Jan 20, 1966: The Murder of Phil O’Leno

Phil O'Leno

One of Jim Morrison’s arrests that is shrouded in mystery, because Morrison was never formally booked, was when he was brought in for questioning for the murder of Phil O’Leno.

Felix Venable, Phil O’Leno, and Jim Morrison were film school friends. Venable was the oldest in his 30’s and Ray Manzarek credits Venable with leading Morrison down the road of drug and alcohol abuse. In truth, there are plenty of stories of Morrison raiding his father’s liquor cabinet even before he got to UCLA. Phil O’Leno was more of a dark, brooding type who was reputed to have read the complete works of Carl Jung. The three film school friends set out into the desert to find some peyote or mescaline and it turned out to be a far greater adventure than they first thought. In fact it changed the nature of their friendship.

The adventure started out with a four a.m. phone call on January 20, 1966 from Jim Morrison to sometime girlfriend Carol Winters. He had jumped a fence to a golf course with Venable and O’Leno and they needed a ride. Winters took them to O’Leno’s parent’s house where the trio appropriated a car and headed for the desert or Mexico (the destination was never clear). On the way out of the city, at a stoplight, Morrison jumped out of the car and kissed a cute girl on the street corner before jumping back into the vehicle. None of their friends heard anything from them until a couple of days later when Morrison and Venable reappeared in Los Angeles looking like they had been in a fight. They were battered and bruised, but O’Leno was missing. When asked by their friends where O’Leno was, Morrison and Venable started telling a story in which they murdered O’Leno and buried him in a riverbed. No one believed the story because Morrison and Venable seemed to enjoy telling it so much.

When the story started to get around, O’Leno’s father, an attorney, got wind of it. Since Phil still hadn’t returned from the road trip he started to get worried about his son’s whereabouts. He found the girl Morrison had kissed (she must have been part of the story they were telling) and convinced her to press charges against Morrison for assault. On January 23, 1966, Jim Morrison was arrested for assault, so he could be questioned with regard to the O’Leno disappearance. Luckily — at about the same time Morrison was arrested — Phil had made his way back to Los Angeles, and the charges were dropped.

To this day no one knows what really happened on that road trip. Did the trio run into a gang that beat them up for having long hair? Was there a fight over a girl? Or did they in fact find the peyote and/or the mescaline they were looking for and have the mystical experience they wanted? No one seems to know, but one of the ramifications was that it ended the friendship of Jim Morrison and Phil O’Leno. O’Leno, who was more serious about mystical experiences, thought Morrison a dilettante who was just interested in adventure and having a good time.

Whatever did happen in the desert turned into a bad joke that was pushed too far, and it was a bad joke that Morrison continued throughout the rest of his life. In his film “HWY” there’s a scene of ‘the hitchhiker/killer’ in a phone booth. On the audio he confesses to killing a guy because he gave him “trouble” but he shouldn’t worry about it because he didn’t think anybody would find out. This was no exercise in acting, as Morrison actually called the poet Michael McClure from the phone booth and made the admission leaving a bewildered McClure on the other end. McClure chalked up the call to Morrison’s bizarre sense of humor.

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2 Comments on "Jan 20, 1966: The Murder of Phil O’Leno"

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Ginger Catapano

Wow, I don’t remember this story Jim…always something new!

Jim Cherry

It kind of falls into the cracks sometimes but I think it is an interesting occurrence in Morrison’s life and I think something that happened that may be a bit telling about Morrison.