The screech I let out yesterday afternoon upon hearing the sentence handed down to JoAnn Cunningham startled my teenage son out of his bedroom, and that’s saying something.
JoAnn pleaded guilty to murder in December of 2019 in the death of her five-year-old son, Andrew Thomas “AJ” Freund Jr. By accepting a plea agreement, JoAnn avoided the possibility of being sentenced to life in prison, and all related charges against her were dropped. For her guilty plea, JoAnn faced 20 to 60 years in prison.
Both JoAnn and her husband, Andrew “Drew” Freund Sr., were charged in AJ’s April 2019 murder. Drew called 911 on April 18, 2019 and reported AJ missing, although authorities believe he had been dead for approximately four days by that time. When police arrived at the home, they discovered a complete pigsty, and indeed, the house was ultimately condemned and torn down earlier this year. Within days of AJ’s disappearance, information provided to investigators by both Drew and JoAnn led to the discovery of AJ’s body buried in a shallow grave near Woodstock, Illinois, about eight miles from the family’s home, wrapped in grey plastic garbage bags.
According to Drew, JoAnn forced AJ into a cold shower, where she beat him savagely with the showerhead before putting him to bed, wet and naked. AJ died overnight. Drew allegedly knew of the abuse beforehand and assisted with hiding the body.
The case against Drew is ongoing. Some expect him to be offered a plea deal eventually, but as of now, nothing has been announced. He has pleaded not guilty to the charges against him and is due back in court on July 30.
His mother’s sentence has hit me hard, and I’ll tell you why. AJ will always have a very special place in my heart. The smiling five-year-old boy with blond hair and brown eyes was the first abused and murdered child I covered on Suffer the Little Children Blog. A year later, his was the first story I chose to cover on the Suffer the Little Children Podcast.
Because to me, AJ’s death epitomized a worst case scenario in which every single person who should have protected him from harm failed him. The two who should have been most invested in protecting him, caring for him, nurturing him, and loving him, his own parents, JoAnn Cunningham and Drew Freund, did far more than fail him.
Now, one half of the demonic duo responsible for his untimely death has been sentenced, and it is nowhere near enough to make up for what this evil, selfish woman did to her own little boy.
I’ll give you a short-form play-by-play of the testimony offered during the two-day hearing, which took place July 16 and 17, 2020.
Outside the courtroom, a local group called Roar for AJ gathered with signs and 60 blue balloons, one for each year JoAnn could potentially face in prison.
Prior to the hearing on Thursday morning, court administrator Dan Wallis warned the audience of approximately 50 people, including members of the media and law enforcement from both the Crystal Lake Police Department and the FBI as well as State Representative Steve Reick, R-Woodstock, to refrain from any outbursts, or else they would be escorted from the room and banned from reentry the following day.
McHenry County Judge Robert Wilbrandt, who has overseen both JoAnn Cunningham’s and Drew Freund’s cases pretty much from the beginning, entered the courtroom a few minutes after 9:00 AM. He gave instructions to everyone in the courtroom: they must wear masks at all times; there was no assigned seating except for press coverage; and if they left the courtroom, they would not be allowed reentry.
JoAnn Cunningham, wearing a gold ring with a cross on her left ring finger, sat at the defense table with her brown hair pulled back from her makeup-free, acne-ridden face into two tight braids, dressed in flattering jailhouse orange. She is hardly recognizable as the same gaunt, platinum blonde, hollow-eyed woman in her mugshot.
At around 9:30, McHenry County State’s Attorney Patrick Kenneally read several statements of fact into the court record from witnesses not present at the hearing.
- A former neighbor of the Freund family on Dole Avenue in Crystal Lake, Illinois described seeing JoAnn’s car idling in the driveway on a snowy evening, when she noticed AJ’s little brother strapped into a car seat. AJ, she said, stuck his head out of the car and surprised her by saying, “Boo!” She overheard arguing from inside the home, and AJ told her his parents were fighting and that he, his little brother, and his mommy were going to a hotel. When JoAnn exited the house, the neighbor wrote, JoAnn said, “Better not fucking… call the cops on us… leave me the fuck alone.”
