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Classification: Homicide
Characteristics: Juvenile (16) - Robbery
Number of victims: 1
Date of murder: December 7, 1990
Date of arrest: 3 days after
Date of birth: June 11, 1974
Victim profile: David VanBogelen, 34
Method of murder: Stabbing with knife
Location: Muskegon County, Michigan, USA
Status: Sentenced to life in prison without possibility of parole on July 3, 1991

photo gallery


National Organization of Victims of Juvenile Lifers

Profile of Amy Lee Black

Juvenile lifer Amy Lee Black: Troubled teen girlfriend or sociopathic killer?

By John S. Hausman

November 6, 2011

In the wee hours of Dec. 7, 1990, teenagers Amy Lee Black and Jeff Abrahamson met a visibly drunk, cash-flashing stranger in a Muskegon Heights restaurant.

It was a fateful meeting for all three.

By dawn of that Pearl Harbor Day, 34-year-old Dave VanBogelen, of Sullivan Township, lay dead on a remote rural two-track — his head bludgeoned, his body pierced by multiple stab wounds.

By the next Fourth of July, both teens had been sentenced to prison until the day they die.

Black was 16 years and six months old at the time of the crime, a relative newcomer to Muskegon after leaving her mother’s Kalamazoo home.

Today she’s 37, an unhappy resident of the Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility near Ypsilanti.

She is one of only 10 female “juvenile lifers” in Michigan.

A grisly death

Black was not the one who stabbed VanBogelen to death. Her 19-year-old boyfriend confessed to that. But she did play a role in the events of that night.

She has given two conflicting accounts of how deep that role was, starting with a detailed early confession that she recanted in testimony at her May 1991 trial. The jurors and sentencing judge believed her confession, not her second version, which she maintains to this day.

At a minimum: She does admit striking the victim’s head with a heavy whiskey bottle in the couple’s Muskegon Heights apartment, blows that the Muskegon County medical examiner testified could also have led to his death. She accompanied Abrahamson as he helped the disoriented, bleeding victim down stairs and into VanBogelen’s pickup truck. She rode along as Abrahamson drove to the secluded spot near Brooks and Ellis roads, where he repeatedly stabbed VanBogelen.

Afterward, Black helped clean up the couple’s blood-spattered apartment. After discarding a gory sofa and other items, the two fled in the victim’s truck to her uncle’s home in Barry County, where police caught up to them three days later while they slept.

Black has always said she didn’t expect Abrahamson to kill VanBogelen.

Today, as in her trial, she blames the events of the night on Abrahamson and says she went along because she was afraid of him. She describes herself as a passive, unwilling participant, her chief fault being a failure to break away and let someone know what was happening. She attributes that to her youth, her dependence on her boyfriend and her failure to understand that she had “options.”

“My role basically was that, as Jeff’s girlfriend, I was there with him,” she said in an Oct. 4 interview in Huron Valley’s visiting room. “And the crimes that he committed, I should have told somebody.”

That account contradicts the half-hour taped statement she gave police at her own request shortly after the two were arrested and brought to Muskegon. A transcript is in her court file.

In it, although she said Abrahamson surprised her by ultimately stabbing the victim — she supposedly thought they were just going to drop him off and steal his truck — she said that she plotted with her boyfriend in the restaurant to lure the drunken stranger to their nearby apartment to rob him; repeatedly bashed VanBogelen’s head with a square-bottomed bottle when he wouldn’t pass out from drinking; took cash from his jacket pocket; and “held his head down” in the truck as they drove into the country.

They got about $1,500 cash from VanBogelen, some of which she spent on new clothes, she told police.

In the confession, she attributed her actions to “money,” adding, “I always wanted to know if you could just kill somebody and, and, and the cops not know that it was you. I did. I always wondered that. I never, never thought I’d do it — do nothing like that, though. And, especially, I didn’t kill him, but I helped out my fair share.”

