Early on Sunday morning, June 22, 1975, a firefighter doused a smoldering flame in a barbecue pit at China Camp, a wooded area in Marin County, Calif.
Hunters sometimes roasted deer in those giant pits, so the firefighter assumed the bone fragments he spotted amid the ashes were probably animal remains.
More than a week would pass before the stomach-churning reality would come to light — the bone fragments were all that was left of a couple, James Olive, 59, and his wife, Naomi, 50, of Terra Linda, Calif.
The killings that would become known as the “Barbecue Murders” were committed a day earlier, on Saturday, June 21, 1975, by Charles Riley, 19, a 300-pound high-school dropout and local drug pusher.
But Riley did not work alone. His girlfriend had planned the killings and, he said, put a spell on him so he would carry out her plan.
The girlfriend was Marlene Olive, 16, the dead couple’s adopted daughter.
The Olives adopted Marlene as newborn in 1959. Marlene adored her father, but she and her mother were at war practically from the start, wrote Richard Levine in his 1982 book on the case, “Bad Blood.”
Always emotionally frail, Naomi had been showing signs of mental illness for years and, over time, descended into paranoid schizophrenia and alcoholism. The role of parent was too much for her.
When Marlene was 10, she stumbled upon her adoption papers. The discovery that Naomi was not her birth mother added to the family discord. Once, she startled her teacher and classmates by flatly declaring, “I hate my mother.”
Through the ’60s, Jim’s work kept the family living in Ecuador.
After a string of business failures there, the Olives moved to Terra Linda, where Jim started a consulting firm in 1973.
By the start of high school, Marlene had grown into a sullen teenager who wrote sad poems, told big lies, and lived in a weird fantasy world, where she imagined herself a witch.
Soon, she fell in with a rough crowd, and added shoplifting and taking drugs to her list of ways to pass the time when she wasn’t engaged in screaming bouts with her mother.
In 1974, Marlene was on a bad LSD trip when she met Riley, who had never had a girlfriend in his life.
Marlene, slim, pretty, deeply troubled, and an addict, plucked at his heartstrings. He wooed her with the kinds of little gifts and gestures sure to win a woman’s love — bouquets, sweets and drugs. In return, she allowed him to have sex with her.
She and Riley soon became a couple, and he was devoted to her. She would take him into stores, pick out expensive items she wanted, and he would steal them. No matter how bizarre Marlene’s demand, Riley was always willing to comply.
The first half of 1975 was a whirlwind of crimes, arrests, battles with her parents and drugs. Marlene seemed obsessed with two things in those days — witchcraft and killing her parents.
Charles Riley was given a death sentence after being convinced of murdering the Olives. It was later commuted to life.
By June, her crimes and misbehaviors provoked a threat from her father. He was going to ground her through the summer and send her to boarding school in the fall. He told Riley to stay away from his daughter, or else.
After another fight with her mom, Marlene called her boyfriend.
“We’ve got to kill that bitch today,” she said.
Marlene and her father were out shopping when Riley entered the Olive home and found Naomi asleep. He smashed her skull with a claw hammer, then stabbed and smothered her.
When Jim Olive returned to the bloody scene, Riley shot him.
Together, Marlene and her boyfriend wrapped the bodies in sheets, drove them to China Camp, about 20 minutes away, doused them with gasoline, and set them on fire. Then they returned to the Olive home, cleaned up the blood, and went about their lives, using her parents’ credit cards for parties, food and concerts.
A few days later, police got on the case after a business associate reported that Jim Olive had gone missing.
Riley confessed to the murders, although he later recanted part of what he told police. He first said that he had hit Naomi in the head with the claw hammer. Later he said that he found her with the hammer embedded in her skull but still alive so he stabbed her to put her out of her misery.
Defense attorneys brought in hypnotists in an attempt to show how easily a stronger character, like Marlene, could sway Riley’s mind.
The jury found him guilty of murdering both parents, and he was given a death sentence, which was later commuted to life.
Marlene, a minor, went off to a juvenile facility for two and half years, and, in October 1978, was transferred to a minimum-security center to await parole in two months.
Instead of hanging around the center until her release, she jumped a fence, dashed into a waiting car, and fled. New York police picked her up in July 1979, where she was working in a brothel, Levine wrote.
After that, she continued to pursue a life of crime.
In the 1980s, she was arrested at least seven times and sent to jail twice for forgery. In 1991, police called her the “queen of the trashers” in the San Fernando Valley for running an ID-counterfeiting ring that cheated businesses all over the region.
As late as 2003, newspapers reported that she had been arrested again for passing bad checks.