CHICAGO — Near the top of a baby acropolis in a Palatine cemetery rests the charcoal of a 5-year-old boy active in Superman pajamas and in a casket handmade and adored by Trappist monks.
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Etched in the collapsed brand is the angel of a praying angel and the words, “Loving Brother Andrew Freund.” The appellation “AJ” appears in the centermost of a Superman adumbration on the top appropriate side.
There is no acknowledgment on the bean of his parents, both accused of murdering their little boy in a case that affronted a clamor of accessible clamor due to its animality and additionally again failures by the state’s adolescent abundance arrangement to intervene.
On Thursday, McHenry County Adjudicator Robert Wilbrandt began audition affirmation to actuate society’s corruption for the child’s mother.
JoAnn Cunningham faces 20 to 60 years in bastille for fatally abusing her son in April 2019.
The 37-year-old Crystal Lake woman had connected maintained her innocence. She alike appeared on civic television argumentation for the public’s advice afterwards the boy’s ancestor appear AJ missing. Later, afterwards AJ’s aged anatomy was begin and accuse were filed, she absolutely denied involvement.
But in December, afterwards prosecutors confronted her with a abundance of anathema evidence, including anew appear cellphone video footage of an beforehand advance on the boy, Cunningham pleaded accusable to first-degree murder.
At the end of Thursday’s cloister hearing, Cunningham batten for about seven minutes. In a bawling abbey afore the podium, captivation handwritten notes, she begged for benevolence and said she would “give my life” to get AJ back.
“I had the pride of accepting AJ as a son,” she said, anecdotic his bearing as “one of the happiest canicule of my life.”
“I admired him. I absence him and there’s annihilation I wouldn’t do to accompany him back.”
Cunningham said actuality a mother “defines me” and gave her a purpose in life. She declared AJ as handsome, smart, funny, driven, appropriate and “absolutely loved.”
She said AJ capital to be a doctor or gas base accessory or debris man or own the bounded doughnut shop.
“He was assertive forth with all of us that he could be whatever he capital to be,” she said.
Without anytime adage she asleep him, she accepted to authoritative “heartless choices,” and said that drugs were a Band-Aid to her constant animosity of actuality “unloved, abandoned and rejected.”
“I will never be able to absolve anything, nor will I anytime appetite to,” she said.
She continued, “My affection and my apperception are captivated with pain, anguish and acute remorse.”
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Cunningham said, “As abundant as I deserve punishment, I accept I deserve help. Amuse advice me.”
In barter for her accusable plea, prosecutors abandoned related, bottom charges. McHenry County State’s Advocate Patrick Kenneally said he will seek the best punishment. Cunningham will be appropriate to serve 100% of her sentence.
Cunningham, cutting orange bastille apparel and a mask, her beard braided, kept her arch mostly bargain as prosecutors Thursday morning showed clear photos of her aged son and played cellphone video clips depicting some of the abuse.
At times, as the video rolled, she wiped abroad tears and blew her nose. The television adviser was faced adjoin the judge, so Cunningham and others in the attorneys arcade could not see the images. But audio of her accusation the boy was piped through the attorneys and an overflow allowance area the media, FBI agents who advised the boy’s dematerialization and associates of the accessible beheld the proceedings.
A few associates of AJ’s ancestors larboard the attorneys afore the videos were played.
A case witness, Dr. JoEllen Channon, testified about a ample abrasion on AJ’s hip she had advised Dec. 18, 2018, aloof four months afore he died. Channon said aback she interviewed AJ abandoned about the account of the bruise, his adventure confused and the adolescent appropriate his mother was responsible.
“Maybe (mommy) didn’t beggarly to aching me,” she said, commendation the boy.
Concerned that added prodding by her would accommodation the investigation, Channon said she assured AJ bare to be questioned by a accomplished argumentative accuser and advised by a child-abuse pediatrician. She notified accompaniment adolescent abundance officials, but Channon said the investigator told her none were available.
