Before His Abuse Death, Ill. Boy, 5, Told Mom He Never Wanted to See Her Again
JoAnn Cunningham was sentenced to 35 years for killing her son A.J. Freund, whose body was found in a shallow grave in 2019
Two weeks before he died after a beating by his mother, 5-year-old A.J. Freund told her he wished for "bad people" to hurt her.
"Why do you want those bad people to hurt me?," JoAnn Cunningham asks, in an audio of their confrontation.
"So I don’t ever see you again," A.J. answered.
By then, doctors had documented physical abuse against the child, and in the recording made by Cunningham and played Wednesday in court as she faces sentencing after pleading guilty to the boy's murder, A.J. expressed his wish for harm to his mother so that he might be left with his father, reports the Northwest Herald.
"There’s no way we could get in trouble," JoAnn says, after repeatedly asking A.J. who he'd get to hurt her. "Who would you go tell on us to get us in trouble? What would you do? What is your grand plan? How would you get us in trouble? With who? With what people?"
"By bad people, really bad people," AJ said.
Cunningham, 37, of Crystal Lake, Illinois, faced up to 60 years in prison after prosecutors say she beat the boy for soiling his underwear and then placed him in a cold shower in April 2019. He died the next morning.
On Friday she was sentenced to 35 years in prison, with the requirement that she must serve her entire sentence followed by three additional years of mandatory supervised released, reports WGN.
Three days after A.J. died, according to prosecutors, his parents reported him missing, leading authorities to launch a six-day search before his body was found wrapped in plastic and buried in a shallow grave.
Speaking in court Thursday to Judge Robert Wilbrandt during her sentencing hearing, Cunningham asked for mercy, saying she would “give my life to have A.J. back. ... This is something I will never escape from. I am impacted forever by my heartless choices,” reports the Chicago Tribune.
“I’m a loving, kind, compassionate woman who has feelings and loves deeply,” she said. "I’m human. I ask God to make me a better person every day and to give me my heart and joy back.”
She added, “As much as I deserve punishment, I believe I deserve help. Please help me.”
Cunningham pleaded guilty to first-degree murder last December. Her husband, Andrew Freund Sr., who was charged along with his wife after the boy's body was found, has pleaded not guilty to multiple charges including first-degree murder, aggravated battery, failure to report a child missing and concealment of a homicide. He is awaiting trial.
Social Workers Visited Family 17 Times
The parents had claimed they last saw A.J. when they put him to bed on April 17, 2019, and reported him missing the next morning.
Forensic analysis of Cunningham’s cell phone later discovered a video she'd 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 preceded the boy’s death, before leading police to his grave, according to a court document obtained by PEOPLE.
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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.”
Autopsy results show the child died of multiple blunt force injuries to the head.
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.