A Local Murder

Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood is about parolees Richard “Dick” Hickock and Perry Smith, who murdered four members of a Kansas farming family with shotgun blasts to the head. Two movies on the subject were released in 2005. Another true-crime classic, Normal Mailer’s 1980 Pulitzer-winning Executioner’s Song, tells of Gary Gilmore and teenage lover Nicole Baker, his murder of two innocent men and his execution by firing squad. It was made into a movie in 1982.

Locally, we have our own compelling if lesser-known counterpart. Richard M. Levine’s Bad Blood: A Family Murder in Marin County tells of 16-year-old Marlene Olive and 19-year-old Charles “Chuck” David Riley, who casually talked about and then carried out the brutal murder of Marlene’s adoptive parents, James and Naomi Olive. The killings took place in June 1975 in a quiet and conventional Terra Linda neighborhood. The two teenagers disposed of the bodies by wrapping them in rugs, dousing them with gasoline and burning them beyond recognition in an abandoned cistern at China Camp State Park. The Marin IJ and San Francisco Chronicle dubbed these “the barbecue murders.” The case drew worldwide attention.

Attorney Peter Mitchell, now practicing business law in San Rafael, was 33 at the time. He had represented Marlene Olive when she was arrested for shoplifting at the Northgate mall; in the process, he met her parents, the murder victims. The mother Naomi “was unusual,” he recalls. “Jim, the father, seemed the more stable parent.”

After the murder, hearing only that Marlene was “in some kind of trouble and her parents were missing,” Mitchell contacted San Rafael police, met with the teenager, and successfully argued that she should be tried in juvenile court rather than in superior court as an adult. “Both Marlene and Chuck were heavily involved in drugs and bizarre sex, and she fantasized about lots of things, “ Mitchell recalls, “possibly even killing her parents. But Chuck carried it out. He killed them both.”

By all accounts, Chuck Riley was an overweight high school graduate when he met Marlene Olive, who that day was hallucinating in her first LSD experience on the front lawn of Terra Linda High School. Chuck was sexually innocent and somewhat shy; selling drugs, mostly marijuana, was his attempt to win acceptance from peers. Marlene, adopted at birth, had lived in Latin America most of her life and was upset when the family moved to Marin in 1973. And so “began an excursion into the sexually permissive, drug-oriented, occult-fascinated teenage culture of Marin County,” as the flyleaf of Bad Blood recounts, “which Marlene Olive could not handle and her parents could never understand.” The girl also wrote thoughtful poems—many expressing love for her parents—that are reprinted in the book.

On October 30, 1975, only four months after he’d been arrested, Chuck Riley’s jury trial began in Marin County superior court. Since Riley gave an explicit confession on tape at the time of his arrest, he primarily had one factor put forth in his defense: a susceptibility to being hypnotized, notably by Marlene. In the courtroom, tapes of hypnotists casting a spell on Riley were played and replayed, prompting some jury members to occasionally nod off.

One local who was there at the time is Jill Weissich, daughter of the late William Weissich, a famed criminal attorney who was Riley’s court-appointed lawyer. “I’d just passed the bar and wanted to see Dad in action,” Jill Weissich recounts. “Marlene was definitely not your perky blonde cheerleader type. I had a chance to look into her eyes; she could’ve cast a spell on a lot of men.”

Opposing counsel was Marin prosecuting attorney Josh Thomas, a no-nonsense 48-year-old veteran of the Korean War. “If I’d had the slightest doubt of Chuck Riley’s guilt, I never would have taken the case,” he sternly recalls today. With an astonishingly clear memory, the now 78-year-old Novato resident remembers finding an expert witness who quickly refuted testimony from the three hypnotists presented by the defense. “Under hypnosis, a subject talks in the present when recalling accurately,” Thomas says. “My expert pointed out that in critical testimony, Riley talked only in the past tense; therefore he was lying.”

In late 1975, after a seven-week trial, Chuck Riley was found guilty of bludgeoning Naomi Olive to death with a hammer, then shooting James Olive at close range. In early 1976, he arrived at San Quentin State Prison to await execution—a sentence that would be commuted to life in prison when the death penalty was ruled unconstitutional in 1978. Marlene, after a short hearing in Marin County juvenile court, was ordered to serve three years at Ventura School, the California Youth Authority’s comparatively cozy facility an hour’s drive north of Los Angeles.

Thirty-three years after the crime, what are Marlene and Chuck doing now? Marlene Olive didn’t wait for her light sentence to expire before returning to a life of crime, Bad Blood’s epilogue reports. With only weeks to go, she escaped from a holding cell in Los Angeles, made her way to New York and became a high-priced prostitute while resuming her heavy drug habit.

In the 1990s, between serving jail time for cashing bad checks and credit card fraud, she was admitted to UCLA through her Ventura School community-college equivalency degree, but soon dropped out. In 2003, according to the Marin IJ, she “was arrested in Bakersfield on suspicion of being under the influence of drugs and possessing stolen property, counterfeit checks and drug paraphernalia.” She is now serving a nine-year term in a Kern County women’s prison.

Following the 1978 decision nullifying the death penalty (later reinstated by California voters), Chuck Riley was transferred to the Men’s Correctional Facility at San Luis Obispo. In 1980, as his parents pursued an appeal, Bad Blood author Levine arranged to have him hypnotized once again as a way of assessing his guilt or innocence. Both efforts proved futile. (As of last July a 12th bid for parole has been denied.) Meanwhile, he’d trimmed himself to a buff 190 pounds and earned the equivalent of a college degree.

Through all of this, New York–based author Levine kept in touch with both Marlene and Chuck. He visited Riley when magazine assignments brought him to the West Coast; when Olive found herself broke and strung out in the Big Apple, he provided small amounts of cash and a listening ear. Then, in 1981, five years after the teens had last seen each other, Levine drove Marlene north from Los Angeles to visit her onetime lover at the San Luis Obispo prison.

The visit lasted five hours. “At first it was awkward,” Levine writes. “Chuck did all the talking.” Marlene “seemed ashamed she’d deteriorated while, in comparison, Chuck had progressed. Then, after a pause, Chuck (asked), ’What are you thinking?’” According to the author, Marlene replied, “I’m thinking about all that has gone down. I guess we just lost our marbles.”

Both Marlene, now 49, and Chuck, now 53, remain in jail today. As for Levine, his publisher, Random House, has no knowledge of his whereabouts. His provocative 1982 book, evidently the only one he ever had published, is out of print, but available through Marin County’s public library system and used-book sites online. Though praised by the likes of Alan Dershowitz, Mike Wallace and Norman Lear, Bad Blood hasn’t become a movie.