The Tragedy of Marlene Olive
Have you heard of the tragedy of Marlene Olive? Probably not. The story of this girl, who had her boyfriend murder her parents in 1975, has been overshadowed by other “true crime” stories, like the Charles Manson family, OJ Simpson, the Menendez Brothers, and Ted Bundy. But her story is no less compelling and is detailed in Richard M. Levine’s 1982 book Bad Blood. Recently it was the subject of a short play starring actress Jessica Campbell (pictured here; I have never seen a picture of the real Marlene but she looks like her based on descriptions I have read).
Marlene was still an infant when she was adopted by a middle aged couple, Jim and Naomi Olive, in 1959 in Norfolk, VA. Jim was a successful businessman who had married Naomi, a local beauty, some ten years before. After realizing they couldn’t have a child, they adopted Marlene. In time, however, Naomi had started drinking and possibly developing a mental illness, meaning she would never be the mother Marlene needed. Jim moved the family to Ecuador in the early 60s, becoming an executive for an oil company. The family lived in luxury in Ecuador for the next decade. Marlene was a good little girl for the most part, who often retreated into her own fantasy world due to her mother’s drinking. When she was 13, however, her father lost his job and announced they would be moving to affluent Marin County, California, to start over again. Marlene was terrified, because she had led a sheltered childhood, and to her America meant one thing: drugs.
And indeed, California in 1973 was quite a culture shock for the 14-year-old girl. At first shy, she soon plunged into a teenage world centered on hard rock, drugs (marijuana, cocaine, and LSD), premarital sex, and the occult. She ran with a “fast” group of girls, some of whom were into Satanism, skipping school to have abortions or go to concerts, or even going out with (gasp) black guys. Marlene dove right in, telling friends she was a member of the Church of Satan in nearby San Francisco, that she had been in a porno movie in South America, and that her father controlled the Ecuadorian drug trade. Although slightly overweight, she dressed, quite frankly, like a streetwalker: platform shoes, tons of makeup, multi-colored hair and nails, revealing tops, tight short skirts, etc. An extremely short pair of Daisy Duke shorts particularly infuriated her mother. She gained a reputation at school as being “loose.” All the while she continued to fight with her mother, whose own drinking had accelerated; her father was too busy trying to establish his own business to truly intervene.
In October 1974 she met Chuck Riley, and things really began to accelerate. Riley was a 19-year-old high school dropout, an overweight ne’er-do-well who had become the top drug dealer to all the teens. He had never had a girlfriend, and his friends ribbed him for it. When he met Marlene, he fell head over heels in love with her. After spurning his clumsy advances for several months, she gave in and agreed to be his girlfriend; in the naïve Chuck, she saw a blank canvas on which to indulge her darker fantasies. She encouraged him to take explicit photos of her which she claimed she was going to send in to Penthouse; she made him dress up in a leather mask and whip her; once she even urinated in his face in front of her friends. All the while Chuck continued to be infatuated with her, supplying her with free dope and insisting he would be her slave.
Chuck’s friends noticed he had changed; he was no longer upbeat and eager to please. Now he was short-tempered, carried around weapons, and had begun ripping people off in his drug dealings. Under Marlene’s tutelage, he also lost weight and started to dress in a more hip manner. However, his talk of the occult (spurned on by her) distressed his friends. She was his first girlfriend, and he began overdoing everything.
Soon enough, Marlene began telling him she wanted her parents dead. Her mother was a virtual zombie by this point, locked in her room drinking all day and screaming at her daughter to stop dressing like a whore. Although Marlene loved her father, she had grown tired of waiting for him to “do something” about her mother and pay more attention to her. Marlene began pleading with Chuck to find a hit man, or to do it himself. Her grades in school slipped in the spring of 1975, and she went to an alternate school as a last-ditch effort, but when the grades slipped there, Mr. Olive decided he was going to send his daughter away the next year. The fact that Chuck and Marlene had gotten arrested at the mall on March 26, 1975 for shoplifting didn’t help matters either. They were both awaiting trial for this, and her parents forbade her from seeing him ever again. In clandestine phone calls, Marlene hinted to Chuck that if he killed her father, he could have access to “mountains of snow” from his supposed South American drug connections, and they would be rich…not to mention married. It came to a point of "do it or I'll break up with you."