- Several other neighbors said in statements that they had witnessed injuries on AJ in the months and years leading up to his death, including very dark black eyes, abrasions, and bruises. They reported several times that JoAnn and Drew had explained AJ’s injuries away by saying he fell down the stairs.
- Two neighbors reported seeing AJ with his family on Halloween and thinking his bandages were part of a mummy costume. JoAnn explained that he was injured by spilling boiling water on himself.
Crystal Lake Police Officer Kimberly Shipbaugh was the first witness to testify. She was the officer on scene on December 18, 2018 when she met JoAnn and her two young boys at the Crystal Lake Taco Bell, where JoAnn told her she had been robbed. AJ was assessed at a local hospital after Officer Shipbaugh visited the Freund home, where she found the conditions to be deplorable and noticed a huge bruise on AJ’s hip beneath the pull-up the five-year-old boy was wearing.
Emergency room doctor JoEllen Channon testified next, stating that she discussed the bruise with AJ. JoAnn had given the explanation that the family dog, Lucy, caused the bruise. When Dr. Channon spoke alone with AJ, he first told her someone outside the family caused it before repeating the story about Lucy the dog. Then he uttered the now-infamous words: “Maybe Mommy didn’t mean to hurt me.”
Dr. Channon testified that she did not want AJ to leave with his mother that day and requested a forensic interview from DCFS, but Carlos Acosta, the Freund caseworker, said it was not possible at the time.
Carlos Acosta has since been fired for his handling of AJ’s case; I’ll touch on that again before the end of this post.
Assistant State’s Attorney Randi Freese next played a clip of a video call between JoAnn and her then-boyfriend, Daniel Nowicki Jr., who is both the father of the baby girl JoAnn birthed in jail last spring and dead of a drug overdose as of September. Both AJ and his younger brother are heard on the call. AJ asks where Daniel is, to which he replies, “I’m in the jail. I’m in jail, buddy.”
AJ is heard telling Daniel, “I love you.”
Daniel replies, “I love you, too, buddy. I’ll see you soon.”
That’s more love than many believe JoAnn showed AJ at any time during his life. This opinion was bolstered by the recordings prosecutors played next, in which JoAnn denigrates and berates AJ, calls him names, and swears and snarls at him. AJ’s tiny, tearful voice is heard saying he doesn’t want a family. The monster who gave birth to him snarls back, “You don’t have one.”
While the recordings were played in the courtroom, JoAnn sobbed and wiped at her streaming eyes and snotty nose. She was the very picture of poor me.
This was the first time I ever heard AJ’s sweet little voice, and I won’t deny I was in tears hearing these recordings, because that tiny voice just squeezed my heart. That little boy deserved an entirely different life than he got.
The next person to testify was Dr. Ashok Mehta, a neonatologist from Centegra Hospital in Woodstock who testified that AJ was born with opiates in his system and showed signs of withdrawal at birth.
Next, Assistant State’s Attorney Rita Gara read another statement, this one from child abuse pediatrician Dr. Barbara Knox, who said that when AJ died, he showed signs of malnutrition, and that he was a victim of chronic psychological and physical abuse.
Crystal Lake Police Officer Brian Burr testified next. He responded to the Freund home on April 18, 2019 after Drew called 911 to report AJ missing. Burr reiterated Officer Shipbaugh’s opinion that the house was utterly disgusting; he was struck by the smell in the house. “I was just overwhelmed with how it smelled and the condition of the house,” he said on the stand. The prosecution led him through a series of photographs of the interior and exterior of the Dole Avenue home. One photo depicted a chain and padlock on the outside of the door of AJ’s bedroom, and others showed locks on the bedroom’s windows. There was even a combination lock on the closet and a small toilet inside the bedroom.
The prosecution then introduced some audio of conversations by telephone between JoAnn and Daniel Nowicki on April 16, 2019, during which JoAnn spoke of AJ as if he was still alive, including asking him to go get her another Red Bull and telling Daniel she was researching child psychiatrists to get AJ on medication for his alleged ODD (Oppositional Defiant Disorder).
AJ died on April 14.
Detective Frank Houlihan then testified, at which Rita Gara introduced into evidence text messages sent between JoAnn and Drew that appeared to be manufactured after AJ’s death on or around April 14. Despite AJ already being dead, Drew wrote to JoAnn, “How are you and the boys doing today? I hope you’re all outside playing.”
