New twists in probe of Natalie Wood's mysterious 1981 death

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.

Renewed interest came last week when the lead detective in the case said her widower, actor Robert Wagner, now 87, is considered a person of interest. 

Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Lt. John Corina told a news conference today police are trying to get the case “back into public eye” in an effort to get more witnesses to come forward.

“We’re doing our last shot here, seeing if anybody else comes forward with any information,” he said.

Here’s a look at what’s known about the death and the investigation over the years.

Who was aboard

The body of Wood, 43, was found off Catalina Island, a scenic getaway about 30 miles south of the Los Angeles-area coastline. The three-time Academy Award nominee who starred in West Side Story and Rebel Without a Cause couldn’t swim. She was wearing a red down jacket and nightgown.

She had been drinking heavily aboard a yacht with her husband and 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.

Natalie Wood Investigation

Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department Lt. John Corina, right, discusses the most recent details of the death investigation at a news conference on Monday. (Damian Dovarganes/Associated Press)

Theories from 2 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.”

Changing investigation

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 Wood’s disappearance.

The Los Angeles coroner’s office amended Wood’s death certificate in 2012 to include “drowning and other undetermined factors.”

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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, Corina said Wagner was not a suspect, and he repeated that today.

But he also said that Wagner’s story about what happened “didn’t add up.”

“He’s a person of interest because he was the last person with her, before she went in the water,” Corina said.

“Time’s our biggest enemy here.”

What Walken and Wagner told investigators

Wagner has refused to talk to detectives conducting the reopened investigation, Corina said, noting that the actor has the right to do so.

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 co-operated 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.”

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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,” police spokesperson Nicole Nishida said.

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.

Wagner’s publicist, Alan Nierob, declined to comment to The Associated Press for this story. 

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Wagner and Wood in London in 1976. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

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