Testifying at her trial, though, she blamed Abrahamson for everything. She admitted hitting the victim with a bottle but said her boyfriend made her do it, after he first broke a bottle over VanBogelen’s head.

Jurors, after hearing both versions, took less than two hours to find her guilty of premeditated murder and armed robbery, as an aider and abettor.

Black maintains she falsely confessed because Abrahamson had repeatedly urged her to do so in the event that they were caught. His idea, she says, was to exaggerate her role and minimize his because she was a juvenile.

“He had explained to me that, because I was young, I wouldn’t (be charged as an adult), and they couldn’t hold me responsible,” she said in the Chronicle interview.

“When you’re young you believe things, stars and stripes and balloons and birds and puppy dogs. Now I think I can’t believe I was that stupid to believe those things.”

‘Sociopath’ or troubled kid?

Under Michigan law as it stood at the time, Black was tried as an adult, but it was then up to the trial judge to decide whether to sentence her as an adult or juvenile.

If the decision was adult, the sentence had to be life without chance of parole; if juvenile, she’d have to be freed when she turned 21 — less than four years after her July 3, 1991, sentencing. The judge had no middle course.

Muskegon County 14th Circuit Judge Ronald H. Pannucci made his decision after an hours-long sentence hearing. He heard testimony from psychologists, probation officers who had conducted a pre-sentence investigation, social-service workers and others.

A Spring Lake psychologist who tested, interviewed and evaluated Black testified that he believed her to have a manipulative, “sociopathic personality,” without empathy for others, and “the mental maturity of an adult.” He said Black had a poor prognosis for rehabilitation and needed decades in a highly structured environment.

State probation agents and Department of Social Service workers also recommended an adult sentence.

On the other side, two Community Mental Health therapists who had repeatedly counseled Black in jail called her a troubled teen who was remorseful and capable of reform, criticizing the “sociopath” label as inappropriate for one so young. The Muskegon County Jail chaplain also said Black was remorseful. All advocated a juvenile sentence.

At the end of the hearing Pannucci made his decision, based on testimony at the trial and the sentence hearing: an adult sentence was required.

And that meant life without parole.

Amy Black’s story: before and after

In her recent interview, Black attributed her actions at age 16 to an unhappy home life, including sexual abuse by a succession of men in her mother’s home.

For a couple of years before the murder she had been in and out of the home, dropping out of school and rebelling against her mother’s authority. “Over the years, when I didn’t feel stable and safe in the home, I left the home,” she said.

She had gotten into drugs, leading to a 1990 stint in a residential treatment center in Ottawa County that she says got her off cocaine. She said she continued drinking alcohol and smoking marijuana.

She described a kind of mental point-of-no-return a few weeks before the murder, after she came to Muskegon, where she knew no one. She had arrived with a male friend, then left him after meeting Abrahamson in Muskegon.

At that stage, she said, “I called both my parents and asked ‘Can you come get me?’” Both refused, she said.

“That was the point where I knew something horrible was going to happen,” Black said. “I knew I was too far from home. I was too far into something bad.”

The years since her sentencing have been sometimes harsh, sometimes secure.

Early on, she says, she was raped by a male corrections officer while she was lodged at the now-closed Robert Scott Correctional Facility in Plymouth Township.

As a result of that experience, Black was one of many beneficiaries of the state’s 2009 settlement of a class-action civil-rights lawsuit by female inmates who had suffered sexual abuse in the 1990s. Black won’t discuss the settlement in detail but said “I got a lot” — enough to be “independently wealthy” if ever released from prison.

Despite the rape, she said, over the years she grew attached to fellow prisoners and staff at Scott, where she spent most of the years from 1991 to its closing in 2009. She didn’t react well to the move to Huron Valley. “It’s like I grew up with Scott, then I came here,” she said. “It’s depressing."

She acknowledges that she has accumulated many misconduct tickets in prison: “I don’t adjust to change well,” she said. That may have been a factor in the failure of Black’s attempt to get a commutation of her sentence from Gov. Jennifer Granholm late in Granholm’s second term.