They texted back and forth on April 16 about Easter baskets, how to handle AJ’s behavior, and buying a new TV so JoAnn and the boys “can watch movies in bed.”
They discussed an incident that was utterly fabricated in which JoAnn talked about watching around the corner while AJ threw a cup on the floor and broke it, leading to him being sent to his room. They texted extensively, particularly JoAnn, about AJ’s potential diagnosis and prognosis.
She even wrote, “the boys have been so good today,” mentioning that AJ had a couple of behavior lapses, but that he helped clean the house. “He’s such a charmer when he’s good,” she wrote. “Lots of hugs today.”
Again, this was all written after AJ was dead. This was cold, calculated alibi-building.
The bullshit texts continued on the morning of April 18, when the dastardly duo reported AJ missing, discussing where they had already looked and where they should continue to look for him.
Next, text messages were admitted between JoAnn and Daniel Nowicki’s defense attorney while Daniel was incarcerated in April of 2019. In one message on April 18, JoAnn asks the attorney to let “Dan” know that AJ was playing hide and seek with them, and they were unable to find him.
Several clips were then played from JoAnn’s police interview on April 18, 2019. Clearly aware she was being recorded, even looking at the camera at one point, JoAnn was heard whispering to herself, praying her son would come home. When a police officer asked if she knew where her son was, she said she didn’t. She put on quite the little show for the questioning officer, telling them about all the places she’d gone to look for him, insisting she wanted AJ to come home, and weeping.
Following the video, Crystal Lake Police Detective Jeffrey Mattson testified about attending a candlelight vigil shortly after AJ was reported missing, which was attended by over 100 people. He saw both Drew and JoAnn, who was accompanied by her attorneys.
Next up was Crystal Lake Police Commander Richard Neumann, who testified about calling in several other agencies to assist in the search, including the use of drones, search dogs, and one cadaver dog, as well as the FBI. Commander Neumann said the FBI assisted for 6 days, working 24/7. He essentially testified about the huge amount of manpower and the unfathomable number of man-hours the investigation required, including the massive search for a little boy who was never missing in the first place.
Crystal Lake Police Chief James Black testified next, essentially underscoring Commander Neumann’s testimony. In my opinion, Commander Neumann and Chief Black were called to show how insanely costly JoAnn’s lies turned out to be.
After lunch, forensic pathologist Dr. Mark Witeck, who performed AJ’s autopsy on April 25, 2019, described to the court the various injuries he found on AJ’s little body. I’ll summarize them here; it was extremely hard to listen to his testimony. The judge had previously ruled that AJ’s autopsy photos, as well as other sensitive images, would not be shown to or by the media.
- There were several abrasions on AJ’s face, several of which were small and circular, while some were irregular. Many of the circular red abrasions on AJ’s forehead matched the metal showerhead, which the doctor was given to examine, from the Freund home.
- On the left side of AJ’s face, there were more abrasions all the way from his forehead, around the side, to the back of his head, and a blue/purple contusion above his left ear.
- There was an Indentation on top/back of AJ’s head, which the doctor believed was caused when AJ’s severely swollen head encountered some kind of pressure after death. I’m guessing it was from being stuffed inside the plastic tote in the Freund basement.
- On the right side of AJ’s face, more abrasions, bruises, and contusions were present, including along his jaw line.
- On the back of AJ’s head, there was a large abrasion, as well as another abrasion where the neck met the head, and the bruising behind his left ear was starkly visible.
- Inside AJ’s mouth, his lips were markedly swollen and bruised. The frenula, the bits of tissue connecting the lips to the gums, were broken.
- Multiple bruises and abrasions were present on AJ’s knees, lower legs, and feet, as well as a large bruise on his thigh.
- A good deal of green discoloration, as well as several blisters, were due to decomposition, as AJ had been dead for over a week by the time his body was found.
- On AJ’s posterior side, there were multiple abrasions on both elbows and his back. There were excoriated areas (places where the skin was rubbed raw) on his buttocks. All of these injuries could have, the doctor opined, been caused by blunt force trauma.
