JoAnn Cunningham pleads guilty to murder. Crystal Lake, Illinois mother cops plea deal in death of 5 year old son, AJ Freund. Boy betrayed by a system meant to protect him.
AJ Freund betrayed by a system that was suppose to protect him. The mother of a five-year-old Illinois boy found beaten to death in April has pled guilty to murder after initially claiming the boy vanishing in the middle of the night.
JoAnn Cunningham, 36, entered the plea during a Thursday hearing at the McHenry County courthouse in Illinois.
She faces 20 to 60 years in prison after making a deal with prosecutors to have additional assault charges dismissed.
Cunningham and AJ’s father, Andrew Freund was charged with first-degree murder and other crimes back in April.
Prosecutors said AJ was beaten to death at the family’s home in Crystal Lake on April 15, three days before his parents told police he’d disappeared from his bed in the middle of the night.
A weeklong search for the boy came to a tragic end when his body was found wrapped in plastic and buried in a shallow grave in nearby Woodstock.
An autopsy determined AJ died from blunt force trauma to the head. He also had other visible marks and bruises on his body.
Andrew Freund has yet to enter a plea. Both defendants have been held in the McHenry County jail on $5million bail.
JoAnn Cunningham has pleaded guilty to the murder of her 5-year-old son, AJ Freund, months after his body was found in a shallow grave in suburban Chicago https://t.co/t97RW6DmYc pic.twitter.com/VZKp37tGLT
— CNN Breaking News (@cnnbrk) December 5, 2019
‘I would rather kill myself than hurt my family.’
Cunningham’s guilty plea comes roughly two months after the boy’s mother denied having hurt her child and instead blamed the boy’s father.
‘I would rather kill myself than hurt my family. I’d rather kill myself than hurt anybody,’ Cunningham said during a interview with CBS.
She admitted that she used drugs when she was pregnant, and said it was ‘something I cannot take back’.
Asked if she killed AJ, she replied: ‘No. I would never hurt my children.’
In an apparent attempt to cast blame on AJ’s father, she said: ‘If it’s Drew, then he needs to grow some balls and he needs to tell them so everyone isn’t suffering. You know, I’m scared.’
AJ Freund betrayed by CPS:
In the wake of AJ’s murder it emerged that Child Protective Services had been called to the family’s home more than two dozen times over the course of the boy’s short life.
The Department of Child and Family Services notes revealed Freund and Cunningham were ‘known and self-admitted prior narcotics abusers’.
Cunningham had two complaints brought against her before AJ’s birth, one for inadequate supervision and the other for ‘risk of harm and environmental neglect.’ Both complaints were dismissed.
The department got a call on its hotline on December 18 last year alleging ‘environmental neglect’ affecting both AJ and Parker.
The caller said AJ was covered in ‘cuts, welts and bruises’ and police found that AJ had a ‘large bruise’ on his hip. They also noted that the house’s ceiling was falling down, the floor was torn up, and the children’s bedroom smelled like dog urine.
Cunningham was then arrested – not for harming the children, but for driving on a suspended license – and the two boys were temporarily placed in protective custody.
AJ, who was born with opioids in his system, was initially taken from his parents immediately after his October 2013 birth and placed in the care of a cousin.
He was returned to his parents in 2015 when he was 18 months old and DCFS closed their case on him in April the following year.
But in March last year, warning bells began to ring again when Cunningham was found passed out in her car. At the time, AJ ‘was observed at the hospital to have odd bruising on his face’.
Within two months the case had been closed after Cunningham agreed to enter a drug treatment program.
20 minute cold showers as punishment:
It wasn’t until after Cunningham and Freund were arrested that AJ’s younger four year old brother was brought under the care of a state welfare agency. Cunningham gave birth to a girl while in police custody, and that baby is also under the state’s care.
Freund also tried to cast responsibility off on Cunningham when he was questioned by investigators who confronted him with cell-phone video which showed the mother berating her son after he wet himself.
The two-minute video, which was found on Cunningham’s phone, shows AJ naked on a bare mattress while she berates him for urinating on the bed. The boy is seen holding an ice pack to his face.
When AJ removes the ice pack in the clip, ‘deep red bruising’ can be seen around his eyes and a ‘yellowish-greenish bruising’ is visible around his neck and upper chest, according to court records.
Freund told investigators that Cunningham had punished AJ with a cold shower after the boy ‘lied about soiled underwear’.
The father revealed that he and Cunningham had decided on cold showers as a ‘less violent form of punishment’ because he wanted her to ‘stop with the hard physical beatings’.
Freund said that he helped AJ out of the shower on the night night the boy was murdered after he’d been under the water for 20 minutes, according to documents obtained by WGNTV.
He then put AJ to bed ‘cold, wet, and naked’ and said Cunningham later went to check on him.
Cunningham then woke up Freund and used his phone to do a Google search for ‘Child CPR’, according to court records.
At one point, Freund allegedly told Cunningham that he believed AJ had died.
Freund told investigators that he took AJ’s body to the basement the following morning and stored him in a tote.
On the night of April 17, he placed AJ’s body in several trash bags and put him in the trunk of his car. He then drove to an area in Woodstock, Illinois and buried his son in a shallow grave, covering it with straw. He later directed investigators to the grave.
Empty bottles of bleach:
The court documents reveal how Freund and Cunningham’s story began to unravel after they first reported AJ missing on April 18.
Suspicions quickly turned to the couple after K-9s indicated that AJ had not left his home in Crystal Lake on the night his parents claimed he had disappeared.
Investigators revealed that the couple’s home had been in a ‘hoarder-like condition’, with garbage bags full of ‘wet refuse’ stacked up in the basement and ‘piles of refuse’ filling the garage.
Amid the numerous bags was a garbage bag in the dining room that had white laundry inside that was ‘wet and smelled heavily of bleach’, the documents read.
Investigators also found an empty bleach bottle in the kitchen garbage can, and three more empty bleach bottles in a garbage can by the garage.
They also found a picture of a shopping list, taken on April 17, that included duct tape, plastic gloves, air freshener, and bleach. All the items had been purchased at a local Jewel-Osco.
Freund claimed that Cunningham went through a gallon of bleach a week to clean the family’s home. He said the duct tape was for hanging photographs.
‘She knew there was all this evidence against her.’ JoAnn Cunningham pleads guilty to murder in beating death of 5-year-old son AJ Freund of Crystal Lake. Read our story by @amandamarrazzo https://t.co/nBCujsxniJ pic.twitter.com/nDMffv94Z7
— Stacey Wescott (@StaceyWescott1) December 5, 2019
Google Child CPR:
When police first found the Google search for ‘Child CPR’, Freund had claimed Cunningham, who was seven months pregnant with another man’s baby at the time of her arrest, was preparing for her future child.
Documents also reveal that investigators interviewed the couple’s four-year-old son Parker, who told them that his mother said AJ had fallen ‘down the stairs and had a lot of owies’.
Freund told investigators that Cunningham believed AJ had ‘oppositional defiant disorder’, in which a child shows defiant and disobedient behavior to authority figures.
He claimed that the five-year-old thought of himself as ‘the leader of his home’ and is ‘therefore defiant to his parents, lies, disobeys and thinks things should go his way,’ the court documents state.
In one example, Freund said AJ had washed and stacked the dishes improperly, and ‘lied’ about his dishwashing performance. They punished him by locking the boy in his room for five hours.
Freund and Cunningham have been charged with five counts of first-degree murder, as well as aggravated battery, aggravated domestic battery, and failure to report a missing child or child death. Freund is also charged with concealing a body.