Such tickets also are an important factor in parole board decisions on whether a prisoner would be safe to release, if the inmate is eligible for parole consideration.

Black's major-misconduct records, which The Chronicle obtained under Michigan's Freedom of Information Act, show numerous citations against her over the years for infractions including threatening behavior, destruction of property and substance abuse. The most recent tickets were, in 2010, one for heroin abuse, one for disobeying a direct order and one for "insolence"; and, in 2009, one for sexual misconduct.

Black says, if released, she would like to get a regular job and possibly set up an organization to work with young people in trouble. Her idea, she said, is to give them somewhere to turn when faced with a “something horrible is going to happen” moment like hers.

She has not been active lately with a prison organization she co-founded in 2008 called Juveniles Against Incarceration for Life, which advocates against no-parole life sentences for juveniles. A website by that organization features profiles of participating inmates, including Black.

Her JAIL profile minimizes her role in VanBogelen’s murder, saying nothing about her admitted bludgeoning of the victim. Regarding her role, the profile mentions only that she “obeyed Jeff’s demand that she aid him in cleaning up afterward.” The profile says she “confessed to the killing of David, a killing she did not commit,” although her actual confession blamed Abrahamson for the killing.

Asked why the public should believe it’s safe to release her, Black pauses, then answers, “They probably shouldn’t believe that I’m safe to let out, based on what I’m in prison for. But given a chance, I’d prove it.

“I’ve never been a dangerous person. I’ve made bad decisions. It’s like it’s taken a lifetime to learn to make good decisions.”

Differing views

Views differ about the need for keeping Black in prison for life.

Pannucci, the sentencing judge and now a private attorney, remembers the case well and has no regrets about opting for an adult sentence. “There was no choice in the matter, really, based on the testimony at the hearing,” Pannucci said.

But asked another question — would you have preferred a middle option, an adult sentence short of life without parole? — Pannucci responded, “Oh, you bet.

“I had two bad decisions to (choose from). In reality, there was no good alternative that the Legislature gave me.”

Dennis Vennema, now retired, was Muskegon County’s chief probation officer in 1991. His strong recommendation of an adult sentence influenced Pannucci’s decision.

Vennema’s view in a recent interview was similar to the ex-judge’s. “Do away with the mandatory life in those kinds of cases, for juveniles. ... A judge does well with options."

Muskegon County Prosecutor Tony Tague also dislikes mandatory sentencing, preferring judges be given discretion to decide punishment. That goes for adults as well as juveniles: Tague believes judges should have the option of imposing a sentence less than life without parole for first-degree murder, if the circumstances call for it.

But in the case of Amy Black, Tague believes the sentence was correct.

“It was an extremely premeditated and plotting murder of this man,” he said. “She had numerous opportunities to withdraw, and she chose not to. And the brutality of the actual murder — being brutally beaten and repeatedly stabbed to death, at (two) locations — points out the depravity of the crime.”

David VanBogelen’s widow, Barb VanBogelen, goes further.

She followed the case closely and sat through every day of both teens’ trials. She believes Black was not just a willing participant but the actual leader, controlling Abrahamson — described by friends and associates in 1990 as a “follower” — rather than the other way around.

“If she would have said ‘jump off a roof,’ Jeff would have done it,” VanBogelen said.

VanBogelen supports the life-without-parole sentence for Black, regardless of her age at the time of the crime. “She knew what she was doing. ... I don’t think it would be safe for anybody to have Amy out on the street.”

Black says otherwise. Asked what she most wanted readers to know about her today, she said, “I’m not the same person at 37 that I was at 16.

”I know that I made a lot of life-altering mistakes in my life. I just would like an opportunity to make up for them, in the smallest way."


Steve Gunn: Supreme Court wrong on 'juvenile lifer' ruling

By Steve Gunn - The Muskegon Chronicle

July 4, 2012

Amy Lee Black once told authorities she wondered what it would be like to kill someone and get away with it.

