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Sunday, June 23, 2024

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 the time Wood's death was news because she was a movie star. Today it's in the news as tabloid true crime reportage.

      There were only a few doubters at the time of her death. Most people accepted the following story of how the 43-year-old actress died: On the evening of her demise she had dinner with her husband and actor Christopher Walken at Doug's Harbour Reef on Catalina Island off the Los Angeles coast. After dinner that included the consumption of alcohol, the three actors returned to Wagner's yacht "Splendour" where they continued to drink. An argument broke out between the two men. As the story goes, Mr. Walken angered Wagner by suggesting that Wood put her acting career ahead of her husband and her children. After Wood took leave of the men the actors calmed down and bid each other goodnight. Wood was not in the stateroom when her husband returned.

     After returning to his room Robert Wagner heard a noise on deck that made him think that Natalie was un-tying a dinghy roped to the yacht. Wagner figured his angry wife was returning to shore 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 Wood's body was recovered. When officials boarded the yacht to inform Mr. Wagner of the discovery of his wife's corpse he reportedly asked the captain of the boat, Dennis Davern, to identify the body for him.

     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, Dr. 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. The forensic pathologist 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 (asphyxia), 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 or her will? Forensic pathology alone seldom answers these questions.

     In 2000 Vanity Fair published an article about the Natalie Wood case that featured an interview of the Wagner yacht captain, Dennis Davern. Mr. 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, Mr. Wagner had coached him on what to say to the police after he had waited four hours before calling the coastguard. Davern's critics accused him of fishing for a lucrative book deal.

     In 2009 Dennis Davern's version of the case appeared in Goodby Natalie, Goodby 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 had become common.

    In November 2009 Los Angeles Sheriff's Office Lieutenant John Corina, at a press conference, announced that the agency was looking into Natalie Wood's death. Lieutenant Corina noted that Robert Wagner was not a suspect in her death. Obviously, if the manner of Wood's death was 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 had led to several tips his officers would be following up. (Tips generated by media exposure almost always consist of useless information from mentally unbalanced, lonely people who often claim psychic powers. Following up on these dead-end leads consumes a lot of investigative time.)

     A witness in November 2009 came forward with new information regarding the circumstances surrounding Natalie Wood's death. Marilyn Wayne told investigators that at eleven o'clock 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 told investigators 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.

     In February 2018 the CBS television show "48-Hours" reported that according to the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Office, Robert Wagner was a "person of interest" in the investigation of Natalie Wood's death. However, upon conclusion of the cold-case inquiry the manner of death in the Natalie Wood case remained accidental drowning.

     In May 2020 HBO aired "Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind," a documentary about Wood's life and death. The documentary featured Robert Wagner's first on air interview about the case.