Bad Blood: A Local True Crime Story
By Jennifer Christensen
Before podcasts like Serial or My Favorite Murder and documentaries like The Jinx and Making a Murderer skyrocketed in popularity, the telling of true crime stories “was long in the province of newspapers and magazines, [and] began making its way into books in the early decades of the 20th century” (CrimeReads, 2021). In 19th century Britain, single-sheet publications reporting detailed accounts of public executions and shocking crimes, known simply as “broadsides”, were distributed in the streets. The incredibly popular “penny dreadfuls” started appearing in Britain in the 1830s as more people learned to read. They were drawn to the dramatic stories and ghastly illustrations of Gothic adventure, true crime, and urban legends, which introduced readers to the demon barber of Fleet Street, Sweeney Todd.
Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, published in 1966, marked the introduction of the contemporary true crime story. While Capote could have easily explored hundreds of other violent acts, the depth and scope in which he portrayed the brutal murders of the Clutter family in Holcomb, Kansas were eclipsed only by his literary mastery of the real-life events.
In 1982, less than two decades after readers devoured Capote’s true crime classic, Marin County was introduced to its “own compelling if lesser-known counterpart” (Marin Magazine, 2008), Richard M. Levine’s Bad Blood: A Family Murder in Marin County.” The bestselling book chronicled the grisly 1975 double murder of James and Naomi Olive by their adopted 16-year-old daughter, Marlene Olive, and her 19-year-old boyfriend, Charles “Chuck” David Riley. Coined by the Marin IJ and the San Francisco Chronicle as the “BBQ Murders,” the case drew the attention of audiences worldwide and offered what Levine described as “an excursion into the sexually permissive, drug-oriented, occult-fascinated teen-age culture of Marin County.”
The story is as sensational as the flyleaf excerpt suggests: sex, drugs, mind-control, occultism, wayward youth, and murder…all in quiet Terra Linda. Like Capote, Levine “assiduously interviewed detectives, lawyers, psychiatrists, social workers, relatives, co-workers, classmates, neighbors and anyone else who might shed light on the three Olives and young Riley” (San Francisco Chronicle, 1982).
By Levine’s telling, James Olive, Marlene’s father, was the only person in the whole mess who “had a working grasp on reality.” His wife, Naomi, suffering from alcoholism and having “been diagnosed as a ‘schizoid personality with paranoid features,’ conducted animated conversations in different voices with several invisible people at a time” (San Francisco Chronicle, 1982). Naturally, Marlene found it easier to bond with her father, who adored her and doted on her. Marlene’s relationship with her mother was far more troubled, fueled by resentment and animosity, with arguments “that would end with Marlene biting her own forearm or banging her head against a wall in frustration.”
Marlene struggled mightily with the discovery of her adoption and the family’s move from Ecuador to Terra Linda, delving into drugs, the occult, and petty theft. She was sullen and moody and took to writing, specifically poetry, as a means of escape: “no one stops / to step into my life / and those in it have long ago / fallen asleep / I have been empty for so long.”
It was a sunny Fall afternoon in 1974 when Chuck Riley first “stepped” into Marlene’s life on the front lawn of Terra Linda High School. Suffering from a bad LSD trip, Marlene first encountered Chuck as he knelt beside her and “reassured her that everything would turn out all right, that he would stay with her.” Having no previous experience with girls and dating, Chuck fell fast and hard for Marlene, believing she was “the most beautiful girl in the world.” Though initially turned off by Chuck’s weight, Marlene quickly realized he could be easily manipulated to do anything she wished, including lavishing her with gifts and drugs. In fact, if there was a song that epitomized their relationship, they both agreed that Electric Light Orchestra’s “Evil Woman” fit the bill. All it took for Marlene to convince Chuck to do her bidding was to simply stare him down.
According to friends and family, Chuck was “eager to please and generous to a fault…a follower perpetually searching for someone to lead him.” Sadly, it was a pattern that continued once he and Marlene started dating. It appears that just as Marlene was having difficulty “distinguishing her fantasies from reality, Chuck was even more confused…[and] he became hopelessly entrapped in the web of her imagination, lured there, in part, by her continued threats to break off the relationship.” Desperate to keep Marlene, he attempted suicide on two separate occasions after she followed through on her threats and briefly broke up with him.
