic. Later, According to court documents, Freund — who has pleaded not guilty — told police that it was Cunningham who beat the boy and that he had suggested they punish AJ by making him take cold showers instead.
An autopsy revealed that the boy had been struck multiple times and died from blunt force trauma. The pathologist who conducted the autopsy, Dr. Mark Witeck, testified Thursday that there were bruises all over AJ’s body.
A police officer also testified Thursday to some of the heartbreaking details of AJ’s life before he was killed.
Crystal Lake Police Officer Brian Burr told the judge that he went to the family’s home after AJ was reported missing. Burr described the overwhelming stench when he stepped inside the garbage-strewn house. Perhaps more ominous, given all the accounts of the physical and emotional abuse the boy endured in his short life, were the chain lock and padlock outside AJ’s bedroom and the locks on his windows, all apparently installed to keep him inside his room.
Perhaps the strangest and most chilling evidence came when prosecutors presented the judge with text messages that the boy’s parents exchanged after the boy died but before his body was found.
The texts suggest the couple was taking pains to cover their tracks by writing messages they thought police would ultimately see. They discuss plans for AJ and his brother, including decorating Easter eggs and what they might do to improve AJ’s behavior.
"Give the boys a kiss and hug for me," Freund texted Cunningham, who in one text after she killed her son asked about buying a television so she and her sons "can watch movies in bed."
On the night of his death, AJ was put in the shower after Cunningham found soiled underwear that he had tried to hide, authorities said. The autopsy found that bruises on his face matched a detachable shower head, indicating he was not merely forced to stand under freezing water but was beaten in the shower, according to published reports at the time.
Freund told investigators that he put the boy to bed "cold, wet and naked." The father said Cunningham later found their son unresponsive, according to court documents.
Court documents tell of a boy who was in danger his entire life. Tests at birth revealed he and his mother had opiates in their systems, prompting the state’s Department of Children and Family Services to take the baby into custody before returning him to them some 20 months later.