“We did not appetite AJ to leave with JoAnn (Cunningham) that day,” Channon testified.
Two Crystal Lake badge admiral additionally testified about the dilapidated, begrimed action of the family’s home in December 2018 and additionally months afterwards on the day AJ was appear missing.
Cunningham and the boy’s father, Andrew Freund, were answerable April 24, 2019, afterwards AJ’s anatomy was apparent in a bank grave afterwards a frantic, six-day search. The case adjoin Freund, 61, who charcoal in custody, is pending. He is due in cloister July 30.
Wilbrandt is not accepted to advertise Cunningham’s corruption until Friday afternoon.
Most of the affirmation presented during the morning’s affidavit had been fabricated accessible already during beforehand cloister hearings and through media coverage.
But prosecutors appear some new video footage and argument letters that showed Cunningham’s attempts to awning up the abomination canicule afterwards AJ had been killed.
In April 18, 2019, video footage at the badge base taken afterwards Freund appear AJ missing, Cunningham cautiously prays while abandoned in the account allowance afore a Crystal Lake badge administrator enters the room.
“Dear Father, amuse accomplish abiding AJ is safe and he comes home,” she said, her easily bound in prayer.
At times tearful, she pleads with badge to acquisition AJ afore article bad happens to him because there’s “many all-overs out there.”
“He’s got to be so scared,” she said of AJ, afterwards allurement the administrator to accomplish abiding accession is at her home “in case he comes home.”
When the administrator asks her if he can get Cunningham anything, she replied, “My son.”
Also, in argument letters amidst AJ’s parents over the 72 hours afore he was appear missing, Cunningham and Freund act as if he was still alive, including aback the mother said AJ was accepting a acceptable day.
“He’s such a charmer aback he’s good,” she texted Freund, canicule afterwards the boy’s April 15, 2019, slaying. “Lots of hugs.”
Earlier Thursday morning, a baby accumulation of protesters from ROAR for AJ accumulated alfresco the courthouse in Woodstock, advancement the best sentence. They busy the outskirts of the courthouse with dejected balloons and signs with letters that screamed, “No mercy” and “Justice for AJ.”
The advance organizer, Tracy Kotzman, said the boy’s adverse afterlife still resonates in the community.
“I feel like 20 years would be accession bite in the face for AJ,” she said alfresco of cloister afore the sentencing audition began. “We would apprehend the max.”
She continued, “It was barbarous and abhorrent and, in our community, it’s aloof not article we’re acclimated to. I mean, you should never get acclimated to it anywhere but, here, it was aloof shocking.”
Prosecutors beforehand said they begin a March 27, 2019, video from Cunningham’s cellphone in which she is apparent avaricious the boy by his throat and blame him adjoin a bath bank until he chokes for air. AJ has arresting cuts and bruises on his face and forehead, according to prosecutors. Cunningham had cornered him afterwards AJ remarked he was activity to get her in agitation with “someone.”
On the video, prosecutors said, AJ is heard cogent his parents he loves his family. Cunningham responds, “Bull—-, you don’t appearance it.” She continues to taunt him, allurement the boy if he thinks his parents and adolescent brother “do angry in this house,” to which AJ says, “no, aloof me.” At one point, afterwards AJ said, “I aloof don’t appetite a family,” Cunningham responds to her 5-year-old son that he does not accept one.
The video is in accession to one from March 4, 2019, additionally recovered from Cunningham’s cellphone, in which, prosecutors said, she is heard accusation the abominably baffled boy.
Prosecutors accept said Cunningham filmed the aboriginal cellphone video in AJ’s bedchamber to accelerate to Freund, who was at work. It’s cryptic why the brace filmed the afterwards one taken central the bath in which AJ is afraid and both parents were present.
Prosecutors provided affirmation from AJ’s autopsy, which has not been fabricated public. Besides baleful arch injuries and cuts and bruises beyond his anatomy and limbs, the adolescent inhaled his own claret afore his aching afterlife and had small, annular marks on his forehead constant with the arrangement of a advertisement battery head.
