CHICAGO (CBS)– JoAnn Cunningham, who pleaded guilty last year to the murder of her 5-year-old son, A.J. Freund, will face sentencing in April.
McHenry County Judge Robert Wilbrandt scheduled Cunningham’s sentencing hearing for April 30, during a brief hearing on Thursday.
Cunningham, 36, pleaded guilty to one count of murder in December, and faces up to 60 years in prison when she is sentenced.
At a separate court hearing on Thursday, A.J.’s father, Andrew Freund Sr., opted to waive his right to a trial by jury in his murder case, meaning he will opt for a bench trial, where a judge will decide whether he is guilty.
Freund, 61, also has been working on a plea deal, but has yet to change his not guilty plea. He is due back in court on April 24.
Meantime, the judge also granted prosecutors’ request to provide Cunningham’s attorney with Freund’s medical records from Mather’s Clinic in Elgin. Andrew Freund Sr. visited the clinic on April 18, 2019, the before reporting their son missing.
Prosecutors have said they believe the records contain information related to Freund’s drug use, which could be connected to the circumstances of A.J.’s murder.
Cunningham and A.J.’s father, Andrew Freund, were indicted on a combined 61 counts last May, including murder, aggravated battery, and concealing a homicide. Their son was found beaten to death and buried in a shallow grave in a field in Woodstock in April, about a week after they had reported him missing. 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.
On Friday, crews were scheduled to start tearing down the house where A.J. was killed. However, the demolition company has postponed the work because weather has put the company behind schedule.
The house sits on Dole Avenue and neighbors want the house removed 10 months after police say Freund’s parents murdered him. Neighbors said it brings back painful memories and that tearing it down is one step toward change.
“I drive past it every single day coming to the cafe. Whether it’s boarded up or there’s flowers, it’s painful,” Café Olympic owner Rachel Mucci said.
Mucci is a Crystal Lake resident and she she said A.J.’s death is often talked about in her diner.
“This is something that never heals,” She said. “It stays with us forever, but I do feel that the house being gone is a step in the right direction to change. To change something that was broken.”
Police reports also detail deplorable conditions inside the house, including broken windows in the winter and feces from the family’s dog.
The Illinois Department of Children and Family Services also 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.
A.J. 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 A.J.’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.