In a horrific case of abuse, a mother beat her 5-year-old son to death. Even more gruesome, however, is what the boy was captured on tape telling his mom just two weeks before she killed him.

Andrew “AJ” Freund, a 5-year-old Illinois boy, first made national news when his parents reported him missing. A photograph of AJ smiling in a baseball cap was shared with the hope that he’d be found alive as his tearful parents plead with the public for his safe return. When an intense search of the woods near the family’s home turned up nothing, however, hope turned to fear.

Concern for AJ’s parents also quickly turned to suspicion as they stopped cooperating with investigators. Eventually, AJ’s own father, 61-year-old Andrew Freund Sr, led authorities to a shallow grave in a field not far from their Crystal Lake home. There, AJ’s battered body was found wrapped in plastic and buried. AJ’s parents were later arrested and charged with first-degree murder in the death of their son.

An autopsy determined that the child had been repeatedly struck in the head and that he had also inhaled his own blood before dying of blunt force trauma. AJ’s 37-year-old mother, JoAnn Cunningham, pleaded guilty to first-degree murder and admitted to beating her son to death, burying his body, then falsely reporting him as missing. Unfortunately, this was far from the first time the child was violently abused.

Evidence of the abuse:

During Cunningham’s sentencing hearing, the nightmare that was AJ’s life was revealed to the court. McHenry County prosecutors played a tape of a family argument between Cunningham and little AJ, which took place just two weeks before his death. AJ could be heard telling his mom that he would like to have “really bad people” do bad things to her, Daily Mail reported.

“Why do you want those bad people to hurt me?” Cunningham can be heard asking, to which AJ responded, “So I don’t ever see you again,” the Northwest Herald reported. Two weeks after that tape was captured, AJ died alone in the dark, his head bearing the outlines of the showerhead his mother admittedly struck him with after forcing him to stand under freezing water as a punishment for soiling himself.

Cunningham begs for Mercy:

In court, Cunningham cried and wiped her nose as the tape was played, but according to prosecutors, she had been mercilessly abusing AJ long before his death. Even as the heartbreaking details of the boy’s life were heard in court, however, Cunningham played the part of a grieving mother, acting as if her child was killed by someone else as she begged for mercy from the judge.

“I had the privilege of having AJ as my son,” Cunningham told the court, speaking on her own behalf. “I loved him, I miss him,” she continued. She described AJ’s love of doughnuts with sprinkles and his habit of toting a briefcase because he wanted to be a lawyer and only addressed her son’s death in the vaguest of terms, choosing instead to describe her own difficult life. “I am living proof of what physical and mental abuse can create,” she sobbed.

Witnesses testify about the abuse AJ endure:

Cunningham’s tearful comments stood in stark contrast to the evidence of the unimaginable physical and emotional abuse AJ endured for years until he died as his brain swelled and he choked on his own blood. “She had beaten this little boy to the edge of death,” McHenry County State’s Attorney Patrick Kenneally said, “locked in his room (where) he had to endure the bleak process of death all by himself.”

The prosecutor read statements from neighbors who noticed the boy with cuts and bruises years before his death. A Crystal Lake police officer and an emergency room doctor, who both saw a softball-size bruise on AJ’s hip four months before he died, also testified. Both Officer Kimberley Shipbaugh and Dr. Joelle Channon asked AJ about the bruise. According to Shipbaugh, Cunningham coached her son what to say.

“JoAnn leaned down and in his ear, she said to him, ‘Lucy the dog did that to you right?’ And then he said ‘Yes,’” Shipbaugh recounted for the court, according to WLS-TV.

Dr. Channon said the boy told her, “Maybe mommy didn’t mean to hurt me,” forcing her to stop asking questions as she concluded that he should meet with a forensic interviewer and be examined by a child-abuse pediatrician. She said she contracted child services but was told no investigators were available at that time. “We did not want AJ to leave with JoAnn that day,” she testified.

“I started by asking him if he had been spanked or hit; he said, ‘Yes,’” said Dr. Joelle Channon. “I asked him with what, and he said, ‘A belt.’ I asked him, ‘Who did it?’ and he said, ‘Someone not in my family,’ and then he offered that, ‘Maybe mommy didn’t mean to hurt me.’”

AJ lived in horrific conditions:

Police said they also visited the home and found the residence filthy and reeking of feces, but perhaps the eeriest evidence presented was the text messages the boy’s parents exchanged after Cunningham killed the boy but before his body was found. In those messages, it seemed the couple was trying to cover their tracks, writing things they thought police would eventually see. Pretending their son was still alive, they discussed plans for AJ and his brother, and Freund even told Cunningham to “give the boys a kiss and hug for me.”

In another text, Cunningham asked Freund about buying a television so she could “watch movies in bed” with the boys, but it’s the videos from Cunningham’s phone that are truly chilling. Only weeks before AJ’s death, video footage captured him covered in bruises and bandages while lying naked on a mattress as a woman’s voice, presumably belonging to Cunningham, is heard berating him for wetting his bed.

AJ’s father pins the physical abuse on Cunningham:

Freund, who admitted to putting AJ to bed cold, wet, and naked on the day he died, pleaded not guilty. Instead, he pinned much of the long-term physical abuse on Cunningham. He said he suggested punishing AJ with cold showers instead of the beatings Cunningham had allegedly dished out. On the night of his death, AJ was put in the shower after Cunningham found soiled underwear that he had tried to hide.

While in the cold shower, Cunningham beat AJ as evidenced by the small, circular bruises on his face that matched the detachable showerhead. Freund said Cunningham later found AJ unresponsive and admitted to putting AJ’s body in a plastic container and storing it in the basement until it could be buried.

A shopping list, including “duct tape, plastic gloves, air freshener, and bleach,” was made, according to a photograph obtained during a search warrant. In addition, police noticed an overwhelming stench the moment they stepped inside the garbage-strewn house. Even more ominous, however, were the chain lock and padlock discovered outside AJ’s bedroom and the locks on his windows, all to apparently keep the boy inside the room.

Cunningham had a history with child protective services:

The worst part, however, is that Cunningham was not new to child protective authorities. She had two complaints brought against her even before AJ’s birth — one for inadequate supervision and the other for “risk of harm and environmental neglect.” In addition, both AJ and Cunningham tested positive for opiates when AJ was born, prompting the Department of Children and Family Services to take the baby into custody.

Even after AJ was returned to his mother some 20 months later, child welfare workers repeatedly paid visits to the dilapidated house that reeked of dog feces. Sadly, those visits ended with child welfare workers determining that the allegations of neglect were unfounded and leaving without the boy, despite apparent pleas from police that they do something.

Court documents tell of a boy who was in danger his entire life, yet nothing was done to save him. It took AJ’s death to trigger investigations of the child welfare system and the firing of a state child welfare worker and a supervisor. Is losing their jobs really enough, though? Personally, I think they should be sentenced to prison, right along with his mother. Perhaps sharing a cell with the monster mom would open their eyes to the hell they forced this little boy to endure.

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