Birthday gathering for AJ: 'We need to keep a light shining on this tragedy'
It was a birthday party that would satisfy the wishes of any 6-year-old boy.
Blue ribbons and blue and white balloons festooned the gazebo near the Crystal Lake Metra station Sunday afternoon, and cupcakes were available for the more than 40 people who attended. All sang "Happy Birthday" and filled the air with bubbles.
But the guest of honor, AJ Freund, forever 5, was absent.
His visage, frozen in time, smiled out at the guests from pictures pasted to a sign reading "Happy 6th Birthday In Heaven AJ," and accompanied by the motto, "roar means I LOVE YOU' in dinosaur," beside a cartoon dinosaur.
ROAR for AJ is the name of the community group that organized Sunday's celebration to mark what would have been AJ's sixth birthday Monday, as well as advocate for reform at the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services.
"We really need to keep a light shining on this tragedy," said Tracy Kotzman, who founded the ROAR for AJ Facebook group.
AJ's parents, Andrew Freund, 60, and JoAnn Cunningham, 36, face first-degree murder and other charges stemming from AJ's death in April. Authorities allege the boy was beaten to death in his home and then buried in a shallow grave near Woodstock. His parents have pleaded not guilty.
"I feel it could have been prevented," Kotzman said, "and we need changes within DCFS to do that, and I feel they won't make those changes unless all of us stand together like we are here today and put pressure on them to do so, and to do so swiftly before another child dies."
From the gazebo, participants marched from the city's downtown, past Crystal Lake City Hall and to AJ's home on Dole Avenue. A bear was placed on the doorstep of the boarded-up house, and marchers sang "Happy Birthday."
Crystal Lake resident April Montemira, who has been among the demonstrators standing outside the McHenry County courthouse on days AJ's parents have appeared in court, pledged to continue the silent vigil.
"Every time they go to court, we're going to be out there," she said. "We're going to be (AJ's) voice."
Marchers on Sunday came from as far as St. Charles and Naperville to mark the boy's birthday. Several said they have children, and AJ's plight struck them deeply.
"I have a 5-year-old son. When I saw the story in the news, it just touched my heart, pulled on my heart strings," said Naperville resident Michelle Egizio.
Ken Eldridge of McHenry brought his 8-year-old daughter, Lily.
"I have three other kids, as well," he said. "It's hard to think about. Even if one kid's life is positively affected by this (event), that's great."
Some of the marchers said they knew members of AJ's family.
"That poor little boy was let down by every adult in his life," said Pamela Schuett of Lake in the Hills, who knew Andrew Freund and said drug abuse may have played a role in what happened in April. "Once drugs are involved in people's lives, their personalities change."
Crystal Lake resident Sandi Tabat said she worked with Cunningham at a hair salon in Cary. She said Andrew Freund would pick her up from work and bring the children with him.
"They just seemed like a normal family," she said. " (AJ) was a happy little 4-year-old."
"Something should have been done," Tabat added. "I would like for this to never happen again."