A lit­tle hero

Chicago Tribune (Sunday) - - CHICAGOLAN­D - [email protected]­bune.com

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.

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