Well, it’s not exactly a happy ending, but at least this is a tiny bit of the justice murdered 5-year-old AJ Freund deserves.
At a brief court appearance in Woodstock, Illinois on the morning of Thursday, December 5, his 36-year-old mother, JoAnn Cunningham, pleaded guilty to the little boy’s murder in April of this year. The Crystal Lake, Illinois woman, who spent months tearfully denying she fatally abused her son, pleaded guilty to his murder in front of Judge Robert Wilbrandt, declining to speak when the opportunity was afforded to her.
When she is sentenced next year, JoAnn will face 20 to 60 years in prison. By pleading guilty to first degree murder, related charges were dropped, and JoAnn avoided the possibility of being sentenced to life in prison, but at least it brings a little closure to part of this tragic, horrible case.
The plea deal also removed verbiage from the charge that described AJ’s murder as “brutal and heinous,” which is why her maximum sentence caps out at 60 years. She will, according to prosecutors, be forced to serve 100% of the sentence. Her next status hearing is scheduled for January 30, 2020. Her attorneys, Rick Behof and Angelo Mourelatos, have requested psychological, psychiatric, and substance abuse evaluations before she is sentenced.
Prosecutors filed an 11-page document on Thursday afternoon that revealed details of the night AJ was murdered, along with the contention that a forensic pathologist would testify to AJ’s injuries being consistent with child abuse. Had the case gone to trial, the document states that prosecutors would have presented evidence that AJ had been the victim of “a number of prior incidents of child abuse, torment, and callous neglect” at the hands of his mother. To explain many of AJ’s injuries, JoAnn had used different excuses, including that AJ spilled boiling water on himself or fell down the stairs.
The document also discusses a video found on JoAnn’s phone, recorded on March 27, 2019. This is tough to read, so get ready. In the video, JoAnn has AJ, who has cuts and bruises on his face, pinned to the bathroom wall by his throat after he said something about getting her in trouble with someone. JoAnn demands AJ, who is choking for air, tell her who he is going to “get her in trouble with.” In the background, AJ’s father, 60-year-old
creep former lawyer Andrew “Drew” Freund Sr., can be heard grilling AJ, swearing at him “in a menacing and aggressive tone.”
In the video, AJ tells his parents he loves his family, to which JoAnn snaps, “Bullshit; you don’t show it.” She asks AJ if he thinks his parents and younger brother, Parker, “do evil in this house,” to which AJ heartbreakingly replies, “no, just me.”
(What. The. Fuck.)
Also in the video, AJ says “he just wants to be alone and not have anyone around him,” to which JoAnn responds, “You are alone, in your room all day.” Further along in the video, AJ states, “I just don’t want a family.” The document states that JoAnn then told her own five-year-old son he doesn’t have a family.
She tells AJ his dad thinks he is a liar and a manipulator and rants about AJ trying to hatch a plot to live alone with Drew, leaving JoAnn and AJ’s younger brother behind. She then screams directly into AJ’s ear, “It doesn’t matter; it doesn’t matter. None of it is gonna happen… ever!”
Have I mentioned these suburban train wrecks were both relapsed drug addicts? Say no to heroin, kids. It does you exactly no favors, including to your physical appearance. Photos of JoAnn from her clean days depict a pretty, bright-eyed blonde, while pictures taken during her drugged-out periods show a pockmarked, scowling hag. Eek.
With her guilty plea, JoAnn admitted to the information detailed in the filing. Her plea included language confirming that between April 15 and April 17, she hit AJ, knowing there was a “strong probability of death or great bodily harm.”
Unfortunately, JoAnn’s plea does not require her to testify against Drew, who also faces charges related to his son’s death. She could, however, be subpoenaed as a witness if Drew’s case goes to trial, according to prosecutors.
“I can’t give you a good idea how this ultimately will affect his case or how his case will ultimately be resolved,” McHenry County State’s Attorney Patrick Kenneally said. “We’re just not there yet.”