- During the internal exam portion of the autopsy, the doctor found that AJ’s first rib had an old fracture with a callus, which meant it had been healing for a period of time. AJ’s lungs showed “leopard spots,” a coloration pattern that indicated AJ inhaled blood shortly before death, which probably happened when he was unconscious.
- AJ’s head was severely swollen on the outside and showed bleeding throughout the scalp and soft tissues over the whole head, indicating massive trauma and multiple blows in multiple areas.
- There was no bleeding inside AJ’s skull, Dr. Witeck said, but AJ’s brain was massively swollen and, shockingly, herniated. The doctor explained that when the skull is intact, there are only a few places where the brain can expand. After trauma, when the brain swells enough to fill the space between the brain and the skull, the surface of the brain begins to flatten out, which he discovered was the case with AJ. As the brain starts to crush itself against the skull, breathing and other vital functions are affected. The doctor testified that AJ’s brain swelled to the point where part of it herniated, which means it tried to swell out of the place where the skull meets the spine, causing the little boy’s death.
When Patrick Kenneally asked the doctor how many blows it would take to create injuries this numerous and severe, the doctor said it was hard to say for sure because many of the injuries likely overlapped. It could have been at least a dozen blows, if not more, and potentially several dozen. The doctor opined that most, if not all, of the injuries found during AJ’s autopsy were caused within close proximity to each other, time-wise.
Kenneally asked the doctor if AJ’s death was painful, to which the doctor replied that AJ would have experienced a great deal of pain while being injured, but once he was unconscious, he wouldn’t have felt anything.
Was this the worst case of child abuse the doctor had ever seen? “It’s a pretty bad case,” Witeck said. “Not the worst I’ve seen, but pretty bad.”
After that disturbing testimony, next on the stand was AJ’s former foster mother, who was not subject to extended media coverage, so the cameras were turned off at that point.
The woman cared for AJ for his first 18 months, and she reportedly gave heartfelt testimony about caring for the little boy she met at four months of age. “He was compassionate,” she said. “He was the most perfect little boy.”
AJ’s foster mother testified that he was not at all defiant while with her family. After JoAnn and Drew were given custody, they at first allowed the foster mother to see AJ, but in time, JoAnn informed her that her family was a bad influence on the little boy. “She said that AJ would act out when he returned.”
She read a statement that said, “It’s almost too difficult for words… Before AJ died, I never stopped trying.”
AJ’s younger brother lives with the same foster family now. “I believe [little brother] will be in therapy the rest of his life… even doing a family tree for a school project could bring feelings out… I will do my best to help him make sense of the insensible. We want to give [him] the most normal life possible.”
At the end of her statement, she said, “We miss AJ every single day.”
Robert Meyer, a clinical psychologist who met three times with JoAnn for a total of three hours and completed a psychological evaluation on her in January of 2020, gave testimony in which he said that JoAnn, who said she was raped and abused as a child and attempted suicide as a teen, has extreme rage and attachment issues. He also testified that she met the criteria for having a Cluster B personality disorder, likely antisocial personality disorder or borderline personality disorder, both of which I can (unfortunately) tell you from personal experience would make her a nightmare of a selfish human being lacking any semblance of empathy.
He did not mention that possible diagnosis in his report, however, a fact that Patrick Kenneally was quick to point out during cross-examination.
Meyer testified that JoAnn found sex with Drew Freund “disgusting” and said their relationship revolved around drugs. When they met, Drew was 54; JoAnn was 29.
JoAnn, Meyer said, “found [Drew] to be a hollow person,” describing her husband as “not there, not connected in any way.”
While JoAnn and Drew were together, Meyer testified, Drew “tolerated” his wife having a romantic and sexual relationship with Daniel Nowicki Jr. under the same roof, even paying for a hotel room for the couple at one point.
Meyer said that JoAnn’s abuse of drugs, particularly Adderall, likely led to her episodes of rage. The typical Adderall prescription is for 20 to 40 milligrams per day; by the time of AJ’s murder, JoAnn told him, she was taking up to 120 milligrams “if not more, every day.”
JoAnn had nothing positive to say about AJ, Meyer said; the woman told him AJ would steal money, break things, and sneak out of his room. He said she never took any of the blame for her son’s behavior.
