Police Reopen Case of Natalie Wood’s Death

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Tom Wargacki / Getty Images

Robert Wagner and Natalie Wood at the premiere of 'The Godfather' on August 9, 1972 in London, England

UPDATE: A Los Angeles sheriff’s detective says that Robert Wagner is not a suspect in the case.

One of Hollywood’s biggest mysteries is resurfacing, as the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Office announced new information on the death of iconic movie starlet Natalie Wood. Meanwhile, a yacht captain present the night of her death is speaking up about whether her death was truly an accident.

Wood is presumed to have drowned while spending the weekend aboard her husband Robert Wagner’s yacht, the Splendour, with his Brainstorm co-star Christopher Walken. Her body was found off Santa Catalina Island on Nov. 29, 1981. The events preceding her death are unclear, but authorities ultimately ruled it as an accident. Hollywood buzzed with speculation that an impassioned quarrel with Wagner might have led to the 43-year-old actress going overboard, but until now the case remained closed.

The captain, Dennis Davern, confessed that he lied about what he witnessed the night of Wood’s drowning, and said he believes Wagner is responsible for Wood’s death, acorrding to CBS News. In a CBS 48 Hours and Vanity Fair special that will air Saturday at 10 p.m. Eastern, Devern said, “I believe Robert Wagner was with her up until the moment she went into the water.”

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In addition, the LASD is holding a press conference Friday morning to relaunch an investigation into the actress’s untimely death. “Recently Sheriff’s Homicide Investigators were contacted by persons who stated they had additional information about the Natalie Wood Wagner drowning,” the LASD said in a statement.

On the heels of the 30th anniversary of Wood’s death, Sheriff Lee Baca told the Los Angeles Times that the captain of the yacht had recently “made comments worthy of exploring.” The LA Times also reported a police department source said authorities received a letter from an unidentified third party regarding Wood’s case.

Robert Wagner released a statement through his spokesman, offering his family’s support of reopening the case, “and trust they will evaluate whether any new information relating to the death of Natalie Wood Wagner is valid, and that it comes from a credible source or sources other than those simply trying to profit from the 30-year anniversary of her tragic death.”

Wagner acknowledged he fought with his wife that night, and even admitted to smashing a wine bottle in his 2009 memoir, Pieces of My Heart. The events that followed are uncertain with contrasting accounts from Wagner and the captain. The three actors were drinking on the yacht when Walken and Wagner began arguing. Wood retired to her room and after Wagner and Walken resolved their fight, Wagner contends he went back to the bedroom to find his wife missing.

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Davern told CNN in an interview last year that the investigation of Wood’s death was mismanaged. He penned his account of the fateful night in Goodbye Natalie, Goodbye Splendour, a book he co-authored and published in 2009. Davern said that after Wood left the trio, Wagner returned to their room where couple began arguing. “They’d moved their fight outside…you could tell from their animated gestures they were still arguing,” Davern had said.

When Wagner reappeared he said his wife had disappeared. Davern noticed the dinghy was also missing and the two assumed she had taken the boat ashore. When 10 to 15 minutes passed, Wagner contacted harbor patrol and authorities discovered her body following morning. Wood was found wearing a long nightgown, socks and a down jacket, according to police reports. Her autopsy report found two dozen bruises on her body and a facial abrasion on her left cheek, which authorities ruled as evidence she slipped and hit the dinghy before falling in. Wood had a blood-alcohol level of 0.14%.

Wood, best known for her legendary roles in Miracle on 34th Street, West Side Story and Rebel Without a Cause, is considered one of the greatest actresses of her generation. The silver screen darling first married Wagner in 1957 and the two divorced six years later. They remarried in in 1972.  The actress once said in a televised interview that her greatest fear was dark seawater, according to CNN. But the question of how Wood ended up descending into the depths of that fear remain unknown.

ARCHIVES: The Last Hours of Natalie Wood