Natalie Wood drowning case: New witnesses emerge but this could be ‘last shot’ at solving decade-long mystery
The mystery of the death of acclaimed actress Natalie Wood has endured for nearly four decades as the investigation has ebbed and flowed like the tides off a California island where her body was found floating on Thanksgiving weekend 1981.
Speculation continues to swirl around the death of the 43-year-old actress, who was nominated for three Academy Awards and starred in West Side Story and Rebel Without a Cause.
Renewed interest came this week when the lead detective in the case said her widower, actor Robert Wagner, now 87, is considered a person of interest. But the evidence collected so far hasn’t reached the threshold for a murder investigation and there are no immediate plans to file criminal charges, detectives said on Monday.
Detectives hope it will bring forward new witnesses who provide the information needed to determine if the case was a crime or tragic accident. If not, it may be the end of the investigation, a Los Angeles County sheriff’s official said.
Several new witnesses have come forward since the case was reopened, including one who described hearing yelling and crashing sounds coming from the couple’s stateroom, officials said. Shortly after that, separate witnesses who were on a boat that was in the water nearby, heard a man and woman arguing on the back of the boat and believe the voices were those of Wood and Wagner, according to detectives.
Those witnesses corroborated the account of the boat’s captain, Dennis Davern, who had told detectives he heard Wood and Wagner arguing in their cabin on the boat and went to check on them. When he went to their cabin, Wagner told him to go away before Wagner and Wood ended up arguing on the back of the boat, sheriff’s homicide Lt. John Corina said Davern told investigators.
“He was the last person with her, arguing, before everything went quiet,” Corina said of Wagner. “He’s a person of interest because he was the last person with her before she went in the water.”
Wagner only spoke to detectives after the drowning in 1981 and although investigators have tried to question him several time since they reopened investigation, he has refused, Corina said.
Wagner’s initial statement about what happened and subsequent comments about the case “really don’t add up to what we found,” Corina said.
Wagner has denied any involvement in Wood’s death and his attorney has said he fully cooperated with investigators.
The actor’s publicist, Alan Nierob, said detectives have not contacted Wagner, now 87, in more than five years but declined to comment further on the case. Sheriff’s officials would not say Monday when they last tried to contact Wagner.
Time has been the largest obstacle in the probe and the original investigator and many of the witnesses have died, Corina said.
“We’re doing our last shot here, seeing if anybody else comes forward with any information,” he said. “When the tips all dry up, then I guess we move on to the next case.”
Here’s a look at what’s known about the death and the investigation over the years.
The body of Wood was found off Catalina Island, a scenic getaway about 30 miles south of the Los Angeles-area coastline. The actor couldn’t swim. She was wearing a red down jacket and nightgown.
She had been drinking heavily aboard a yacht with her husband and with actor Christopher Walken, who was filming the thriller Brainstorm with Wood. The only other person aboard was the boat’s captain.
Wagner, who was starring at the time in the TV drama Hart to Hart, has denied any involvement in his wife’s death, and no charges have been filed.
Theories from two key witnesses
Wagner wrote in a 2008 memoir that he and Walken argued that night. Walken went to bed and Wagner stayed up for a while, he wrote. When he went to bed, he noticed his wife and a rubber dinghy that had been tied to the yacht were missing.
“There are only two possibilities,” Wagner wrote, “either she was trying to get away from the argument, or she was trying to tie the dinghy. But the bottom line is that nobody knows exactly what happened.”
Walken has said little publicly over the years about the incident and has offered brusque replies at times when pressed. However, he told Playboy in 1997 that he thought Wood was probably half-asleep and slipped, hit her head and fell from the dinghy.
“Anybody there saw the logistics — of the boat, the night, where we were, that it was raining — and would know exactly what happened,” Walken said. “You hear about things happening to people — they slip in the bathtub, fall down the stairs, step off the curb in London because they think that the cars come the other way — and they die. You feel you want to die making an effort at something; you don’t want to die in some unnecessary way.”
Authorities initially ruled the death an accidental drowning, but that changed. They reopened the investigation in 2011 after the boat’s captain, Dennis Davern, said he heard the couple arguing the night of her disappearance.
The Los Angeles coroner’s office amended Wood’s death certificate in 2012 to include “drowning and other undetermined factors.”
The change was due in part because investigators couldn’t rule out that some of the bruises and marks on Wood’s body happened before she went into the water, according to the report. Wood wasn’t wearing a life jacket, had no history of suicide attempts and didn’t leave a note.
The report also revealed that investigators hadn’t preserved Wood’s fingernails to determine if she had tried to claw her way back into the dinghy. Scratch marks were found on the craft’s hull.
When the case was reopened, Los Angeles County sheriff’s Lt. John Corina said Wagner was not a suspect.
This week, Corina told CBS News that he didn’t believe Wagner had told the whole story about what happened and called him a person of interest in the case.
Initially, a sheriff’s spokeswoman downplayed the report Thursday and said there was nothing new in the case. But later, the department issued a statement confirming that Wagner is a person of interest.
“Do we have enough to make an arrest at this moment? No,” spokeswoman Nicole Nishida said.
What Walken and Wagner told investigators
Investigators made at least 10 attempts to interview Wagner again after reopening the investigation in 2011, including tracking him down in Colorado. But either Wagner or his lawyer refused.
Wagner’s attorney, Blair Berk, issued a statement five years ago saying neither Wagner nor his daughters had any new information and blaming people for trying to exploit the 30th anniversary of Wood’s death.
“Mr. Wagner has fully cooperated over the last 30 years in the investigation of the accidental drowning of his wife in 1981,” Berk said at the time. “Mr. Wagner has been interviewed on multiple occasions by the Los Angeles sheriff’s department and answered every single question asked of him by detectives during those interviews.”
At the time, Corina said Walken gave a prepared statement and spoke to detectives for an hour.
Detectives also interviewed other actors who knew Wagner and Wood to learn more about their relationship.
New witnesses come forward
New witnesses interviewed since the case was reopened gave statements that “portray a new sequence of events on the boat that night,” said Nishida, the sheriff’s spokeswoman.
One witness described hearing yelling and crashing sounds coming from the couple’s stateroom, she said. Shortly afterward, other witnesses heard a man and woman arguing on the back of the boat and believe the voices were those of Wood and Wagner.
Those statements differ from the version of events originally provided by witnesses, including those who were on the boat, she said.
In the past, people on boats moored near the yacht have provided witness statements.
With inputs from agencies
Published Date: Feb 06, 2018 13:36 PM | Updated Date: Feb 06, 2018 13:36 PM