A little hero
Cunningham, 36, and Freund, 60, remain held in the McHenry County jail awaiting trial. Both declined repeated Tribune requests to be interviewed.
In a series of recorded telephone calls with a CBS-2 television reporter, Cunningham denied killing AJ or knowing what had happened to him. When asked about her use of drugs while she was pregnant with AJ, Cunningham replied: “Heroin, I don’t know, it’s like the devil.”
Cunningham delivered a baby girl on May 31, five weeks after her arrest. The infant was born without illicit drugs in her system and also is in the care of Cunningham’s family.
A paternity test confirmed that the baby girl’s biological father was Nowicki, who was in jail at the time of AJ’s death. Nowicki died of a suspected drug overdose Sept. 29 — one month before his 37th birthday — in Indiana, according to authorities.
Back in May, more than 5,000 people attended AJ’s memorial services. They stood for hours in a long line to say goodbye. He was buried wearing Superman pajamas. His casket, handmade and blessed by Trappist monks, was closed.
In September, AJ’s headstone was installed to mark his grave in a Palatine cemetery, next to one of his maternal great-grandmothers. Mourners on a recent fall day had left behind a toy train, stuffed animals and a Chicago Cubs baseball cap.
Etched in the stone is the image of a praying angel and the words, “Loving Brother Andrew Freund.” The nickname “AJ” appears in the center of a Superman emblem on the top right side. At the bottom of the headstone, it reads: “Our precious little hero.”
Months after AJ’s killing, faded blue ribbons still adorn trees in Crystal Lake — a reminder of the time when the community launched a massive search. Not far from the boy’s house, on a bustling street, a woman put up a massive sign in her front yard that asks passersby: “Have you hugged your child today? In memory of AJ.”
Dozens of community members recently came together the day before what would have been AJ’s sixth birthday to honor the boy with balloons and cupcakes. They passed his now-shuttered house, where a teddy bear sat on the porch, and sang, “Happy Birthday.” All that was missing was the birthday boy.
In Springfield, state lawmakers are calling for substantive changes at DCFS in response to what happened to him and other children who recently died of abuse or neglect despite prior hotline calls.
DCFS Acting Director Marc Smith’s first day on the job was, coincidentally, the day AJ died. Smith’s administration has pledged reforms and, with a recent big budget bump, is hiring more frontline staff, increasing training and investing in better technology, agency officials said.
Administrators placed Acosta, Gold and Polovin on paid desk duty. The DCFS inspector general has recommended the trio’s dismissal based on their handling of the two final hotline call investigations in 2018, according to an interim report. Gold has since resigned, records show.
A recent federal lawsuit was filed on behalf of the slain child’s estate, naming Acosta and Polovin as defendants. After AJ was examined by Dr. Channon in December, she “expressed concern to Acosta that AJ was the victim of abuse,” the suit alleges, and she suggested that he “arrange for AJ to meet with a professional trained to evaluate child abuse.”
Hughes said she is thankful to the community, police and so many others who rallied behind the extended family. She wants the public to know that AJ had “many good years,” with lots of family around him until his parents cut them out of the boy’s life.
“He didn’t always have this horrible, horrible life,” she said of AJ. “He had a lot of people who loved him.”
Hughes said she has not visited her daughter in jail but has spoken with her on the phone. “A mom doesn’t stop loving her kid,” she said. “I do love her, and it’s unconditional love. Maybe only I can understand that.”
In the early days of the search, Hughes said, she held out hope that AJ was alive and unharmed. Months later, the reality of all that has happened is inescapable. Hughes said she needs to know the truth.
“She claims her innocence, but how do you have a child in a bag in a basement and not know?” Hughes asked. “You don’t want to believe the worst. You don’t want to think that about your child.”
She was faced with tough choices when it came to her daughter and her grandchildren. She saved one grandson, fighting a prolonged court battle while working full time and shelling out thousands of dollars in legal fees. She and her longtime boyfriend are now helping him through college.
Still, Hughes said she struggles with feelings of regret for not realizing the danger AJ faced. If she had tried harder to reconcile with her daughter, Hughes wonders, would Cunningham have reached out to her for help?
“Had I known what AJ was going through, what they were doing to him — any of it — I would have taken them,” she said through tears. “I would have got those kids out of that house and I would have went to jail to protect them.”
In June, Cunningham wrote a pleading letter from jail to her oldest son — the one Lori Hughes has raised since age 12 — claiming her innocence.
He had no interest in reading it, his grandmother said.
Hughes, however, opened the letter. Cunningham asked her son for his support and expressed her love for him and his siblings. She hoped he would come visit her in jail.
“I can’t talk about my case, but just know I had nothing to do with this,” Cunningham wrote.
“You know who I am.”
Read Part One and see additional photos online at chicagotribune.com/aj
Mourners stand in line to attend the visitation for AJ at the Davenport Family Funeral Homes and Crematory in Crystal Lake on May 3.