It was around this time that Marlene started obsessively talking about killing her parents. Hardly a day passed without her bringing it up to Chuck, sharing with him the different ways she had imagined committing the crime. Chuck found it impossible to gauge how serious she was, for just as he had convinced himself Marlene was merely venting, “she would convince him anew that she was, in fact, deadly serious.”
However, after a particularly contentious fight with her mother, when Marlene called Chuck to tell him, “I’ve got to kill that b…”, he was no longer confused as to what was going to happen next.
In the early morning hours on Sunday June 25, 1975 at China Camp State Park, firefighter Vinc Turrini encountered a blazing old sewage cistern/barbeque pit. Since it was common for hunters to roast deer in those pits, Turrini did not suspect anything nefarious and proceeded to toss ashes over the low wall and douse the surrounding area with water to extinguish the blaze. It took a week for authorities to discover something was amiss and decided to revisit the site, “accompanied by Dr. Rodger Hagler, a professor of physical anthropology at San Francisco State University and an expert at identifying skeletal remains.”
Not long thereafter, both Chuck and Marlene were arrested. It did not take long for Chuck to break down and confess to the crimes, claiming Marlene had encouraged him to carry out the killings. Ultimately, Chuck Riley was charged with two counts of first-degree murder and sentenced to death on January 26, 1976. Marlene Olive, who was just 16 years old at the time of the crimes, denied her involvement in the murder of her parents. Represented by Terrence Hallinan, son of famed radical lawyer Vincent Hallinan, Marlene was tried as a juvenile and sent to the California Youth Authority at Ventura (also referred to as the Ventura School) for a period of four to six years.
In 1976, the Supreme Court of California deemed the death penalty statute unconstitutional and Chuck Riley’s death sentence was commuted to two concurrent life sentences with the possibility of parole after seven years. He was transferred from San Quentin to the Men’s Correctional Facility in San Luis Obispo, where he voluntarily participated in behavioral programs and earned his GED, associate, and bachelor degrees. Once eligible, Chuck applied for parole on at least a dozen different occasions and was denied each time. After appealing a denied parole decision in 2011, he earned a new parole hearing on the basis that the parole board failed to consider his age, the lack of evidence demonstrating his continued threat to the community, and that his sentence was unconstitutionally excessive. For the first time, Chuck won his appeal. The victory was short-lived, however, when Governor Jerry Brown reversed the parole board’s decision on February 6, 2015. The defeat did not deter Chuck, who appealed the Governor’s reversal, and on December 3, 2015, the California Court of Appeal for the First District officially vacated the reversal. Five days later, Chuck Riley was granted parole.
Marlene, in contrast, continued to pursue a life of crime. Months shy of her release from the California Youth Authority at Ventura, she hopped a fence and fled to New York City, where she found work as a prostitute and again, immersed herself in drugs. Marlene was eventually arrested in 1979, returned to California to finish her sentence, and was released as a 21-year-old in 1980. She moved to the Los Angeles area, changed her name several times, and was arrested on at least seven different occasions for a variety of crimes, including forgery, drugs, fraud, and theft. In 1986, she was arrested in Los Angeles for orchestrating a large counterfeiting and forgery ring. A 1992 Los Angeles Times article described Marlene as “the queen of the ‘trashers’…a woman who could take a voided check or bank statement culled from a trash dumpster and turn it into a lucrative enterprise.” Marlene Olive’s current whereabouts are unknown.
The couple briefly reunited in 1981, when Levine accompanied Marlene to visit Chuck in San Luis Obispo. At one point during their visit, Chuck asked Marlene what she was thinking about, to which she responded, “I was just thinking what had gone down. We just lost our marbles.”
Richard M. Levine earned positive reviews with his chilling reconstruction of the Olive murders, with Kirkus Reviews (1982) declaring it “a first-class study of a set of American dreams gone wrong.” Over time, order was restored in Terra Linda with renewed hope in the American dream. Still, some things remain the same. Whether it’s Marin County, Kansas, or the Victorian streets of London, stories that explore the darker side of humanity continue to fascinate. The success of Capote, Levine, and countless other true crime writers lies in their ability to find the sweet spot between journalism and creative writing, convincing readers that fact is, indeed, stranger than fiction.