TV Show Investigates 1981 Hollywood Actress Natalie Wood’s Drowning

February 2, 2018 Updated: February 2, 2018

It has been almost 40 years since Hollywood actress Natalie Wood was found floating in the Pacific Ocean near her family’s yacht off the California coast.

The 43-year-old actress had spent the evening of Nov. 29, 1981 on the family yacht, called the Splendour, moored off Catalina Island, with her husband, actor Robert Wagner, as well as with actor Christopher Walken, and the ship’s captain, Dennis Davern.

While the three men supposedly slept below deck, Wood, who had publicly expressed a deathly fear of deep water, was believed to have tried to go ashore in a small rubber boat.

Based on the bruises on her face and body, the medical examiner at the time ruled that she must have fallen trying to get into the dinghy, injuring herself, and then gotten more bruises by trying to get back in from the water.

After two weeks of investigation, Wood’s death was ruled an accident and the case was closed.

In 2011, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department decided to reopen the case after yacht captain Davern told the department that he had lied in earlier interviews.

Captain Denis Devern around the time of the drowning (CBS 48 Hours screenshot)
Captain Denis Davern around the time of the drowning (CBS 48 Hours screenshot)

Davern said that Wood and her husband had been fighting before Wood went overboard. The yacht captain also claimed that Wagner had been arguing with Walken that night.

Recently, new witnesses have come forward to corroborate his account.

For seven years, detectives have sought new clues, re-interviewed witnesses, and applied new forensic techniques in an effort to determine how Wood ended up dead in the water.

In 2012, the Los Angeles Coroner’s Office changed the cause of death from “accidental drowning” to “drowning and other undetermined factors.”

Natalie Wood (Allan Warren/Wikimedia Commons)
Natalie Wood (Allan Warren/Wikimedia Commons)

While the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department was re-investigating the case, the crew from the CBS program “48 Hours” was following the investigation’s progress. The story of the seven-year search for a better answer was documented in a program called “Natalie Wood: Death in Dark Water” which will air Feb. 3 at 10 p.m. on CBS.

In an interview for the show, Lieutenant John Corina of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department said that the department wants to re-interview Wagner.

“As we’ve investigated the case over the last six years, I think he’s [Wagner] more of a person of interest now,” Corina told “48 Hours” reporter Erin Moriarty.

“I mean, we know now that he was the last person to be with Natalie before she disappeared.”

Robert Wagner and Natalie Wood at the Academy Awards dinner in 1960. (Wikimedia Commons)
Robert Wagner and Natalie Wood at the Academy Awards dinner in 1960. (Wikimedia Commons)

Shifting Accounts

Walken, who was a good friend of Wood, talked to investigators at the time, but declined to be interviewed for the “48 Hours” show.

Wagner also declined be on the show, and has also declined to speak to investigators about the case since it reopened.

MSN reports that Wagner and Davern have given differing accounts of what happened that night, both from each other and over time.

Lt. Corina questions Wagner’s shifting account of the night’s events. “I haven’t seen him tell the details that match all the other witnesses in this case,” Corina told “48 Hours.” “I think he’s constantly changed his story a little bit. And his version of events just don’t add up.”

Natalie Wood and Robert Wagner pose during the 29th Cannes Film Festival in Cannes, on May 18, 1976. (AFP/Getty Images)
Natalie Wood and Robert Wagner pose during the 29th Cannes Film Festival in Cannes, on May 18, 1976. (AFP/Getty Images)

Drifting Body, Unused Dinghy

The “48 Hours” piece hinges on several pieces of evidence casting doubt on the earlier ruling of accidental drowning. First is her stated fear of what she called “dark water,” such as oceans, where she couldn’t see the bottom.

“I’ve always been terrified, still am, of water, dark water, sea water,” she said in an interview featured in the “48 Hours” report.

However, Thomas Noguchi’s book “Coroner” reported that passengers on the boats docked off Catalina Island near to where the Splendour was moored often saw Wood piloting the 11-foot rubber dinghy around the bay.

The book says Wagner, Wood, and Walken were seen at a Catalina Island restaurant earlier on the night of the incident. All three were drinking heavily.

At about 1:15 a.m., Wagner radioed: “We think we may have someone missing in an 11-foot rubber dinghy.”

Wood’s body, clad in a nightgown and a red down jacket, was found floating over a mile from the yacht at 7:30 a.m. the next morning. The dinghy was found on the shore of the island further south. The engine was off, the oars were stashed—the boat looked like it had drifted, and it did not look like anyone had used it.

Investigators assumed that Wood had untied the dinghy and then fell into the ocean trying to climb into it.

The second troubling datum that the “48 Hours” show focuses on is the condition that Wood’s body was in when it was found. The body was covered in fresh bruises.

Her right arm, left wrist, and both legs were bruised; the legs were dotted with multiple bruises. Wood also had a slight abrasion on her left cheek.

At the time, it was believed that the bruises were sustained when Wood fell onto the dinghy. Her fall and subsequent drowning could have been impacted by her earlier alcohol consumption—during her autopsy her blood alcohol was measured at 0.14, according to the coroner.

Another factor, which could have contributed to her death, was the down coat she was wearing.

When waterlogged, it weighed 30 to 40 pounds. Had she been clear-headed enough to remove the garment, she might have been able to swim, Noguchi speculated in the “Coroner.”

Still, the bruising was troubling for the Los Angeles sheriff’s investigators.

Natalie Wood, her children Natasha (C), Courtney (R), and her husband Robert Wagner arrive at London airport 04 July 1976. (AFP/Getty Images)
Natalie Wood, her children Natasha (C), Courtney (R), and her husband Robert Wagner arrive at London airport on July 4, 1976. (AFP/Getty Images)

According to the Daily Mail, a Los Angeles County Coroner’s report published in January 2013 suggests that the bruises were made before Wood entered the water, not while she fell onto the dinghy and then as she struggled to climb back to safety, as had previously been suggested.

“She looked like a victim of an assault,” Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department Detective Ralph Hernandez told CBS.

“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.

“The ultimate problem is we don’t know how she ended up in the water.”

In “48 Hours,” program host Erin Moriarity asks Los Angeles Sheriff’s Lt. Corina, “Do you believe Natalie Wood was murdered?”

“I think it’s suspicious enough to make us think that something happened,” Corina replies.


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