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A northern Illinois woman who pleaded guilty to first-degree murder in the beating death of her 5-year-old son faces a maximum sentence of 60 years in state prison when she returns to court on Thursday.
The sentencing of JoAnn Cunningham is the latest chapter in the story of AJ Freund, whose battered body was found in a shallow grave in April last year, not far from his Crystal Lake home and just days after his parents reported him missing.
Cunningham, 37, faces a sentence ranging from 20 to 60 years in AJ's killing. Prosecutors have said she must serve her entire sentence, meaning that if she receives the maximum sentence she will die in prison. The judge has said he expects to impose the sentence Friday afternoon.
The story started with hope that the boy in the photograph, a smiling kid, a baseball cap pulled tight on his head, would be found alive. After an intense search of woods near the family's home turned up nothing, hope turned to fear that AJ's story would end like so many others: With the discovery of the remains of a dead child.
Concern for the parents quickly turned to suspicion when it was reported that they had stopped cooperating with investigators. A few days later, Cunningham and the boy's father, Andrew Freund Sr., were arrested and charged with first-degree murder in the death of their son.
Authorities revealed that a video on Cunningham's cellphone dated March 4, weeks before the boy's death, showed AJ lying naked on a mattress covered in bruises and bandages. On the video, a woman can be heard berating the child for wetting his bed. Authorities believe that woman's voice belonged to Cunningham.
Confronted with that video, Freund led investigators to the spot where his son, his body wrapped in plastic, was buried in a shallow grave.
An autopsy revealed that the boy had been struck multiple times and died from blunt force trauma. Then came the heartbreaking details of the boy's life in the days, weeks and years before he was killed.
According to court documents, Freund — who has pleaded not guilty — told police that it was Cunningham who beat the boy and that he had suggested they punish AJ by making him take cold showers instead.
On the night the boy died, he was put in the shower after Cunningham found soiled underwear that AJ had tried to hide, authorities said. The autopsy showed that bruises on his face matched a detachable shower head, indicating he was not merely forced to stand under freezing water but was beaten in the shower, according to published reports at the time.
Freund told investigators that he put the boy to bed “cold, wet and naked." The father said Cunningham later found their son unresponsive, according to court documents.
Freund admitted that he put AJ's body in a plastic container and stored it in the basement to be buried later. A shopping list included “duct tape, plastic gloves, air freshener and bleach,” according to a photograph contained in a search warrant.
Court documents told of a boy who was in danger his entire life. Tests at birth revealed he and his mother had opiates in their systems, prompting the state's Department of Children and Family Services to take the baby into custody before returning him to them some 20 months later.
Then came the repeated visits by child welfare workers to the dilapidated house that reeked of dog feces. Those visits typically ended with the child welfare workers determining that the allegations of neglect were unfounded and leaving without the boy, despite what appeared to be pleas by police that they do something, anything.
AJ's death triggered investigations of the child welfare system and the firing of a state child welfare worker and a supervisor.
For months, the family's rundown but otherwise unremarkable home stands as a silent reminder of the little boy's short, painful life.
Finally, in March of this year, work crews arrived and demolished the house, erasing the building if not the memory of what happened there.