Community says goodbye to AJ Freund at packed visitation
Most of the hundreds of people filing past 5-year-old Andrew "AJ" Freund's closed casket Friday afternoon had probably never seen the boy, let alone met him.
But the communitywide visitation at Davenport Funeral Home in Crystal Lake was a chance for a town to come together and grieve the loss of a boy everybody sadly knows now.
"I keep struggling with it all and I want to know why," said Barbara Verseman, of Crystal Lake. "I finally stopped asking how this could have happened and am taking comfort that he's in a better place."
By the time doors to the funeral home were opened at 1 p.m., more than 500 people were in two lines that stretched north into a nearby shopping center. The mourners came with flowers, stuffed animals, balloons and in tears.
The town is still draped in the blue ribbons that were wrapped around trees and attached to windows when AJ was reported missing April 18.
However, police never believed the boy had been kidnapped or wandered away as search dogs could not find any trace of him outside the family's home on Dole Avenue. The house, with its makeshift memorial still growing on the lawn, has been boarded up in recent days.
Joe Noble, a longtime Crystal Lake resident who once employed AJ's father as his businesses' attorney, said he'd never seen his community respond to something like this with such unity. He arrived for the visitation just after noon and was behind about 300 other mourners.
"It is just hard to wrap your brain around what happened," he said.
"It's devastating to hear a child have to tolerate so much."
Last week, investigators recovered the boy's remains wrapped in plastic and buried in a shallow grave in a field near Woodstock. An autopsy determined the AJ had died from blunt force trauma to his head. His parents, Andrew Freund Sr., 60, and JoAnn Cunningham, 36, were charged with his murder.
In a recently released search warrant, investigators told a judge that Freund Sr. explained how Cunningham forced AJ to endure a 20-minute cold shower and was beaten for lying about soiled underwear. Police believe AJ was killed April 15, three days before his parents reported him missing.
In the wake of the boy's death, a series of reports from police and Illinois Department of Children and Family Services released by the various agencies painted a tragic history of the boy's life. Born with opiates in his system in 2013, AJ was sent to live with a cousin for the first 18 months of his life. His parents regained custody and eventually cut off contact with the people who initially raised the boy. DCFS reports a series of interactions with the family over the years, including this past December when the boy was taken to a hospital to get a suspicious bruise checked out that Cunningham blamed on the family dog. AJ first told a doctor that his mother might have beaten him but later said the dog had caused the bruise. AJ was allowed to go home.
Police reported they recovered a video taken in March 2019 that had been deleted from his mother's phone that showed a battered and bandaged AJ lying naked in a crib while a woman police believe to be Cunningham berated him off-screen for wetting the bed as well.
When police began searching for AJ weeks ago, DCFS took the boy's younger brother into custody and placed him in foster care with relatives. Cunningham, who is still in jail on a $5 million bail, is pregnant with her fourth child. DCFS will take custody of that child as well.
AJ's death affected many in Crystal Lake and elsewhere. The boy is being remembered with decals, T-shirts, pins, ribbons and in other ways.
Crystal Lake resident Jessica Borg with her father, retired McHenry County Deputy Scott Milliman, organized search groups, started a Facebook page and, on the day the parents were charged in AJ's death and his body was recovered, held a vigil on the square in Woodstock.
Borg said she has made and distributed more than 500 free pins in four varieties.
"We have been (working) nonstop," she said Thursday. Requests have come from 22 states, she added.
"I'm not denying anybody pins. I want him (AJ) to look down and know that he was loved," she said.
• Daily Herald staff writer Mick Zawislak contributed to this report.