Now she may actually find out, due to a legal opinion rendered last week by the increasingly nitpicky U.S. Supreme Court.

If you read the Chronicle over the weekend, you might have noticed that the Supreme Court justices ruled 5-4 to strike down a Michigan law that mandates underage killers be sentenced to life in prison with no chance for parole, just like adult offenders.

The very liberal Justice Elena Kagan wrote that life without parole should be an option for judges dealing with juvenile killers, but not the rule. She wrote that young murderers should sometimes be shown more forgiveness, due to “immaturity, impetuosity and failure to appreciate risks and consequences."

In other words, cold-blooded murder can be viewed as a youthful indiscretion. Those silly kids. They’ll grow out of it. After all, who hasn’t committed a murder or two during their self-absorbed teen years? How can we be so judgmental?

Which brings us to Black, who was 16 years old on Dec. 7. 1990. That night she and her 19-year-old boyfriend lured 34-year-old David VanBogelen from a Muskegon Heights bar to their local apartment with the apparent intent of robbing him.

But somehow Black ended up bashing VanBogelen over the head with a heavy liquor bottle, and her boyfriend stabbed him. His body was discovered the next morning in a remote area of Muskegon County. The coroner said the blows to the head may have been the cause of death.

Black later told authorities, “I always wanted to know if you could just kill somebody and the cops not know that is was you. I did. I always wondered that.”

Well, the cops and everyone else know that Black committed this horrific crime. Yet the possibility exists that she could walk away a free woman, with no more penalty to pay.

How could that possibly be?

Defense attorneys are preparing to seek resentencing hearings, and parole boards would be required to hold hearings every 10 years for the juvenile lifers.
They all still should be resentenced to life, even with the chance of parole. That would allow the parole board to listen to Black explain how she was young and stupid and didn’t know what she was doing, right before they tell her to burn in hell.

Anything less would be an insult to all of us who manage to get through every day without murdering anyone.

Killing without justification, in my opinion, should cost the guilty their own lives. But since Michigan doesn’t do capital punishment, life behind bars should be an absolute minimum sentence.

You show me a 16-year-old who doesn’t understand that murder is immoral, and I’ll show you a kid who is probably already beyond reform. At that point you’re probably dealing with an adolescent sociopath whose understanding of right and wrong is limited to whether or not they can get away with something.

If anything, punishment for youthful violence should be strengthened, not watered down. Too many parents these days no longer bother raising their children. They are too busy working, socializing and catering to the whims of their 45-year-old “boyfriends” or “girlfriends.”

They allow their children to be raised by television, movies, computers and video games. Violence is the norm in that world, and morals are treated like yesterday’s news. As a result we’re stuck with a generation of young monsters who are willing to do anything to get the material things they want and the attention they so desperately crave.

And when they kill someone, we’re expected to forgive and forget, because, after all, they aren’t very mature and weren’t raised correctly.

Sorry. I don’t buy it. Most vicious dogs were probably mistreated as puppies, but they remain a threat to society and must be put down. There are children out there who are every bit as vicious as the meanest pitbulll on the block.

Perhaps they can reform, but they’ve surrendered the right to do so outside of prison. A life was taken that cannot be restored, so freedom for the perpetrator should not be restored.

When are we finally going to learn an obvious truth: A society that refuses to draw a hard line when it comes to violent behavior is asking for more of the same, even from pimple-faced youngsters who supposedly aren’t mature enough to know any better.


Survivors' story: Life after death for family of murder victim David VanBogelen

By John S. Hausman -

November 9, 2011

To this day, Barb VanBogelen never drives a certain stretch of Brooks Road. It's only two miles from her longtime home off Brooks, but she just can't bear to be on it.

The road runs past the two-track where her husband's stabbed, bludgeoned body was found on Dec. 8, 1990. In all that time, she says, she's only been able to drive by once.

Twenty-one years after the murder of 34-year-old David John VanBogelen, his family still bears the scars of the trauma.

