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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Survivors' story: Life after death for family of
murder victim David VanBogelen
By John S. Hausman - Mlive.com
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
“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
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
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
THE STATE OF MICHIGAN, PLAINTIFF-APPELLEE,
AMY LEE BLACK, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT.
Michael J. Kelly, P.j., and Connor and A. A.
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
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.