Drew’s court-appointed attorney, Henry Sugden, says Drew plans to cooperate with prosecutors and doesn’t think JoAnn’s plea will affect Drew’s case, in which Sugden says a plea deal is also possible. Drew has pleaded not guilty to three charges of murder as well as aggravated battery, aggravated domestic battery, failure to report a missing child or child death, and concealment of a homicidal death. “I’m still trying to arrive at an agreed disposition,” Sugden said.
According to court records, Drew blamed JoAnn for AJ’s death. He told police that JoAnn hit AJ in the head after making him suffer through a cold shower for 20 minutes, all because the little boy allegedly lied about hiding his soiled underwear.
Thursday’s filing includes excerpts of police interviews with Drew, including one in which he told investigators he often intervened when JoAnn would hit AJ, telling her “that’s not the way to go,” so she devised the cold shower punishment as an alternative. Oh, and get this; Drew referred to AJ as “a disruptive force” in their home.
Drew told investigators that AJ died on the evening of April 14 after JoAnn put the boy through “some hitting” and putting him into the cold shower, in which JoAnn forced the detachable shower head into AJ’s face, causing him to lose his balance and fall in the bathtub.
AJ’s autopsy showed he died from head injuries, which were inflicted in addition to multiple blunt force injuries to his torso and extremities. The prosecution’s statement includes more details of the autopsy, including the fact that before AJ’s painful death, he inhaled his own blood. He also had abrasions on his forehead consistent with the pattern of the shower head his mother shoved into his face. My heart just rips in two when I think about what this precious little guy went through.
JoAnn’s mother, Lori Hughes, told the Chicago Tribune that she is relieved her daughter admitted her guilt, sparing her family members the ordeal of a trial. JoAnn has three other children, including 19-year-old son Austin, 4-year-old son P.F., and an infant daughter born while JoAnn was in prison for AJ’s murder. Regarding the plea agreement, Lori said, “I hope her incentive was because she cares about [her other kids] and didn’t want to make them go through a trial and have to testify on the stand. That’s my hope.”
Lori had custody of Austin for several of his teenage years due to JoAnn’s utter inability to behave like a mother. In fact, Austin moved in with his grandmother in 2012 and never again lived with JoAnn. “With everything that he has gone through, he’s been so successful and mature,” Lori said about Austin. “I’m very proud of him.” Lori and her longtime boyfriend are now helping Austin through college, where he is currently a sophomore. Austin refused to read a letter JoAnn sent him from jail over the summer in which, Lori said, JoAnn professed her innocence and her hope that Austin would visit her. I don’t blame the kid for turning his back on the woman whose neglect and narcissism cost his little brother his life. Austin owes JoAnn exactly nothing. Despite his chaotic and certainly traumatic upbringing, Austin seems like a stand-up guy and a decent human being who honestly cares about his siblings, and he deserves recognition for that.
Here’s a tidbit I hadn’t read before that made my head threaten to split in half: on April 19, 2019, while AJ was still missing, little P.F. was interviewed at the McHenry County Children’s Advocacy Center. P.F. told officials his mother had told him AJ “fell down the stairs and had a lot of owies,” and that his parents told him he was not allowed to talk about AJ. The next month, child welfare officials again interviewed P.F., who said he missed AJ and his dad, but that he was afraid of two things: the dark and his mother. “Mommy is a monster,” P.F. told child welfare officials, adding that AJ used to get in trouble a lot for lying and that AJ had “demons” inside him because he was “bad.”
Just to wrap up this post, on November 27, McHenry County Judge Kevin Costello ruled that the Crystal Lake, Illinois home where JoAnn and Drew beat AJ to death can be demolished. Drew, wearing his snazzy orange jail ensemble, was in court that day and told the judge he did not object to its demolition. Judge Costello, seeing “no legal basis to deny” the city’s request to demolish the house, said it could take place on or after December 12 of this year. City of Crystal Lake attorney David Pardys said he will discuss the ruling with city officials in order for the issue to be taken up with the City Council.
Click here for more of my coverage on AJ’s case.
Sources: Daily Herald, Chicago Tribune, CNN, Facebook