VanBogelen was stabbed to death the morning of Dec. 7 at the remote rural site off Brooks where his body was found. Jeff Abrahamson, then 19, was later convicted of robbing and murdering him.

Earlier that morning, 16-year-old Amy Lee Black, Abrahamson's girlfriend, had bashed VanBogelen's head with a heavy liquor bottle in the couple's apartment, blows that the Muskegon County medical examiner testified could also have led to his death.

Black, too, was convicted of armed robbery and first-degree murder, as an aider and abettor, and sentenced to life in prison without chance of parole. That made her Muskegon County's only female “juvie lifer” and one of only 10 in Michigan.

When he died, David VanBogelen left his widow, their 7-year-old daughter, Amanda, and 12-year-old son, David.

Barb VanBogelen, 51, and her now 28-year-old daughter recently shared their memories of David, his death and its aftermath in an interview at the Sullivan Township home they once shared with him. Her son, now 33, also still lives there.

Barb VanBogelen remembers her husband as a “free-going guy,” a Harley-Davidson enthusiast who worked hard at his foundry job and “loved his kids dearly.” Some 50 motorcycle riders rode in his funeral procession: Dave was a road captain for the Fremont Chapter of Harley Owners Group.

She has many pictures of the young man with their children. “He loved playing with the kids,” she said.

“He was an awesome dad,” Amanda said. “I remember going to breakfast with him, to Mr. B's. ... He took me everywhere.”

She remembers “the smell of the foundry” on her dad. He had worked since 1981 for Non-Ferrous Cast Alloys Inc., most recently as production manager at its Grand Haven Road plant.

An excellent mechanic, “Dave was jack of all trades,” Barb VanBogelen said. “He worked on machines, worked on cars, worked on bikes."

The night of his death, he and a group of men from work had gone out to a bar not far from the foundry. Dave had a wallet full of money — $1,500 worth — from a just-cashed paycheck for a full month's work.

“He shouldn't have done it,” Barb said. “He had a lot to drink, then he went to get a bite to eat,” driving a shiny red 1991 Ford Ranger pickup to a downtown Muskegon Heights restaurant. There, “he met Jeff and Amy. ... When he pulled money out of his wallet ... Jeff and Amy saw.

“They wanted the truck, they wanted the money.”

VanBogelen well remembers the afternoon her life changed forever.

She had reported Dave missing earlier. Around 4 p.m. Dec. 8, two police officers showed up at the front door of the family's home on Tean-Mar Avenue. Their news was grim.

“It was a drop and scream,” VanBogelen said of her reaction. “Everything just sinks to your stomach.”

Her daughter remembers, too, with the memories of a 7-year-old. “I remember my mom yelling, and I remember her being very upset. I remember people coming over.

“I tried to block it out,” Amanda said. “It wasn't until I was older that it really started to bother me.”

After the initial shock, Barb VanBogelen recalls, she had to compose herself for her children's sake. “I just had to tell them that 'your dad has died,'” Barb VanBogelen said. “I had to hold myself together because I had two little kids to take care of.”

“It's made her very strong,” her daughter said.

“I've had to be strong,” Barb said. “I couldn't fall apart, because I had to take care of everyone else. I didn't want them to take the hurts. You have kids, you protect them from everything you possibly can.”

When Amanda was a child, her mother recalls, she would look out her bedroom window and see a bright star. To the little girl, “that was her dad's star,” Barb VanBogelen said.

Amanda still reveres her father's memory. As an adult, she had his likeness — taken from a treasured family photo — tattooed on her left calf.

Barb lists some of her daughter's major life events that her husband could not witness: her middle-school graduation, her high-school graduation, her pending marriage next August. “It's highly unfair, because of the actions of two other people,” she said.

Both women believe the life-without-parole sentence for Black is appropriate, whatever her age at the time of the crime. “This was just plain, cold-blooded killing,” Barb said. “She knew what she was doing. She doesn't have the mental capacity of a 2- or 3-year-old.”