Finally, on the first day of summer, June 21, 1975, Chuck woke up and dropped acid. Spaced out to the point of barely being able to walk, he borrowed a gun from a friend and proceeded to walk through Terra Linda until he came to the Olive house. Marlene and her father had left momentarily, out to the mall to pay a girl back for some drugs (real class!) Chuck walked into the house and discovered a hammer. Going into Mrs. Olive’s bedroom, he found the woman asleep in bed in a drunken stupor. Still high on acid, he struck her in the head repeatedly with the hammer while bright red blood spurted everywhere. The poor woman was not quite dead; she started to make a sick gurgling sound, choking on her own blood and shards of skull with a golfball-sized hole in her head. Just then, the sound of screeching tires! Mr. Olive entered the house and saw Chuck trying to hide behind a setee. Realizing the drug dealer had just murdered his wife, the older man picked up a knife and lunged at Chuck, who shot him about six times nearly point blank. Jim Olive died instantly at the age of 59, and a few minutes later Naomi finally took her last savage breaths.
Marlene and Chuck sprang into action, cleaning up the crime scene (but carefully saving the victims' credit cards) and loading the bodies into the family station wagon. They drove out to China Camp, a local badlands of sorts frequented by hunters, and cremated the bodies in a cistern. (A fireman the next morning, called to put out the fire, wrote in his report that some idiot had nearly burned the woods down trying to “roast a deer”!) For a week or so, no one suspected anything; the two teens used the deceased couple’s credit cards and lived it up; they hung out with friends and did tons of drugs; and even attended a Yes concert. Soon, however, Mr. Olive’s business partner became suspicious of Mr. Olive’s continued absence from work, and he called the police, who found a house in disarray and some suspicious blood stains on the floor.
For the next day or so, Marlene was interrogated, and the canny girl kept spinning apocryphal tales: her father killed her mother and fled, or her mother killed her father and fled, or the two of them were on vacation at Lake Tahoe. She even told the truth, which the officers dismissed as the least credible story of all! Finally, however, she gained the trust of one of the officers, who came to believe it. Chuck was arrested at his new job at a waterbeds store and confessed immediately, adding that Marlene made him do it, that she would break up with him or kill him or harm him through her “witchcraft” if he didn’t drop the hammer! The so-called “deer bones” were re-examined by forensics experts and found to be the charred remains of a man and a woman.
Both Chuck and Marlene were charged with homicide, he as an adult, and she as a juvenile. Chuck pled insanity (owing to the LSD plus being under his girlfriend’s demonic “spell”), but the jury didn’t buy it. By the end of 1975, the 21-year-old was sentenced to be put to death. Marlene was sentenced to two years at a juvenile prison; although she didn’t physically kill her parents, in the eyes of the law she was just as guilty as an accessory. (Interestingly, several theories hold that Marlene killed her mother while Chuck killed her father, but under hypnosis, Chuck recounted beating Mrs. Olive with the hammer, and chronologically, Marlene would have had to assault her mother before heading to the mall with her father—but she wouldn’t have had time to clean the blood off her clothes, and the older woman wouldn’t have lived for one or two hours so battered.)
So what happened to this tragic duo? In 1978, Chuck’s death sentence at San Quentin was commuted to life imprisonment, and he was sent to a lower security prison, where he remains to this day. I believe he is up for parole soon, but the 51-year-old will probably not get it, having spent thirty years in prison for a crime that shouldn’t have happened. To his credit, he has been drug free for years and is active in many prison programs. For her part, Marlene got out of juvenile prison after two years and hit the streets as a prostitute and drug dealer. A year or two ago she was in the headlines again for passing a bad check. Now about 46, she has still not entirely escaped her black past. For everyone involved, the story is a tragedy, with no real winners. The moral seems to be threefold: 1) Stay away from drugs and excessive alcohol usage; 2) Get help if you or a family member is mentally ill; and 3) Don’t become too infatuated with anyone in a relationship.