CHICAGO (CBS) — JoAnn Cunningham, the mother of slain 5-year-old AJ Freund, has pleaded guilty to murder in her son’s brutal beating death, eight months after she and AJ’s father were charged.
Cunningham pleaded guilty to one count of murder Thursday morning in McHenry County, and faces up to 60 years in prison when she is sentenced at a later date, according to the McHenry County State’s Attorney’s office. As part of a plea deal, prosecutors dropped all other charges against her, including language that called the crime “brutal and heinous.” Prosecutors said she will not be eligible for parole, and must serve her entire sentence. The plea also allows her to avoid a life sentence.
A status hearing on the sentencing phase of the case has been scheduled for Jan. 30.
Cunningham and AJ’s father, Andrew Freund, were charged with a combined 61 counts in April, including murder, aggravated battery, and concealing a homicide, after their son was found beaten to death and buried in a shallow grave in a field in Woodstock. An autopsy determined A.J. died of multiple blunt force injuries to his head.
Police and prosecutors say A.J.’s parents forced him into a cold shower as punishment for soiling his clothes and severely beat him on April 15. His father later found him dead in his bed at their home in Crystal Lake and buried him in a shallow grave. A.J.’s parents falsely reported him missing three days later.
For days, the community prayed A.J. was alive. But police found A.J.’s body wrapped in plastic in a shallow grave in Woodstock on April 24 and charged both of his parents with his death. Both are being held in the McHenry County Jail on $5 million bond.
In October, CBS 2 learned Andrew Freund is working on a plea deal, but he has yet to change his not guilty plea. Freund’s attorney said they have started working toward a negotiated plea, and his client is willing to cooperate against Cunningham.
Meantime, the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services has come under intense scrutiny in light of agency reports that revealed A.J. told a doctor of possible abuse four months before he was killed. DCFS had prior contact with the family, but investigators had deemed allegations of abuse unfounded, despite concerns from the doctor and police.
Crystal Lake Police had called DCFS after A.J.’s mother, JoAnn Cunningham, had been arrested for driving on a suspended license in 2018, according to Crystal Lake Police Department reports. The officer had visited the family’s home, and noted not only was the house in deplorable condition, but A.J. was running around wearing only a pull-up and sporting a large bruise on his hip.
When a DCFS investigator arrived, A.J. said he suffered the bruise “when the family dog pawed him.” However, after going to the hospital to have the bruise checked, a doctor told the DCFS investigator A.J. claimed “maybe someone hit me with a belt. Maybe mommy didn’t mean to hurt me,” according to a DCFS timeline.
The doctor said he could not determine how A.J. was injured, stating the bruise “could have been caused by a dog, belt or a football,” according to the report.
The investigator released A.J. back into his parents’ custody, but advised his father to stay at home “as a safety precaution.”
The DCFS report also revealed significant discrepancies between the deplorable conditions police had found inside the home, and the conditions the DCFS investigator noted one day later. The investigator ultimately deemed allegations of neglect unfounded, “due to lack of evidence for cuts, welt and bruises allegation.”
The DCFS timeline also revealed that Cunningham was being investigated for her behavior as foster parent, before A.J. was born. In June, 2012, she was accused of abusing prescription drugs and neglecting her foster child.
AJ died four months later, and his parents were charged with his murder. Cunningham was about seven months pregnant at the time of her arrest, and gave birth to a baby girl in June. A.J.’s baby sister is now in state custody. His younger brother was placed in DCFS custody days after A.J.’s death. His older brother, who is 18, has been living with his maternal grandmother for years.
DCFS has been moving to fire caseworker Carlos Acosta and his supervisor, Andrew Polovin, as well as investigator Kathleen Gold, who worked on AJ’s case prior to Acosta. Gold has since turned in her resignation.
Acosta has declined to comment on the move to fire him, but said A.J.’s case keeps him up at night. He also said he’s remorseful about the loss of life and always will be. He referred all other questions to the DCFS communications department.
A.J.’s estate has filed a federal lawsuit against Acosta and Polovin, accusing them of either failing to investigate allegations he had been abused, or improperly determining the allegations were unfounded, despite concerns raised by police and others.