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Saturday, November 19, 2011

Natalie Wood's Death: Accident or Murder?

     If you're familiar with the name Natalie Wood, you're probably either a film or true crime buff. However, in the 1960s and 70s, the film star was a household name married to the actor Robert Wagner. She died suddenly and violently on November 29, 1981, and according to the orthodox version of her death, she died by accidental drowning. At that time, Wood's death was news because she was a movie star. Today, it's news because the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Office has re-opened the case as a possible homicide.

      There were only a few doubters at the time of Wood's death. Most people accepted the following story of how the 43-year-old actress died: On the evening of her demise, Wood had dinner with her husband and actor Christopher Walken at Doug's Harbour Reef on Catalina Island off the Los Angeles coast. After their dinner, accompanied by alcholol, the three actors returned to Wagner's yacht "Splendour" where they continued drinking. An argument broke out between the two men. As the story goes, Walken had angered Wagner by suggesting that Wood put her acting career ahead of her husband and their children. After Wood took leave of the men, the actors calmed down and bid each other goodnight. Wood was not in the stateroom upon Wagner's return. He heard a noise on deck and assumed his wife was unsecuring a dinghy roped to the yacht. Wagner figured his angry wife was going ashore on her own in the little boat. Several hours later, Wood's body was discovered floating in the ocean. She was wearing a long nightgown, socks, and a down jacket. The dinghy was located a mile from the yacht, and a mile from where they found Wood's body. When officials boarded the yacht to inform Wagner of the discovery of his wife's corpse, Wagner asked the captain of the boat, Dennis Davern, to identifiy the body for him. And the captain did.

     Los Angeles County Coroner and Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Thomas Noguchi performed the autopsy. Known as "the coroner to the stars," Dr. Noguchi had autopsied, among other celebrities, Marilyn Monroe, Robert F. Kennedy, Janis Joplin, William Holden, John Belushi, and Sharon Tate. Regarding Natalie Wood, Noguchi ruled she had died from accidental drowning. The forensic pathologist considered the bruise on Wood's left cheek and the several other abrasions on her body consistent with accidentally falling off the boat. Noguchi wrote about the autopsy in his 1983 bestseller, Coroner.

     The vast majority of drowning deaths are accidental. A few are suicidal, and the rest are homicides. While an autopsy can establish the cause of death in such cases (asphxia), the manner of death is usually determined by an investigation of the circumstances surrounding the drowning. Did the deceased fall into the water, jump in, or did someone throw the victim into the drink against his will? Forensic pathology alone will seldom answer those questions.

     In 2000, Vanity Fair published an article about the Natalie Wood case that featured an interview of the Wagner yacht captain, Dennis Davern. Davern had been the fourth person on the yacht that night. Although he had not said this to investigators in 1981, Davern claimed that Natalie Wood had been killed by her husband, Robert Wagner. He said he had heard the couple arguing loudly just before she went missing. According to the captain's more recent story, Wagner had coached him on what to say to the police after Wagner had waited four hours before calling the coastguard. Davern's critics have accused him of fishing for a lucrative book deal.

     In 2009, Davern's version of the case appeared in "Goodbye Natalie, Goodbye Splendour" a book he co-authored with his friend Marti Rulli. The captain's shocking accusation gained little attention in the media. True crime books featuring revisionist accounts of old celebrated cases are common. This week, however, the media has been all over the story because the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Office has reopened the case.

     Lieutenant John Corina, at an afternoon press conference on Friday, November 18, said that Robert Wagner was not a suspect in Natalie Wood's death. Obviously, if the manner of death is changed to homicide, who else would emerge as the suspect--Christopher Walken? Dennis Davern?  "We're going to re-interview some people, talk to some new people, and reevaluate some evidence," Corina said. According to the lieutenant, the intense media coverage has led to several tips his officers would be following up. Good luck with that. Tips generated by media exposure almost always consist of useless stuff from a motely crew of mentally unbalanced, lonely people who often claim psychic powers. Following up on these dead-end leads consumes a lot of time.

     I will be surprised if the new investigation results in proof that Natalie Wood was murdered. But, like most crime buffs, I will be following the case closely, and writing about it here. If you have a tip on the case, please notify the Los Angeles Sheriff's Office.

UPDATE

     A witness has come forward with new information regarding the circumstances surrounding Natalie Wood's death. Marilyn Wayne says that at eleven oclock on the night the actress went into the ocean, Wayne and her boyfriend, on a nearby craft, heard a woman scream, "Help me, I'm drowning!" The couple heard these cries for up to fifteen minutes. Wayne has told investigators with the Los Angeles County Sherif's Office that she and her boyfriend could see nothing in the dark. They called the harbor patrol but no one answered. They called for a helicopter but it didn't arrive. According to this witness, the police never questioned her or her boyfriend. Moreover, she received a threatening note cautioning her to remain silent. Assuming this witness is telling the truth, I see nothing here that would prompt the authorities to change the manner of death from accidental to homicide. This will probably not be the last witness to be drawn into the limelight by all of the media attention.

    

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