Mother of Ill. Boy A.J. Freund, 5, Who Was Found Dead in Shallow Grave Pleads Guilty to His Murder

Joanne Cunningham faces 20 to 60 years in prison without parole for murdering her 5-year-old son

Joann Cunningham
Joann Cunningham, at left, and son Andrew “A.J.” Freund. Photo: Crystal Lake Police Department (2)

The mother of a 5-year-old Illinois boy, whose body was discovered by police wrapped in plastic in a shallow grave, has pleaded guilty to his murder.

Joanne Cunningham faces 20 to 60 years in prison without parole for the beating death of her son Andrew “A.J.” Freund, the McHenry County State’s Attorney’s Office announced on Thursday.

Cunningham, 36, must serve 100 percent of her first-degree murder sentence, the State’s Attorney Office added. A status hearing in her case is scheduled for January 30.

The guilty plea comes seven months after Cunningham pleaded not guilty and requested a trial by jury in May, according to NBC Chicago 5.

The McHenry County State’s Attorney’s office told the outlet that the change is part of a “blind plea,” in which both parties agreed to the sentencing terms.

George Kililis, Cunningham’s attorney, did not immediately respond to PEOPLE’s request for comment.

Andrew "AJ" Freund
Crystal Lake Police Department

A.J.’s body was found wrapped in plastic and buried in a shallow grave in Woodstock, Illinois on April 24, less than a week after his father Andrew “Drew” Freund, Sr. called 911 to report him missing from their home in nearby Crystal Lake.

Freund Sr., 60, and Cunningham were arrested that same day and held on a $5 million bond. They initially faced multiple charges together, including first-degree murder, aggravated battery and failure to report a child missing. Freund was also charged with concealment of a homicide.

Like his wife, Freund Sr. pleaded not guilty to the charges in May. He reportedly has not changed his not guilty plea, according to NBC News.

Joann Cunningham
JoAnn Cunningham. Crystal Lake Police Department

The parents claimed they last saw A.J. when they put him to bed on April 17 and reported him missing the next morning.

Forensic analysis of Cunningham’s cell phone later discovered a video she had recorded showing A.J. naked and badly beaten on a mattress, which police shared with Freund Sr. in the early hours of April 24.

Freund Sr. allegedly blamed the boy’s mother for the injuries seen on the video and then offered an explanation for the events that allegedly preceded the boy’s death, before leading police to his grave, according to a court document obtained by PEOPLE.

Andrew "Drew" Freund Sr.
Andrew “Drew” Freund Sr.

The boy’s father “said that he believed A.J. died on Monday morning (April 15) after spending a prolonged time in a cold shower,” according to the document. “Drew explained he wanted Joann to stop with the hard physical beatings and do some less violent form of punishment. Drew said cold showers was decided (as the alternative).”

The document continues: “Drew said on or about … 4/15/19, A.J. had lied about soiled underwear and he was subjected to a cold shower. Drew said he helped A.J. out of the shower after he’d been there approximately 20 minutes, and put A.J. to bed ‘cold, wet, and naked.'”

“Drew said Joann got up and checked on A.J. and that was when she got Drew and used Drew’s phone to search for child CPR. Drew advised at some point that he believed A.J. had died.”

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“Drew said the next day he took A.J.’s body to the basement and stored him in a tote. He said on the night of 4/17/19 he placed Andrew inside of several trash bags, placed the body in the trunk of his car, and drove him to an area in Woodstock. Drew said he dug a shallow grave for A.J., placed him in it, covered it with straw, and left.”

Prosecutors alleged that Freund Sr. and Cunningham forced the child to take a cold shower for an extended period of time and beat him before he died. Autopsy results show he died of multiple blunt force injuries to the head.

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The state’s Department of Child and Family Services had visited the family’s home at least 17 times since A.J.’s birth, records show.

A statement from the Department of Child and Family Services obtained by PEOPLE also said that it has been dealing with the boy’s parents since his birth because he was born with opiates in his system.

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