Her daughter agrees. “Especially at 16, you know right from wrong. You can't deny that,” Amanda said. “If they would have let her out, she would have done this to someone else's family.”

Should Black ever get a parole hearing, both women plan to be there to argue against release. “There's not enough years to take back what she did,” Barb VanBogelen said.

For the widow, life has changed. Eventually, after the inevitable period of grief, it got better.

“The 'first' of everything is the hardest to do by yourself,” she said — birthdays, holidays, school functions.

Eventually, “you have to pick up, and you have to do. I'm engaged to a wonderful guy now. Life is good.

“But it still doesn't go away. I still love (Dave). But it's filed away where it needs to be."


Court of Appeals of Michigan

February 7, 1994


Michael J. Kelly, P.j., and Connor and A. A. Monton,* JJ.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Connor

Defendant was a juvenile who was tried as an adult pursuant to MCL 764.1f; MSA 28.860(6). A jury found her guilty of first-degree premeditated murder, MCL 750.316; MSA 28.548, and armed robbery, MCL 750.529; MSA 28.797. After a hearing, the trial court found that the best interests of the juvenile and the public would be served by sentencing her as an adult. MCL 769.1(3); MSA 28.1072(3) and MCR 6.931. Defendant was then sentenced to prison for life without the possibility of parole. Defendant appeals as of right, and we affirm.

Defendant first argues that the automatic waiver law, see MCL 600.606; MSA 27A.606 and MCL 764.1f; MSA 28.860(6), and related court rules, see MCR 6.901 et seq., violate the separation of powers doctrine found in Const 1963, art 3, § 2. We disagree. The waiver statutes and rules do not give prosecutors authority to exercise judicial power. Rather, the automatic waiver provisions simply vest the circuit courts with jurisdiction to hear certain cases that previously came within the exclusive jurisdiction of the probate courts. See People v Veling, 443 Mich 23, 31; 504 NW2d 456 (1993). Consequently, while prosecutors have the choice of proceeding in either the probate court or the circuit court, all judicial power continues to be exercised by the judiciary.

Defendant next contends that, as a juvenile, she should not have been permitted to initiate an interview with police after she previously had demanded a lawyer and exercised her right to remain silent. However, an adult is free to do so, Edwards v Arizona, 451 U.S. 477; 101 S Ct 1880; 68 L Ed 2d 378 (1981), and we see no reason why a juvenile later tried as an adult should be treated differently. Cf. People v Spearman, 195 Mich App 434, 443-445; 491 NW2d 606 (1992).

Finally, defendant contends that the trial court erred in sentencing her as an adult. In this case and in many others like it, our statutes create a serious quandary for the trial court. For older juveniles guilty of crimes that carry mandatory life sentences without any possibility of parole, trial courts are caught between Scylla and Charybdis: between underpunishing the most serious juvenile crimes or sentencing teenagers to live out their lives in prison. It is not surprising that perplexed Judges faced with the dilemma sometimes choose poorly. See People v Haynes, 199 Mich App 593; 502 NW2d 758 (1993); People v Miller, 199 Mich App 609; 503 NW2d 89 (1993).

In this case, the trial court had before it a seventeen-year-old girl who had been found guilty of aiding and abetting a premeditated murder. If the trial court determined she should be sentenced as an adult, it would have no ability to fashion a sentence that took into account the part she played in the crime and the role her youth played in her decision to participate. On the other hand, if the trial court determined defendant should be sentenced as a juvenile, it would not be able to impose an appropriate sentence for participating in such a serious crime.

The testimony at the sentencing hearing showed that defendant had a real chance at being rehabilitated. The testimony also showed that she would not be subject to the juvenile Justice system for a period sufficient to accomplish the rehabilitation. This left the trial court with two bad alternatives: sentence defendant as a juvenile and thereby endanger society, or sentence defendant as an adult and condemn a potentially salvageable child to spend the rest of her life in prison. Under the circumstances, we cannot say that the trial court erred in making the choice it made.




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