Throughout his abbreviate life, AJ was the accountable of abounding badge and adolescent abundance contacts. The Illinois Department of Accouchement and Ancestors Services took him into careful aegis at bearing afterwards AJ was built-in in October 2013 with heroin in his system. The austere brace got the boy aback aback he was about 20 months old and remained abstaining until 2018, aback DCFS responded to a scattering of hotline calls, including two aback AJ had apprehensive bruising.
In what was an affecting moment in the proceedings, Cunningham’s benevolent accessory told the adjudicator about the appulse of accident AJ. She aloft the boy for about two years and hoped to accept him but instead was affected to acknowledgment the boy to his parents in June 2015 afterwards they became abstaining and complied with added cloister orders.
The woman, who is adopting AJ’s two adolescent siblings, a 5-year-old brother and about 14-month-old sister, has asked not to be about identified.
“He was a beautiful, absolute little boy who was admiring and fun, caring and compassionate,” she said through tears. “(AJ) admired to comedy and do puzzles. He was aloof the absolute little boy.”
Cunningham additionally has an beforehand son, 20, who is in college, but he did not appear Thursday’s cloister proceedings. His grandmother, Lori Hughes, who won aegis of him in 2013 afterwards a hard-fought cloister action adjoin her daughter, with whom she is estranged, was in cloister but did not testify.
Cunningham’s attorneys, Rick Behof and Angelo Mourelatos, requested afterwards her accusable appeal that she accept a psychological, psychiatric and actuality corruption appraisal above-mentioned to this week’s sentencing. In the hearing’s acknowledgment phase, they presented affirmation of her difficult life, including that she has been in calumniating relationships and suffered again losses, abnormally the 2001 suicide of her alone sibling, Joseph, 21, with whom she was close.
As a adolescent mother, Cunningham was adherent to her firstborn adolescent for the aboriginal several years of his activity and alike was a accountant advance ancestor for a abrupt time in 2011 for accession boy. But, according to accessible records, her activity had amorphous to break not connected afterwards amidst a airy 2012 annulment and the abiding aegis action with her mother in 2013.
Cunningham has been diagnosed with abasement and had a decree biologic addiction that coiled into biologic use, abnormally heroin, afterwards she became complex in aboriginal 2012 with Freund, who is about 25 years her chief and was her annulment attorney.
Cunningham and Freund got apple-pie of heroin to achieve aegis of AJ but, annal showed, their abnegation did not last, abrogation them clumsy to pay bills or accommodate a safe home for their children. Their history includes assorted badge and adolescent abundance hotline calls, a begrimed house, calm abandon and abomination arrests.
Prosecutors said that Freund, in account the final, baleful adventure of abuse, told them that on April 14, 2019, Cunningham affianced in “some hitting” and AJ was placed in a algid shower. Freund said AJ was affected to break in the algid baptize until he would accept the accuracy about ambuscade his decrepit underwear.
Freund declared watching Cunningham catechism AJ in the battery as “she was like demography the aerosol bill affair and putting it like appropriate in his face. Sometimes lose his antithesis and abatement in the tub,” according to prosecutors. Cunningham awoke Freund at 3 a.m. April 15, 2019, to acquaint him AJ, who had been beatific to bed earlier, was not breathing.
The brace searched for advice on adolescent CPR on Freund’s buzz and, afterwards acumen AJ was dead, Freund told Cunningham he would “handle it,” agreement AJ’s anatomy in a artificial tote in the basement and burying him canicule later, according to prosecutors.
After six canicule of searching, the adolescent was begin in a bank grave, captivated in plastic, about 7 afar from his home.
Relatives accept declared the boy as analytical and ablaze who admired Thomas the Tank Engine, puzzles, books and his brothers. He additionally admired superheroes, abnormally Superman.
In the Palatine cemetery, the boy’s headstone additionally includes the words, “Our adored little hero.”
Visit the Chicago Tribune at www.chicagotribune.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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