On AJ Freund's 6th birthday, community members are still seeking justice
Boarded up and sitting desolate in the heart of Crystal Lake, a white house on Dole Avenue serves as a constant reminder of the unthinkable tragedy that occurred behind its doors.
Gone are the makeshift memorials and crowds of mourners that once gathered outside. But cars still slow down and pedestrians pause as they pass by, haunted by the site where authorities say AJ Freund was murdered by his parents six months ago.
The 5-year-old's death in April shook the community to its core -- even more so as details of his short and chaotic life emerged -- leaving loved ones and strangers alike reeling over how any child could meet such a fate.
AJ's parents, JoAnn Cunningham and Andrew Freund Sr., are behind bars awaiting trial. His siblings are in custody of the state. Crystal Lake is pushing to tear down the white house at 94 Dole Ave., where AJ lived -- and was beaten to death, according to police -- in what city officials say were uninhabitable conditions.
Above the noise, a group of community members is aiming to keep AJ's memory alive through protests, Facebook groups and now a celebration of what would have been his 6th birthday Monday.
They never met him, never knew his family. Yet their goal remains the same as that of relatives, prosecutors, neighbors and friends: Justice for AJ.
Images of AJ started circulating April 18, blasted across social media and national news outlets after his father reported him missing from their home.
In one photo, the smiling young boy is wearing a Chicago Cubs baseball cap and a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles T-shirt. In others, he's donning a black Nike hat and the same grin that his extended family said "could light up a room."
The photos convey no sign of chaos, no indication he was living in squalor or in harm's way. Acquaintances who interacted with AJ and his parents in the months leading up to his death say they didn't notice any red flags.
But reports from police and the Department of Children and Family Services tell a different story.
AJ had contact with the child welfare agency throughout his life, starting when he was born Oct. 14, 2013, with opiates in his system, DCFS records show. He was placed in the care of a cousin for 18 months while his parents were ordered to undergo parenting classes, counseling and methadone treatment.
Cunningham also had been the subject of two DCFS investigations the year before AJ was born. Allegations that she was neglecting her older son and a foster child were deemed unfounded. Eventually, though, Cunningham's mother would win custody of the oldest son.
After AJ returned home in 2015, a DCFS caseworker reported no signs of abuse or neglect in a series of visits to the house, records show. The case was closed less than a year later.
Police reports and photos from months before AJ's death paint a picture of the poor conditions in which he and his younger brother lived. During a well-being check in September 2018, officers found the house had been without electricity for some time. Three months later, on Dec. 18, police reported a torn-up floor, a falling ceiling and an "overwhelming" smell of feces inside.
The same day, after Cunningham was arrested on charges of driving on a suspended license, a doctor expressed concern to a DCFS investigator about a large bruise on AJ's hip, reports show.
"Maybe someone hit me with a belt," AJ told the doctor. "Maybe Mommy didn't mean to hurt me." But he later agreed with his mother's account that the bruise was caused by the family dog.
By then, the extended family members who cared for AJ early on say they had been cut out of his life for about a year.
The DCFS case worker later ruled allegations of abuse and neglect "unfounded," the same outcome as a prior report from March 2018.
The family's next interaction with police and DCFS was the day AJ was reported missing -- three days after police believe he was killed.
Jessica befriended AJ's mother about two years ago when they were introduced at a resale shop, where she said Cunningham used to work. She asked that her last name not be used, saying she's received death threats and online harassment after she was identified as a "close friend" of Cunningham's in court records.
The pair texted frequently and saw each other every couple of months, she said, including a beach trip they took with AJ and his younger brother last year.
So when Cunningham called her the morning of April 18, seemingly frantic over her son's disappearance, Jessica said she "flew over there" and spent hours helping the family search for AJ.
"When I was around her, she was a sweet, loving mother," Jessica said, "not the monster she has become."
AJ's body was found a week later wrapped in plastic and buried in a shallow grave about seven miles from the Dole Avenue house. Police believe he was killed April 15, struck in the head multiple times after being forced into a cold shower as punishment for lying about soiled underwear, according to a search warrant.