This guy was a witness for the defense, you guys.
Prosecutor Patrick Kenneally was an absolute rock star during this hearing, but he was on fire during his cross-examination of Dr. Meyer, who he treated with respect and dignity even as he poked rapid-fire holes in the doctor’s testimony and made it crystal clear that JoAnn Cunningham knew exactly what she was doing.
After Dr. Meyer’s testimony, both sides rested.
In his closing argument, prosecutor Patrick Kenneally said that AJ “lived his life in the shadow of her darkness, a dystopian world when your mother scapegoats you, beats you for minor infractions, locks you in your room so that your childish exuberance doesn’t get in the way of her benzo, amphetamine, and opioid use. If ever there was a case that demanded the most forceful and maximum response, not only based on the nature of the case, but their own expert witness says that she’s going to be a danger for the rest of her life, it’s this case.
“What she did,” Kenneally told the court, “goes beyond any category of wrong… It’s evil. And trying to understand evil, showing tolerance in the face of this type of evil, only begets more evil.”
Kenneally said, “The real harm, the real injury caused by AJ’s death is limitless. AJ is irreplaceable. Nothing that we can do will bring him back.” He described AJ’s brutal death, during which JoAnn beat her little boy with a showerhead, screaming in his face.
“She had beaten this little boy to the edge of death… locked in his room. He had to endure the bleak process of death all by himself.”
He went on, “The pain and trauma to AJ’s little body proved too much… mercifully, he died. Five years old, locked in a room, wet… totally and profoundly alone.”
“When we think about the harm, it goes well beyond the brutality he endured on April 14, 2019. The real harm, the real injury caused by AJ’s death is limitless. AJ is irreplaceable. Nothing that we can do will bring him back… This wasn’t a quiet, peaceful death… blow after unrelenting blow, all while being buffeted by freezing cold water, all while his mother screamed in his face.”
“She hasn’t been sitting here crying for AJ,” he said. “She has been sitting here crying for herself.”
All but begging the judge to give JoAnn the maximum 60 year sentence, Kenneally said, “…trying to understand evil, showing tolerance in the face of this type of evil, only begets more evil.”
JoAnn’s defense attorney, Rick Behof, who was assisted throughout the hearing by public defender Angelo Mourelatos, gave his closing argument as well, essentially whining about her awful upbringing and terrible taste in men leading to abusive relationships and then drug abuse, asking the judge to look at “her life in its entirety.” I can’t even be bothered to repeat it. It was nauseating.
JoAnn Cunningham gave a tearful statement to the judge, positioning herself as a victim and begging for mercy. She began with, “I had the privilege of having AJ as a son. I love him, I miss him, and there’s nothing I wouldn’t do to bring him back… Anyone who truly knows me knows how much I love being a mother more than anything in the world. Being a mother defines me. My children gave me a purpose. I miss all of them so much.”
JoAnn has a 19-year-old son in addition to her surviving young son and one-year-old daughter.
I’ll throw up if I have to type the rest of JoAnn’s statement. Suffice it to say she did a lot of leaning on God and blaming drugs and her shitty childhood for her bad behavior, and she pulled a real psychopath move by trying to “humanize” AJ for the judge, describing her son’s favorite color, doughnut, and toys and talking about the kind of child AJ was, describing him as “smart, brilliant, handsome… courageous, driven, and absolutely loved.”
Too bad she never told or showed AJ any of those things while he was alive.
“There is a great sorrow in my heart. I will never be able to justify anything, nor do I want to,” JoAnn sobbed. “I spent the majority of my life on autopilot, hanging on by a thread… I had become a stranger to myself… nobody will ever understand unless they have walked a mile in my shoes.”
She ended with, “I would give my life to have AJ back. This is something I will never escape from.”
Well, Judge Wilbrandt seems to have been swayed by this slag’s bullshit, because on Friday afternoon, he sentenced JoAnn Cunningham to 35 years in prison. He told the courtroom that he considered the fact that JoAnn did not plead guilty to wanton cruelty or any charge that indicated she intended to kill AJ.
