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AJ Freund, 5 years later: The short life and lingering impact of slain Crystal Lake boy

On April 18, 2019, a nearly weeklong search for a missing 5-year-old child began. The search drew national media attention and hundreds of police officers, FBI agents and community members who searched backyards, swimming pools, parks and lakes.

At first, many embraced the parents of A vigil was held at Main Beach in Crystal Lake, attended by both Andrew Freund Sr. and JoAnn Cunningham, AJ’s parents. But on the morning of April 24, the child’s father – after being confronted with videos on his cellphone of AJ being beaten and berated by Cunningham – admitted to police that the child was dead.

to an area near ComEd transmission towers off Dean Street near , where wrapped in garbage bags in a shallow grave.

As AJ’s body was being recovered police were removing evidence from the home including a shovel, a toddler mattress, several lawn bags and a large plastic storage bin from the home. Animal control took possession of the family dog, a boxer named Lucy. Freund and Cunningham each were charged with first-degree murder and other charges in their son’s death as crowds in Crystal Lake and Woodstock to AJ. The family’s home at 94 Dole Avenue was adorned with dozens of balloons, flowers and teddy bears.


The story that would unfold from prosecutors, was that on April 14, 2019, as punishment for soiling his underwear, Cunningham beat her son and made him stand in a cold shower for 20 minutes then put him to bed cold, wet and naked, prosecutors said. He was found unresponsive in bed the next day, and his father placed in remains in a large tote bag and hid it in the basement, according to court records.

Cunningham would eventually and sentenced to 35 years in prison. aggravated battery of a child, involuntary manslaughter and concealing a homicidal death and was sentenced to 30 years in prison.

his short and tumultuous life with his parents and a younger brother was demolished. It has been described in court as “filthy” and smelling of urine and feces. The lot remains empty.

Janelle Butler lives across the street from the now empty lot. She was witness to the weeklong search, and to news crews in front of her house, said she cannot believe five years has passed since AJ’s death.

“I still think about him and the whole experience often as I look at the now empty lot across the street from my house,” she said, noting he would have been 10 years old now.

“The neighborhood doesn’t speak of it at all, and many of the neighbors that were a part of the situation have moved away. The man next door has since died,” she said. “Life moves on, as people say, but the impact remains. No longer are people quite as open or involved with each other as they once were, and maybe that’s partly the way of the world anyway now.“

Butler said she will “always” will be haunted by the “what ifs.”

“Although it’s too late for AJ, maybe his story will be a lesson for someone else,” she said. “For now, the dandelions on the lot are popping up and I feel they are saying ‘life goes on, but we will always remember and not forget the little boy who ended up touching the hearts of so many.”

Crystal Lake Mayor Haig Haleblian said the property is privately held by one individual.

“The city of Crystal Lake has maintained the lawn and has liens on the property for the services rendered,” he said. “It’s my understanding that as of this moment the property will be offered in a tax sale this summer.”

Cunningham, who months shortly after her arrest gave birth to another child, has since attempted to have her conviction overturned, so far to no avail. In hand-written petitions she claimed she had inefficient trial counsel,

The case led to a rare move by prosecutors who criminally charged a Department of Children and Family Services’ social worker and his supervisor, who had been in charge of AJ’s case. AJ had been in the agency’s eye since his birth when he was born with opioids in his system. Months before his death, DCFS employees saw that he had a large bruise on his hip and scrapes and bruises on his face. AJ said the dog caused the bruise. He was not removed from the home and was dead four months later, according to court testimony.

In October, on two counts of endangering the life or health of a child, Class 3 felonies. His attorney argued he had more than the allowed number of cases to manage at the time AJ died.

In handing down his decision Strickland harshly detailed the ways AJ was failed.

despite unexplained injuries found on the boy months before his murder, indications that his mother was continuing to inject heroin, a history of domestic violence and mental illness in the family, and a chaotic and filthy home, the judge said.

Acosta’s supervisor Andrew Polovin, was found not guilty of all charges.


Community response continues, but more action needed, mayor says

AJ’s murder touched many people. He became the face of child abuse plastered on posters, the reason for blue ribbons tied to trees and the focus of images on Facebook pages. He was the inspiration for two local foster moms to start up grassroots efforts such as “Stuff the Duffle,” a volunteer-led event where 4,000 bags were stuffed with items for foster children. This event led to a partnership with the of McHenry County’s The Bridge store, in Crystal Lake.

Yet, but for Acosta’s conviction, not much has changed, Haleblian said. He is “hopeful” for work that is done by local organizations and encourages the community to be the eyes, ears and advocates “for the children that are not heard.” It is not that people working as police, in the judicial system or DCFS don’t care, rather that they “lack the proper infrastructure and training to implement necessary action,” he said.

“I remain deeply disturbed by the fact that children in abusive situations truly don’t have a voice, a safe haven, a safety net,” Haleblian said. “I hear the words that there are services and laws to save these unfortunates, but I see no action, which is infuriating. Even after the horrific murder of AJ, little if anything has changed.”

He hopes more funding for McHenry County Mental Health also will help.

“Remember, these children deserve to grow in a community where they feel safe and supported,” the mayor said. “If we don’t help, if the system isn’t proactive, these children will be challenged to reach their full potential. We need to be proactive not reactive. In this case, it truly takes a village.”