Woman brutally abused, murdered her son, 5. His last words were that he hoped “I don’t ever see you again.”

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CHICAGO, IL – Five-year-old A.J. Freund’s life was heartbreaking from the moment he was born in 2013, with opiates in his system, while his mother, JoAnn Cunningham was incarcerated.

He was taken info foster care when he was four months old and was safe with his foster family until he was 18 months old, when was returned to his biological parents until he was murdered by his mother on April 15, 2019. 

From the time he was 18 months old until the time of his death, the Department of Child and Family Services (DCFS) workers had been called to the residence approximately 17 times, according to People.  DCFS responded to allegations of child abuse and drug use, twice in 2018 alone- once in March for neglect and once in December for abuse and neglect. 

This means that 17 times there was a chance to save this child, and he was failed over and over again, by multiple players.

First, of course, by his mother, who was responsible for the crimes. His step-father, A.J. Freund, Sr (Drew), did nothing to prevent the abuse and neglect he received from his mother.

A.J.’s biological father had been attempting to get custody of him, but passed away from a drug overdose during the custody hearing the year prior.

Finally, A.J. was failed by each and every DCFS caseworker who investigated these allegations and did nothing to prevent future abuse and neglect to this poor child.

In an interview with the Associated Press, Representative Sara Feigenholtz, a Chicago Democrat who chairs the House Adoption and Child Welfare Committee, said:

“I got the sense from what I read that the cops were essentially begging DCFS to take the child.  There were so many calls made, so many signs of trouble and still nothing was done.”

Ultimately, on April 15, 2019, young A.J. Freund was murdered by Cunningham for soiling his pants and lying about it. 

As a form of punishment, Cunningham put him in a cold shower for approximately 35 minutes and struck him over and over. The strikes, according to McHenry County Interim Coroner David Devane, were hard enough to cause “craniocerebral trauma as a consequence of multiple blunt force injuries.” 

The court also heard testimony from a forensic pathologist that conducted the autopsy. The pathologist said that A.J. “inhaled his own blood before his painful death and had small circular marks on his forehead consistent with the pattern of a detachable showerhead.”

It wasn’t until three days after his death, that his parents reported A.J. as missing in an attempt to cover up their crime. They told officers he was last seen on April 17, 2019 when they put him to bed and they discovered he was missing the next morning.

During the investigation into the disappearance of A.J., forensic analysis of Cunningham’s phone discovered several videos of young A.J.

One video showed A.J. saying that he wanted “bad people” to hurt Cunningham.

When she asked why he said that, A.J. said: 

“So I don’t ever see you again.”

People reported more on the video:

“‘There’s no way we could get in trouble,’ JoAnn says, after repeatedly asking A.J. who he’d get to hurt her. ‘Who would you go tell on us to get us in trouble? What would you do? What is your grand plan? How would you get us in trouble? With who? With what people?’

“‘By bad people, really bad people,’ AJ said.”

Another video showed A.J. naked and badly beaten on a mattress with bandages wrapped around both wrists and circling his hips. This would end up being the day A.J. was murdered.

A.J. is seen in the video holding an ice pack to his face, when he lowers it, he has deep red bruising around his eyes, and yellow-green bruising around his neck and upper chest area. The video did not appear to show that A.J. received any medical attention for his wounds.

Police showed the video of Cunningham berating young A.J. for soiling his bed to stepfather Drew, who placed the blame on Cunningham.

Drew explained the events that transpired that caused A.J.’s death. 

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Drew stated that he was the one to remove A.J. from the cold shower after he had been there for approximately 35 minutes and then put him to bed “cold, wet and naked.” 

Drew told Police that at some point, Cunningham got up to check on A.J., and that’s when they discovered he had died from the injuries inflicted upon him.

The next day, Drew said, he took A.J.’s body to the basement and stored him in a tote.  On the night of April 17, 2019, he placed Andrew inside several trash bags, placed the body in the trunk of his car, and drove him to a wooded area in Woodstock, Illinois. 

He dug a shallow grave for A.J., placed him in it, “covered him with straw and left.”

Six days after he was initially reported missing, almost a week and a half after his death, officers were led to the shallow grave, where young A.J. was discovered buried.

On July 17, 2020 Cunningham was sentenced to 35 years in prison, plus three years of supervised release once she has completed 100% of her prison term. She went into her sentencing hearing facing 60 years.

At her sentencing hearing this week, Judge Robert Wilbrandt told Cunningham that her actions were “inhumane, repulsive and frankly, shocking”

The judge pointed out that throughout her whole life she has lied, cheated and been manipulative, all while “terrorizing her small son.”

Cunningham told the judge:

“No one will ever understand unless they’ve walked in my shoes or know torment I’ve suffered.” 

She asked for mercy from the court and said:

“[I would] give my life to have A.J. back. … This is something I will never escape from. I am impacted forever by my heartless choices.” 

When asked about AJ, she told the court, she “loves and misses him” and that she “wants her children to be proud of her.”

Further, she stated:

“I’m a loving, kind, compassionate woman who has feelings and loves deeply. I’m human. I ask God to make me a better person every day and to give me my heart and joy back.

“As much as I deserve punishment, I believe I deserve help. Please help me.”

 

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