“It was a horrible death preceded by a horrible life,” the judge conceded, adding that there was “no finding that Ms. Cunningham intended to kill her son and no finding that she committed the type of wanton cruelty that could have resulted in a sentence of imprisonment for natural life.”
Despite the judge’s earlier warning against any such displays, members of the gallery sitting behind JoAnn and her attorney shook their head in disgust as her fucking pathetic sentence was read.
JoAnn will be required to serve 100% of her sentence. When she is ultimately released from prison, she will be in her 70s, and she will serve another three years under supervised release. She will also be required to register as a violent offender against youth, so I guess there goes her babysitting career. Her older son will likely be in his early 50’s by then, and her younger son and daughter will both be pushing 40. They may even have children of their own, so I hope to God they keep their kids away from the world’s shittiest grandmother.
(I was delighted to find an appropriately captioned coffee mug on Amazon. JoAnn should add it to her wish list.)
Almost immediately after the sentence was handed down, AJ’s extended family released a statement regarding the sentencing:
“We, the family of our beloved Andrew (AJ), are disappointed and saddened by the ruling of the Judge. We know that whatever the punishment, it will not ease the loss and pain we feel. AJ was an innocent, precious little boy whose life was taken from him after he endured, what we now know, was much pain and suffering. We had expected JoAnn would pay for that by spending her natural life in prison.
“We also want to acknowledge everyone for their continued caring and support for AJ and helping to keep our little superhero’s spirit alive. Thank you so very much.”
The family’s attorney, Peter Flowers, said that they are relieved this part of the case is over. He added, “They continue working to also hold the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services accountable for their blatant disregard for AJ’s life and safety. Over the years, Crystal Lake police officers, medical professionals, and neighbors all alerted DCFS about concerns they had for AJ. These reports were never fully investigated, and in some cases, ignored by DCFS caseworkers and supervisors.”
AJ was born with drugs in his system and spent the first 18 months of his life in foster care. He would have been better off if he had stayed there, but Illinois, like most states, places way too high a value on family reunification, even in cases like this, when it’s blatantly obvious that the child is safer elsewhere.
AJ’s family filed a federal civil lawsuit in 2019 against DCFS, which is ongoing. The caseworker in charge of AJ’s case, Carlos Acosta, and his supervisor, Andrew Polovin, were both fired last year over their handling of the Freunds and their “humane indifference” for the safety of AJ and his little brother. The two, who are named in the civil lawsuit, were also accused of falsifying reports in the case. “Ultimately,” Flowers said, “our goal is to change the overall DCFS system so no other child in Illinois has to suffer like AJ.”
The house at 94 Dole Avenue where AJ died was demolished in March of this year. By the empty lot where it stood, a single blue ribbon is tied to a tree.
My two kids have been watching me react to testimony, feverishly tap away on my keyboard, wipe away tears, and mutter to myself for the past two days, and as I was finishing up this post, my teenager asked me, “Would you ever take in a kid like this?”
I didn’t even have to think about it. The word “Yes!” flew out of my mouth so quickly, it felt like it was waiting in the wings for someone to invoke it.
Absolutely nothing that happened to Andrew Thomas “AJ” Freund was his own fault. Even if he had behavior problems, those were undoubtedly caused by the abuse and negligence of his own parents. He was born addicted to heroin; ripped from his mother’s arms at birth; torn away from his loving foster family at a year and a half; and abused and neglected regularly from then on. He was blamed for the problems within his family; he witnessed his parents’ weird relationship while his mother’s boyfriend, lived in the same home; locked in his room for every supposed transgression he committed; he was forced to potty train himself alone; and he was scapegoated by the people who were supposed to love him most.
This little boy never had a chance. What he needed more than anything in the world was for someone to nurture him, to dote on him, to spoil him, to hold him in their arms and tell him he was the most important thing in the world to them, and above all else, to love him.
I’m so sorry, AJ. You deserved the world, and instead you got… nothing.
I will be revisiting AJ’s tragic case on this coming week’s episode of Suffer the Little Children Podcast.
Click here for my ongoing coverage of this heartbreaking case.
Sources: Lake McHenry Scanner, CNN, CBS 2 Chicago, Northwest Herald, ABC 7 Chicago, courtroom video