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Local

Parents charged with first-degree murder after body of missing Crystal Lake boy found near Woodstock

Parents of 5-year-old A.J. Freund facing first-degree murder charges

The parents of 5-year-old Andrew "A.J." Freund face first-degree murder and other charges in connection with the killing of their son, whose body was found Wednesday wrapped in plastic in a shallow grave outside of Woodstock, police said.

The cause of death has yet to be determined, Crystal Lake Police Chief Jim Black said Wednesday at a news conference. An autopsy is tentatively scheduled for Thursday morning, according to a joint statement from the McHenry County Sheriff’s and Coroner’s offices.

Crystal Lake police and FBI members interviewed the parents overnight after information was obtained through a forensic analysis of cell phone data, Black said.

Information provided by the parents led investigators to the site where A.J.'s body was found. The McHenry County Coroner was called to the scene to assist with the recovery and identification of the "pre-teen male" body, authorities said.

JoAnn Cunningham, A.J.'s mother, is charged with first-degree murder, aggravated battery, aggravated domestic battery, and failure to report a missing child. 

Andrew Freund, A.J.'s father, is charged with first-degree murder, aggravated battery, aggravated domestic battery, concealment of a homicide, and failure to report a missing child.

If convicted of first-degree murder, Cunningham, 36, and Freund, 60, could be facing life in prison. Both will be taken to the McHenry County Jail where they will await a bond hearing.

"To A.J.’s family, it is our hope that you may have some solace in knowing that A.J. is no longer suffering and his killers have been brought to justice," Black said in a statement. "We would also like to thank the community for their support and assistance during this difficult time. To A.J., we know you are at peace playing in heaven’s playground and are happy you no longer have to suffer."

Crystal Lake officers, along with McHenry County Sheriff's deputies and FBI agents, found the body near a field in Woodstock off Dean Street just north of Gayle Drive on Wednesday.

"This is not the outcome we want to talk about when we come to you, but it is the unfortunate result of this investigation," FBI Special Agent in charge Jeffrey Sallet said during Wednesday's news conference.

DCFS has had contact with A.J.’s family since he was born in 2013 with opiates in his system and amid neglect allegations against his mother, according to DCFS Deputy Communications Director Jassen Strokosch. The agency has had contact with the family on and off until late last year. 

Cunningham, who is seven months pregnant, had been attempting to regain custody of her younger son, who was taken into DCFS custody last Thursday, her attorney said.

In 2013, Cunningham was involved in a legal dispute with her mother, Lorelei Hughes, for custody of her eldest son.

An order of protection petition Hughes filed during the proceedings accused Cunningham and Freund of forcing Cunningham’s eldest son to live in “constant fear, hunger and filth,” as well as denying him medical care, food, clean clothing and a healthy living environment.

“This news is heartbreaking,” Illinois Department of Children and Family Services Marc Smith, Acting Director said in a statement. “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. We will continue to cooperate with law enforcement in their ongoing investigation. The Department is committed to conducting a comprehensive review of the entirety of our work with Andrew’s family to understand our shortcomings and to be fully transparent with the public on any steps we are taking to address the issues.”

Crystal Lake police have responded to the home multiple times over the last five years for well-being checks, investigations into stolen prescription medications, a loose dog, fights and traffic violations.

Cunningham's attorney, George Kililis, could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

Search efforts

Police closed a portion of Dean Street north of Route 176 and south of Lucas Road Wednesday morning as the body was recovered. At about 3 p.m., a body was put onto a gurney and loaded into a blue minivan.

In the past several days, police have also searched Veteran Acres Park, Sterne's Woods and Lippold Park in Crystal Lake for A.J.

Carolina Bermudez, who lives near the property in Woodstock, said a police officer in an unmarked car knocked on her door at around 6 a.m. Wednesday, and her husband answered. The officer was wondering who owned the nearby property, which Bermudez said includes a barn where farm equipment is stored.

Bermudez, who has lived at the home for three years, said she has children of her own –ages 11, 6 and 1 1/2 – and when they went out early this morning to go to school, the nearby gravel road was blocked off.

"Never would I think that they couldn't be back there by themselves," Bermudez said.

Bermudez noted that she did not see any suspicious activity in the area over the past week.

A small group of residents gathered throughout the morning Wednesday at the site of the police investigation on Dean Street. Nikita Chieco, a Woodstock mother, held a stuffed dog toy to her chest as she watched investigators capture drone footage of a short stretch of road along the wooded area. 

"Since he had a pet dog, I wanted to leave this for him," Chieco said. 

Police were at the Freund home Wednesday morning on Dole Avenue in Crystal Lake. While there, they removed evidence, including a shovel, toddler's mattress, a large tub, multiple lawn bags filled with items and the family's dog, a boxer named Lucy.

In a redacted 911 call released by Crystal Lake police Tuesday, the boy’s father, Freund Sr., told a police dispatcher that he discovered his son missing on Thursday after coming home from a doctor’s appointment between 8:15 to 8:30 a.m. He and Cunningham had told authorities they had last seen A.J. when they put him to bed on April 17.

• Reporter Katie Smith contributed.

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