About a year before the Columbo murders, on June 28, 1975, the Barbecue Murders took place in the toney Terra Linda neighborhood in San Rafael, Marin County, California. Sixteen year old Marlene Olive didn’t actually kill her parents, but she convinced her submissive boyfriend, Chuck Riley, to off her abusive, alcoholic mother, Naomi. Chuck was an overweight, small-time drug dealer who never had a real girlfriend before – so he’d do anything for sexy, dangerous Marlene.
This case has some similarities to the Manson murders in that a manipulative individual (Marlene), used sex and charisma to get a naive misfit (Chuck) to do her bidding. Charlie used the same method with his “lost” girls.
Marlene Olive was born in Norfolk, Virginia in 1959 and given up for adoption by her single mother. A middle aged couple, Jim and Naomi Olive, adopted her. The family lived in Ecuador when she was a child. Jim Olive had a high-paying job at an oil company. The family had servants and Jim treated little Marlene like a princess.
Naomi, however, became paranoid living in the lap of luxury. She began drinking heavily and had seizures. When Marlene was ten years old, she found adoption papers in her father’s office. Hurt and confused, she wondered why her biological mother didn’t want her.
Lots of teen girls were fascinated with the occult, LSD, wild sex, and related subjects in the early ‘70s. A whole genre of TV movies catered to the “teenage girl as deviant seductress or victim of perverts/the devil/drugs” crowd. It’s interesting to note that many of these movies were released before “The Exorcist”.
Marlene acted on the messages in the sleazy pop culture of the time, instead of merely being fascinated by them. When her family moved to northern California, Marlene, now in junior high, fell in with a slutty crowd. She did drugs, slept around, and dressed up as a glam rocker. She dabbled in sex work and witchcraft. Her platform shoes and tight skirts infuriated her mother. Naomi verbally abused Marlene, berated her, and called her a whore.
At one point, Naomi, in a totally psychotic state, walked around naked in front of Marlene, and taunted her. “You real mother was a whore,” she said.
Jim didn’t spend much time with Marlene. He did try to protect and comfort Naomi, which made Marlene angry.
I wonder if Jim ever tried to get Naomi treatment for her alcoholism or mental illness. It doesn’t appear so, from everything I’ve read. Even if he had, the treatments for paranoid schizophrenia in the 1970s were pretty ineffective, and at best would have turned her into a zombie.
Master and Slave
Marlene met 19 year old high school dropout Chuck Riley when she was 15. He was instantly smitten with her and she knew she had an easy mark. She relented to his advances after initially rebuffing him when he brought her free drugs and expensive presents he had shoplifted.
Riley and Marlene became a couple, with Marlene as the master and Riley as the slave. Riley did as she commanded, and she rewarded him with sex.
Marlene started shoplifting and used her parents’ credit cards. Chuck committed burglaries and gave Marlene the bounty. This strained Jim and Naomi’s relationship and exacerbated Naomi’s alcoholism and mental illness.
Marlene and Riley once stole $6,000 in merchandise (mostly women’s clothing). Jim bailed the couple out of jail. He threatened to send Marlene to a juvenile facility after this incident. And, as in the Columbo case, the father warned the no-good boyfriend to stay away from his daughter. (Jim didn’t knock out Riley’s teeth, however, like Frank Columbo did to Frank DeLuca.)
Back at home, Marlene got into a bitter fight with Naomi. Afterward, Marlene called Chuck and said, “We’ve got to kill that bitch today.” Of course, obedient lap dog Chuck followed Marlene’s orders. He went to the Olives’ house to kill Naomi while Marlene went out shopping with her father.
(Marlene had once tried to kill Naomi by crushing up prescription medicine and putting it in her food, but Naomi refused to eat the food because it was too bitter.)
LSD-addled Chuck hit Naomi in the head with a hammer and strangled her. She still moved around in bed and he panicked. He ran to the kitchen and returned with a steak knife and stabbed her. He had a gun, but didn’t want to use it because the noise might alert the neighbors.
Marlene had only wanted Naomi dead, but things didn’t go according to plan. She returned home with Jim to find a blood-drenched Chuck still struggling to kill Naomi.
Jim tried to kill him with the steak knife, but Chuck shot him four times, killing him. Some people believe that Marlene killed Naomi instead. The savagery of the murder seemed more in line with a personal vendetta. However, the facts and timeline of the case make this unlikely. (Naomi actually liked Chuck and thought he was a nice, quiet young man – at least before Marlene got to him.)
The couple drove to China Camp State Park, and burned the bodies in a barbecue pit. The next day, firefighters extinguished the blaze and mistook the charred remains in the pit for animals.
Marlene and Chuck went back home, and a friend helped clean up the blood. They bragged about the murders to friends. Marlene and Chuck then spent four days living in the house partying, going to concerts, and ordering meals on her deceased parents’ credit cards.
Worried associates called the police when Jim Olive hadn’t shown up for business meetings for a week.
The cops couldn’t find the couple or their teenage daughter, but Marlene came to the police station with a bunch of conflicting stories. She told the officers her parents had gone on a vacation and not returned, and then said the Hells’ Angels had kidnapped and killed them.
Finally, she lead the detectives to the firepit where she and Riley burned her parents’ bodies.
Since Marlene was a minor (16) at the time of the murders, she was sentenced to two years in a juvenile detention facility, and then spent a few months in another center before her release (minus the time she escaped to become a prostitute in New York).
Riley wasn’t so lucky. He was charged with two counts of murder and found guilty. He was originally sentenced to death. His sentence was commuted to life in prison after California abolished the death penalty in December 1976. Riley earned his high school and college degrees while incarcerated. He was paroled in December 2015.
Marlene visited Riley in prison in 1980 or 1981. It was the last time they saw each other.
Maybe I wouldn’t be writing about this bizarre tale today if Naomi had been properly treated for her mental illness, or if screening procedures for adoptive parents were more thorough. (An alcoholic, mentally ill woman isn’t the best choice to raise an adopted infant.)
Maybe Marlene would have turned into a murderous teen even if the family had stayed in Ecuador, or if she’d been adopted by younger, more stable, parents. She may have been just a “bad seed.”
The out-of-print book Bad Blood, written in 1983, is the only published, longform account of the murders. The book consists of research based on interviews with Marlene, Riley, friends, relatives, lawyers and teachers. I compiled information about this case from researching blogs, news reports, Wikipedia, and the book Bad Blood.
The Barbecue Murders were also featured in Killer Kids, a Canadian documentary series originally broadcast on The Biography Channel/FYI.
After Marlene was set free, she continued with a life of crime in the Los Angeles area. She now specialized in check forgery, and has been in and out of prison ever since. Her last known conviction was in 2003. There are no current reports on her whereabouts as of September 2019.