Police had been called several times to the home of a 5-year-old boy found in a shallow grave

Posted at 8:03 AM, Apr 25, 2019
and last updated 2019-04-25 08:13:32-04

Andrew “AJ” Freund had only been in this world for five years before his body was found wrapped in plastic and buried in a shallow grave in Illinois.

But his life was unlike that of most boys his age, with police and child welfare officials visiting his home in Crystal Lake several times over recent months, reports show.

His parents, Andrew Freund Sr. and JoAnn Cunningham, were arrested Wednesday after their son’s body was found in a shallow grave about 10 miles from home. They face murder charges and are expected in court Thursday for a bond hearing.

Freund Sr. reported his 5-year-old son as missing on April 18, telling 911 dispatchers that morning that he’d last seen him when he put the boy to bed the night before. He said he’d searched their house, the neighborhood, a local park and even a gas station where they buy him treats, but could not find him.

After reports emerged of visits by officials to the family home over indications of neglect, the Department of Children and Family Services said it’s investigating whether there were “shortcomings” in its handling of the case.

Calls for police and child services

In a message to the boy affectionately known as AJ after the arrest, Crystal Lake Police Chief James Black appeared to acknowledge his short, tumultuous life.

“We know you are at peace playing in heaven’s playground and are happy you no longer have to suffer,” he said.

The Illinois Department of Children and Family Services said it had “been involved with the family” since his birth. Soon after AJ was born, department spokesman Jassen Strokosch said, he was put in their care over indications of neglect from his mother.

Between 2013 to 2015, the infant was in the care of someone else, he said.

As recently as last year, authorities were called to the family home, where they observed more indications of neglect that they included in 63 pages of a report released Tuesday.

In December, for instance, an officer described unlivable conditions with dog feces and urine scattered in the home. During that visit, the officer reported a suspicious bruise on one of the children, but a welfare worker was unable to make a determination of abuse, the report said. Someone at the house said it may have been caused by a dog.

Officials described seeing broken windows and water damage on the kitchen ceiling during a visit last year. An officer recalled a strong smell of feces despite open windows in a room where AJ and his younger brother slept upstairs, the report said.

Months earlier, a local resident called police to check on the children because the home had been without power for weeks, according to the report. At the time, an officer wrote the two children appeared “healthy and happy” and child welfare authorities said the lack of electricity did not warrant their investigation.

AJ’s younger sibling had been in the home until this week, and is living with another family, Strokosch said. Cunningham is also seven months pregnant, according to CNN affiliate WBBM.

Marc Smith, acting director of the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, said they will review their work with AJ’s family to determine if there were any shortcomings and inform the public on the steps they will take to address them.

“Protecting vulnerable children who come to our attention is at the core of our mission at DCFS. All of us feel this loss. Our priority is the care and safety of Andrew’s younger sibling,” he said.

Interviews and cell phone data

Police started their investigation after receiving the 911 call from AJ’s father on April 18. Investigators later said it was unlikely AJ was abducted or ran away, and instead focused on the family home.

After they launched an investigation into his disappearance, police said, the parents stopped cooperating with investigators.

Police interviewed the parents after information was obtained through forensic analysis of their cell phone data, Black said. The parents later provided information that led to the recovery of AJ’s body in Woodstock, Illinois, police said. They did not provide information on the cause of death.

Both parents face charges of first-degree murder, aggravated battery and aggravated domestic battery, and failure to report a missing or dead child, Black said. Freund Sr. also faces charges of concealment of homicidal death, police said.

Cunningham’s attorney has not responded to requests for comment. It is not clear whether Freund Sr. has retained legal counsel. They are expected in court Thursday for a bond hearing.

George Kililis, an attorney for Cunningham, told CNN affiliate WLS the boy’s mother “doesn’t know what happened to AJ, and had nothing to do with his disappearance.”

“She is devastated,” the attorney said.

911 call hours later

AJ’s father told a 911 dispatcher that he put him to bed in his pajamas the night of April 17 but could not find him in the morning before school.

“I got back from the doctor’s appointment and I checked in on him to say good morning and he wasn’t there,” the father told the dispatcher in the morning.

He said he searched all around the house and canvassed the neighborhood but couldn’t find him. Sonar teams that searched Crystal Lake found nothing, and the canine teams “only picked up Andrew’s ‘scent’ within the residence, indicating that Andrew had not walked away on foot,” police said.

Last week, AJ’s father said they were worried about their son, and implored him to come home.

“AJ, please come home,” he said. “We love you very much. You’re not in any trouble. We’re just worried to death. Please, please come home.”

Community mourns

At the close-knit community in Crystal Lake, heartbroken neighbors hugged and wept as news of his death spread. Flowers and stuffed animals slowly piled up outside his home.

“Just a little, sweet 5-year-old boy,” neighbor Janelle Butler told CNN affiliate WLS. “Oh my gosh, who could do that? I can’t believe that I knew them and talked to them and they were capable of doing that. Right across your street.”

Butler remembered the last time she saw AJ.

“He was at the door with his brother fighting over who was going to get in the door first,” she said.