New Questions in Natalie Wood's Death

Nearly four decades after actress Natalie Wood died in what was ruled to be an accidental drowning, investigators are now pointing to her husband, Robert Wagner, as a 'person of interest' in the case.
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Natalie Wood Robert Wagner Photo

Natalie Wood (1938-1981), US actress, gazing at her husband, Robert Wagner, US actor, in a studio portrait, against a light blue background, circa 1975.

There appears to be a new wrinkle in the case of Natalie Wood's mysterious drowning more than 36 years ago, as investigators are now pointing to her former husband, Robert Wagner, as a "person of interest" in the case.

In an interview with CBS' 48 Hours, set to air Saturday, L.A. County Sheriff's Department Lieutenant John Corina noted the "suspicious" new evidence of possible assault, boosting interest in their desire to speak to Wagner.

"He is a person of interest, because he was the last one with Natalie Wood. And somehow she ends up in the water and drowns," stated Lieutenant Corina, via the L.A. Times.

On November 29, 1981, the body of Wood, clad in a down coat and a nightgown, was found floating in the water off California's Catalina Island. The news shocked Hollywood, where the A-list beauty had been a fixture since starring in Miracle on 34th Street at age eight.

The news that followed brought no initial evidence of foul play: Wood, Wagner and fellow actor Christopher Walken had been aboard a yacht, the Splendour, with its captain, Dennis Davern, on the night in question. The men testified that everyone had been enjoying drinks, with Wood wandering off by herself before she was eventually discovered to be missing from the boat.

"Some of the things we found that [Wagner] did afterwards, or didn't do, in the boat, cause us to say, 'This doesn't make any sense,'" Lieutenant Corina said. "We're at the end of the investigation. We're at a standstill, so we thought we'd give it one more shot to the public."

The chief medical examiner in the L.A. County Coroner’s Office originally cited the "superficial skin bruises" on Wood as the likely result of her fall into the water, and scratch marks on a nearby dinghy as evidence of her attempts to hoist herself up, before succumbing to the heavily waterlogged coat. Her death was ruled an accident.

Natalie Wood Boat Photo

The dingy Natalie Wood used, Nov 30, 1981.

However, Davern later changed his story, saying he withheld information from the police: The fight aboard the Splendour had stemmed from Wagner's jealousy, with the actor accusing Walken of making advances on his wife. After Wood stormed off, Wagner confronted her in their room below, where they fought "like crazy" before things went quiet. After checking on her again, Wagner announced that she was gone, but rejected the captain’s overtures to turn on the floodlights to search for her in the water.

In his 2008 memoir, Pieces of My Heart: A Life, Wagner acknowledged fighting with Walken, but said it was because he felt Walken was trying to influence Wood to choose her career over family. He insisted nobody had seen her disappear, writing, "If I had been there, I could have done something. But I wasn’t there. I didn’t see her. … ultimately, a man is responsible for his loved one, and she was my loved one."

In November 2011, shortly after Davern delivered his revised account of things on NBC News, the L.A. Sheriff’s Department announced they had reopened the case, upon "receiving new information." The following summer, Wood's death certificate was amended to say she had died as a result of "drowning and other undetermined factors." A new coroner's report also cited fresh bruises and scrapes on her arms, knee, neck and forehead, which led officials to believe she was possibly assaulted before she drowned in the water.

News surrounding the case remained quiet, save for the occasional tabloid headline that suggested some combination of Walken, Wood and Wagner were sleeping together, until the revelation that investigators now had reason to circle back to the husband as a suspect.

"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," Detective Ralph Hernandez told 48 Hours. "The ultimate problem is we don't know how she ended up in the water."