AJ falls into a category of children under age 6 -- particularly those not enrolled in day care or an early childhood education program -- who experts say are at a heightened risk for abuse. Of the 302 children in Illinois who were beaten to death from 2006 to 2017, more than 87% were 5 years old or younger, according to a Daily Herald analysis of Illinois Child Death Review Teams' annual reports.
Most were killed by a parent or guardian, the reports show.
Cunningham, 36, and Freund, 60, are charged with first-degree murder, aggravated battery and other offenses in connection with AJ's death. Freund also is charged with concealment of homicidal death. They both pleaded not guilty in May.
In a jailhouse interview with CBS 2 Chicago that aired last month, a sobbing Cunningham denied killing AJ, saying she would never hurt her children. Freund told investigators earlier that he blamed Cunningham for his son's death.
Jessica said she found nothing untoward about the dozens of texts she exchanged with Cunningham before AJ disappeared. A search warrant describes how Cunningham deleted the messages from her phone. Jessica told the Daily Herald they were nothing more than innocuous musings complaining about work and kids.
"There was nothing in them that I'd have thought to report," she said.
Cunningham always seemed nice, Jessica said, and AJ appeared to be a "playful child," behaving like any other 5-year-old boy. She had met AJ's father only "once or twice."
Jessica wasn't the only person caught off guard by the murder charges.
Involved for 14 years at the Alano Club, Curt B. said he saw Freund from time to time attending meetings or hanging out at the Crystal Lake addiction recovery center, whose members identify their last names only with an initial.
On some occasions, Freund would bring AJ to the center and they would watch TV in one of the rooms, members said. Other members reported seeing Cunningham there, too, but with less frequency.
Freund never brought any negative attention to himself or showed signs of being troubled, Curt said.
"We alcoholics have pretty much seen and done things that are really not good, so a lot of things that would shock most people are not shocking to us," he said. "But this was a big surprise."
Blue bows are tied to a white wooden cross at AJ's grave in St. Michael the Archangel Catholic Cemetery in Palatine, serving as the focal point of an array of flowers, toys and trinkets that have been left in memoriam.
Hanging from one arm of the cross is a blue wristband saying "Fly High AJ." Placed off to the side is a Cubs hat identical to the one he was wearing in his memorial photo.
And inscribed into his gravestone are the words, "Our precious little hero."
The past six months have been a flurry of court cases surrounding AJ's death, whether they pertain to his parents' murder charges or the foreclosure of their house or the custody of his two siblings.
Prosecutors are trying to terminate Freund's and Cunningham's parental rights to AJ's younger brother, who was removed from the house by DCFS the day AJ was reported missing.
On May 31, while in custody at the McHenry County jail, Cunningham gave birth to a baby girl. Paternity tests later determined the infant's father was a 37-year-old Crystal Lake man who lived at Freund's and Cunningham's house at one point and was receiving drug treatment at the time of an Aug. 12 court hearing regarding his daughter, according to court records.
The man died Sept. 29 at a hospital in Kokomo, Indiana, according to Howard County Coroner Steve Seele. His death is being investigated as a drug overdose, with the final cause and manner pending toxicology results.
AJ's infant sister remains in the state's custody.
Meanwhile, the community continues to follow the case closely. A small group of protesters led by Tracy Kotzman assembles outside the McHenry County courthouse in Woodstock for most proceedings involving AJ's parents, hoping their silent demonstrations will effect change in the child welfare system.
Kotzman and other community members also have started Facebook groups aimed at demanding answers from DCFS. And on Sunday, they organized a birthday celebration for AJ in hopes of keeping his story in the public consciousness.
"Crystal Lake has demonstrated that it is a compassionate and caring community. The people who live here actively banded together to support those who needed support, while recognizing and respecting that navigating grief may be an individual process," Mayor Aaron Shepley said in an email. "Members of the community will continue to work hand in hand to seek answers and solutions to prevent similar tragedies."
In AJ's obituary, extended family described the boy as a "virtual ray of sunshine" who loved drawing, reading books and putting puzzles together. He was outgoing and affectionate, always watching over his younger brother. He was friendly and smart, eager to start kindergarten this fall.
He died too soon, loved ones say, but not in vain.
"As untimely and tragic as his young death is," they say, "may AJ's passing bring more awareness to all of us, and hope to and for children everywhere." • Daily Herald staff writer Mick Zawislak contributed to this report.