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Natalie Wood’s death still baffles investigators

LOS ANGELES — Sheriff’s officials said Feb. 5 they have received little new information into Natalie Wood’s 1981 death off Catalina since re-opening the investigation in 2011, and still want to talk to the late actress’ husband, actor Robert Wagner, who is thought to be the last person to see her alive.

Previously unknown witnesses who were identified following a 2011 press conference on the case provided only a “more articulate timeline” into events during the hours leading up to Wood’s death, said Capt. Christopher Bergner of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department Homicide Bureau.

Wagner, who was married to Wood at the time of her death, was described by the sheriff’s department last week as a person of interest in her drowning death off the coast of Santa Catalina island in November 1981. At the time, the couple was on the family’s 60-foot yacht Splendour with Capt. Dennis Davern and fellow actor Christopher Walken. It is undetermined how Wood entered the water.

During a news conference at sheriff’s headquarters in downtown Los Angeles Feb. 5, Sheriff’s Lt. John Corina said that the department was giving the case one “last shot” to see if any other witnesses would come forward.

“When the tips all dry up,” there will be nothing more for officials to investigate, Corina said.

Sheriff's Lt. John Corina speaks at a press conference Feb. 5 at the sheriff's headquarters in downtown Los Angeles where he announced that sheriff’s homicide investigators had been unable to uncover new evidence in the death of actress Natalie Wood in 1981. (Courtesy photo)

Sheriff’s Lt. John Corina speaks at a press conference Feb. 5 at the sheriff’s headquarters in downtown Los Angeles where he announced that sheriff’s homicide investigators had been unable to uncover new evidence in the death of actress Natalie Wood in 1981. (Courtesy photo)

Corina said the original detectives on the case spoke with Wagner about the circumstances surrounding Wood’s death only once, in 1981, but Wagner, who will turn 88 on Feb. 10, has refused further discussions.

A request for comment left with Alan Nierob, a spokesman for Wagner, was not immediately returned.

“We’ve investigated the case over the last six years. I think he’s more of a person of interest now,” Corina said of Wagner in an interview with “48 Hours.” “I mean, we know now that he was the last person to be with Natalie before she disappeared.”

Wood, 43, was reported missing from the Splendour at 1:30 a.m. on Nov. 29, 1981. The next day, the three-time Academy Award nominee was found floating in the water. Witnesses have said they heard Wood and Wagner arguing the night she went missing.

After a two-week investigation, the death was ruled an accident in 1981. But the sheriff’s department reopened the death investigation in 2011. In 2012, the Los Angeles County Coroner’s Office amended the death certificate, changing the manner of death from an accidental drowning to “drowning and other undetermined factors.”

Corina said that immediately following the previous news conference seven years ago, more than 100 people came forward to “tell us what they knew.” He said the additional information, chiefly from other boaters who heard the couple arguing, “helped us recreate the timeline right up until Natalie Wood goes into the water.”

The lieutenant said that one frequently repeated theory — that Wood fell into the water after boarding or trying to free a dinghy that was tied to the yacht — doesn’t hold up. “You can’t just make up a story and say that’s what happened,” Corina told reporters.

The lieutenant told “48 Hours” that he doesn’t believe Wagner has told the whole story.

“I haven’t seen him tell the details that match all the other witnesses in this case,” he says of Wagner. “I think he’s constantly changed his story a little bit. And his version of events just don’t add up.”

Investigators note the autopsy report indicates there were a number of bruises that appeared to be fresh on Wood’s body.

“She looked like a victim of an assault,” Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Detective Ralph Hernandez said in the “48 Hours” report.

“I think it’s suspicious enough to make us think that something happened.”

He added: “We have not been able to prove this was a homicide. And we haven’t been able to prove that this was an accident, either. … The ultimate problem is we don’t know how she ended up in the water.”

 

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