'Our little superhero': Relatives say they weren't allowed to see AJ Freund for more than a year
AJ Freund's extended family, including the cousin who raised and fostered him for the first 18 months of his life, issued a statement Tuesday thanking the community and law enforcement for everything done during the search and recovery of the 5-year-old Crystal Lake boy's body.
And they said they hadn't seen AJ in more than a year.
"He was, and will always be, our loving and caring little boy," the family said in a statement released by Chicago-based attorney Peter Flowers on behalf of AJ's former foster parents, grandmother and older brother. "With his brave short life, AJ made the ultimate sacrifice to save his younger brother and unborn sibling. His life shall not be in vain. AJ will always be our little superhero."
AJ was reported missing by his parents, JoAnn Cunningham and Andrew Freund Sr., April 18. But Crystal Lake police and the FBI say the boy was killed by his parents three days earlier, wrapped in plastic and buried in a shallow grave in a field near Woodstock. His remains were recovered April 24, but police believe he was killed April 15.
Authorities removed the couple's 4-year-old from the home after AJ was reported missing.
AJ was born in 2013 with opiates in his system and immediately taken out of his parents' custody by the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services. He lived with a cousin in foster care for the first 18 months of his life, DCFS reported.
But the family said they had not been allowed contact with AJ since before his 4th birthday.
"We, the family that lovingly cared for Andrew (AJ) during the first 18 months of his life and were then allowed to be in his life for another 26 months until the parents abruptly prevented us from having any further contact with him, want everyone to know that AJ was loved by us with all our hearts," the family's statement begins.
Flowers wouldn't discuss what caused the rift between AJ's parents and his extended family, but police and DCFS reports paint a picture of the family's life spiraling out of control. DCFS investigated at least two accusations of neglect against AJ's parents in 2018. Police reports detail disturbing living conditions within the house including pet feces and urine, disrepair and clutter. One police report described the smell of feces in the boy's bedroom as "overwhelming."
Flowers would not go into detail about the family members who issued the statement but suggested they might have more to say after the boy's public visitation services from 1 to 8 p.m. Friday at Davenport Family Funeral Home and Crematory, 419 E. Terra Cotta Ave. (Route 176), Crystal Lake.
"You can't put into words what they're going through," Flowers said by phone, "but having said that, what is amazing about humanity is when you see the worst aspects of humanity, seemingly the best aspects come back. The outpouring of help and condolences has been uplifting to them."
"We want to thank the Crystal Lake police and surrounding police departments, the FBI, all other first responders and our community at large," the family's statement reads. "We appreciate all of the kindness, prayers, love and compassion shown by all."
According to court records, police accuse his parents of forcing AJ to endure a cold shower and beating him on the head with such force that it killed him.
"While we had him in our lives, he had a happy, fun-loving life," the statement reads. "This smart little boy loved having books read to him, doing puzzles, his Thomas the Train, playing with his fire trucks, bulldozers, cement mixer and Ninja Turtles. He was very curious and always wanted to learn about everything."