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Looking Back At The Murder Of AJ Freund And Its Effect On Crystal Lake

CRYSTAL LAKE, Ill. (CBS) -- JoAnn Cunningham is set to be sentenced Thursday in the murder of 5-year-old AJ Freund.

Cunningham pleaded guilty late last year, and now faces 20 to 60 years in prison. CBS 2's Tim McNicholas on Thursday morning had a look back at the case, and at the people of AJ's home town of Crystal Lake.

The house where investigators said Cunningham and Andrew Freund Sr. killed the 5-year-old has been demolished. But that is not nearly enough to make McHenry County forget what happened.

Tracy Kotzman never met AJ, yet her heart aches for him. She heard the story of his tragic death and tried to do something.

"Who do I write? What do I do? How can I be a voice for this child?" Kotzman said.

She was not just a voice, but a Roar for AJ. That is the name of the group Kotzman formed.

They lined his old neighborhood with blue ribbons on the anniversary of his death – and that's not all.

"The demonstrations, the rallies outside of the courthouse, wanting justice for this child and accountability for (the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services)," Kotzman said.

She said on Thursday morning, she would be there at 7:30 – more than an hour before the sentencing starts for Cunningham.

Prosecutors said Cunningham and Freund Sr. beat AJ to death. Investigators said Freund Sr. called 911 three days later and reported AJ missing.

After about a week of searching, police announced AJ was found buried in a shallow grave in Woodstock. Four months earlier, on a prior allegation, DCFS said AJ's abuse was unfounded.

Roar for AJ says the boy was failed by the system, and DCFS missed the warning signs.

Brigitte and Shaun Baker's restaurant in Woodstock gave free pizza to a vigil for after AJ after his body was found. This week, the staff is wearing Roar for AJ T-shirts, and the Bakers are calling for Cunningham to get the full 60 years.

CBSN Special Presentation: 'The Murder Of AJ Freund'

Just seven months ago, Cunningham granted CBS 2 Investigator Brad Edwards the only in-house jail interview:

Edwards: "DCFS paints a horror show of what went on in that house. Was it a horror show, what was going on in that house in the end?"

Cunningham: "No, we were a good, loving family."

Edwards: "JoAnn, a lot of people are just going to have a hard time believing that."

Cunningham: "I'm sure they do, but I don't care what they think."

In the interview, Cunningham denied that she killed AJ. But then, just months later, she entered a guilty plea.

Today, there is an empty lot where AJ's old house stood, and a single blue ribbon tied to a tree.


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