TERRA LINDA, CA — Officers arriving at the home of marketing executive Jim Olive and his wife Naomi Olive on June 28, 1975, found the normally tidy Marin County residence in a state of filth and chaos.
All of it was out of order, that is, except the master bedroom, which unmistakably stood out as being precisely arranged and scrubbed spotless.
The occasion for the visit was to check on Jim and Naomi’s whereabouts. After Jim hadn’t turned up at work for a few days, and his partner couldn’t reach him or get in touch with Naomi, either, he called the authorities. Suffice to say, Jim and Naomi Olive were not at home that morning.
A week earlier, 20-year-old Charles “Chuck” Riley, while tripping on LSD, had slipped inside the house brandishing a .22 caliber pistol. Once inside, he also quickly got hold of a hammer and a knife.Marlene Olive, Jim and Naomi’s 16-year-old daughter and Riley’s girlfriend, had left a door unlocked for him. He rushed over after she called earlier and told him:
“Get your gun, we’ve got to kill that bitch today!”
That’s precisely what Riley did. He bludgeoned, stabbed, and suffocated Naomi in her bed. After Jim Olive came home and saw the carnage, he charged at Riley with a knife. In turn, Riley fatally shot Jim four times.
Afterward, Riley and Marlene wrapped up her parents’ bodies and drove them to China Camp State Park. The couple then used logs and gasoline to incinerate the remains in a barbecue pit. As a result, the Olive killings eventually came to be known as “The Barbecue Murders” — or “BBQ Murders,” for short.
The patrolmen who dropped by the Olives’ place to see what was up knew something was awry immediately. First, the messy condition of the surroundings — juxtaposed with that one meticulously cleaned bedroom — indicated trouble.
Secondly, as Marlene showed them around, she babbled a cockamamie series of different explanations: Her parents had taken off and simply died somewhere; one killed the other and then disappeared; a gang of Hells Angels had done them in and sped off with the corpses.
After bringing in Marlene for further questioning, detectives contacted one of her close friends. The buddy cracked immediately. She told the cops that Marlene had ordered Riley to kill her parents, he did it, and they torched the bodies on the China Camp barbecue grill. The friend also admitted that she helped Marlene and Riley clean up the blood-soaked crime scene. Everybody got arrested.
Riley came clean quick. He said he and Marlene had been planning to kill the Olives for some time, as they tried to keep the young couple from seeing one another. Still, he insisted that Marlene had “forced” him to do it, suggesting that his girlfriend, who practiced witchcraft and black magic, had perhaps held him spellbound.For her part, Marlene turned on Riley post-haste. She said that Riley exploded into a murderous rage suddenly, killed her parents, and then held her hostage and force-fed her LSD.
A note from Marlene to Riley discovered in a sealed envelope at the Olive residence punched quite a hole in the teen’s story. It read:
“I have no guilty feelings about my folks at all. NONE. NEITHER SHOULD YOU. Relax.”
From there, investigators pieced together the sad and occasionally freaky facts that begat this blazingly bizarre tragedy.
Jim and Naomi Olive adopted Marlene in 1959 from an unwed mother in Virginia. The family then spent the next 14 years in Ecuador, where Jim worked for oil corporations.
In 1973, the Olives relocated to Marin County, California, just in time for Marlene to begin high school. The incoming freshman made it clear she was none too pleased by the move.
Naomi Olive, throughout it all, suffered from schizophrenia and severe paranoia, which she self-treated by drinking alcoholically. Reportedly, she emotionally and psychologically abused Marlene relentlessly, forever telling the child that she would grow up to be a “whore” just like her “real mother.” Marlene apparently took those hurtful words to heart, engaging in acts of self-harm such as biting off chunks of her own flesh.
Taking full advantage of mid-1970s northern California, Marlene dove headfirst into the era’s “freak scenes” surrounding glam rock, occult practices, and drugs. When she needed money or other materials to indulge in these obsessions, she reportedly used her body for trade, fulfilling Naomi’s prophecy.
To impress her new peers, Marlene dressed provocatively, claimed to be a member of the Church of Satan, and said she’d been a porn star down in South America, where her father also “controlled the Ecuadorian drug trade.” (He didn’t, of course.)Chuck Riley took notice. He peddled marijuana and LSD near the local high school, meeting Marlene in 1974, when he was 19 and she was 15. Riley had grown up nearby, ostracized and depressed due to his being significantly overweight. To win friends and feel accepted, he pushed drugs. It worked … kind of.
Initially, Marlene also rejected Riley for being too fat. In time, though, he won her over via the proposal that he’d supply her with drugs if she’d supply him with sex. That deal worked. The pair also shared a penchant for shoplifting, and embarked on one $6,000 spree that ended with them potentially facing grand-larceny charges.
While attempting to cut off the trouble being made by this twosome, Jim and Naomi forbade Marlene from seeing Riley any longer. Their own doom resulted.
The state of California tried Chuck Riley as an adult. He testified under hypnosis (a very ’70s touch) and claimed that Marlene actually hammered in her mother’s skull and that he suffocated Naomi just to end her suffering. He also said he only killed Jim out of self-defense. The jury didn’t buy it and sentenced Riley to death (it got commuted to life in 1978).
Because she was only 16, Marlene went to juvenile court, where a judge decreed that she “did encourage, instigate, aid, abet, and act as accomplice in the homicides of her parents.” The judge further stated:
“The uncontroverted evidence regarding the father is that Chuck Riley killed him. As to who actually did in the mother, we’ll never know.”
The court sentenced Marlene to four to six years at a California youth corrections facility known as the Ventura School, to be released when she turned 21 pending any further issues.Marlene didn’t wait that long. With just weeks to go before her official release, Marlene escaped from a holding cell in Los Angeles and made her way to New York, where she took up high-priced call girl work and reignited her drug habits. After getting busted, authorities returned Marlene to Ventura to finish her sentence.
In 1980, after being released, Marlene moved to southern California and commenced a new life of crime. She got arrested in 1986 as the leader of a sizable forgery ring and got five years. She spent the 1990s and 2000s in and out of prison on further fraud charges, usually involving bad checks and creating fake identities using discarded business documents.
Meanwhile, Chuck Riley continues to do his time in San Luis Obispo prison, repeatedly getting rejected for parole, even though he maintains he poses no threat to the public. Governor Jerry Brown personally said no last time, stating that Riley still hasn’t sufficiently owned up to his part in the Olive murders.
After their convictions for killing Jim and Naomi, Marlene and Riley saw each other only one more time. It occurred in 1981, when true-crime author Richard M. Levine drove Marlene up to visit Riley. They sat together for five hours.
Levine, who later wrote a book about the case title Bad Blood: A Family Murder in Marin County, described the encounter as awkward. According to the author, Marlene told Riley, “I guess we just lost our marbles.” As they turned to leave, Levine said he heard Riley mutter, “I’ll never see her again.”
So far, he’s been right.
Main images: Marlene Olive, artist’s rendering by Marlene McCarty [Wikipedia] and Charles Riley [California Department of Corrections]