Amy Lee Black was just sixteen when she and her boyfriend robbed and murdered a man in Michigan. According to court documents Amy Lee Black and her boyfriend Jeff Abrahamson were drinking with the victim at their apartment when an argument broke out. Amy Lee Black would strike the victim over the head with a whiskey bottle. The teen killers would lead the victim out of their home and into a vehicle. They brought the victim to a secluded area where Jeff then stabbed the man to death.
Three days later the teenage couple would be arrested while they slept. Both Amy Lee Black and Jeff Abrahamson would be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
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Barb VanBogelen was thrilled to hear of Tuesday’s Michigan Supreme Court decision keeping in prison inmates serving no-parole life sentences in connection with murders committed at 17 and younger. Nearly 25 years ago, one of those inmates – Amy Lee Black, then 16 – participated in the robbery and murder of VanBogelen’s husband, 34-year-old David John VanBogelen. “I’m so excited,” Barb VanBogelen said late Tuesday afternoon, July 8, shortly after the high-court decision was announced. “This is what we wanted all along.” In a 4-3 decision, the high court ruled that juveniles sentenced before June 2012 to life without parole for murder won’t get new hearings that could have led some to their release.
One of those affected is Black, now a 40-year-old inmate at Huron Valley Complex Women’s Correctional Facility in Ypsilanti. She’s serving a sentence of life without chance of parole for first-degree premeditated murder. A jury convicted Black of first-degree murder as an aider and abettor in the Dec. 7, 1990, stabbing death of David VanBogelen of Sullivan Township, whom she and her boyfriend had met in a restaurant and decided to rob. She was sentenced in 1991 to life in prison without chance of parole, as Michigan law required. That made her Muskegon County’s only female “juvie lifer” and one of only 10 in Michigan. In addition to aiding 19-year-old Jeff Abrahamson, the confessed stabber, Black confessed to personally bashing VanBogelen in the head repeatedly with a square-sided whiskey bottle earlier in the evening, inflicting wounds a medical examiner said could also have proven fatal.
When he died, VanBogelen left his wife, their 7-year-old daughter, Amanda, and 12-year-old son, David. The U.S. Supreme Court in June 2012 ruled that laws, like Michigan’s, that mandated life-without-parole sentences for juvenile defendants are unconstitutional, although such sentences can still be imposed as long as judges are allowed to decide the issue. But the nation’s high court didn’t state whether the decision was retroactive to convicts who had already been sentenced under such laws. Black filed a motion for relief from her no-parole sentence based on the U.S. Supreme Court ruling. Muskegon County 14th Circuit Judge Timothy G. Hicks in March 2013 declined to rule on her motion until the Michigan high court decided the issue of retroactivity. On Tuesday, the court did so, declaring the ruling was not retroactive.
That appears to end Black’s hopes of being resentenced. That’s fine with Barb VanBogelen. “Just because you’re 16 doesn’t give you the right to commit a murder and then say, ‘Whoops, I’m too young,’” she said. “Juveniles need to realize if you’re going to do a crime, you need to pay the time. “She (Black) was not mentally incompetent. Nobody forced her, and to cry afterward – tough luck. We’ve cried many, many, many a tear over all this,” VanBogelen said. She believes the state supreme court made the right decision. “I’m glad they realized that you can’t go backwards,” she said. “You can make a law that goes forward, but you can’t go back and change the law backwards to accommodate a few people.
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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.
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.
Amy Lee Black 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.
Amy Lee 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.
Amy Lee 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.
Under Michigan law as it stood at the time, Amy Lee 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 Amy Lee 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 Amy Lee 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.