Los Angeles County Sheriff’s homicide investigators held a downtown news conference today to address recent details in the case of the 1981 death of Natalie Wood. Lt. John Corina revealed that since they have been investigating actress’ drowning death, about 100 people came forth, and new witnesses were identified that have helped articulate the timeline.
“We’re closer to understanding what happened that weekend and how it kinda went down,” he told reporters as LA network affiliates aired the presser live. “Before we were all believing this story that she got in the dingy and tried to go into town in her nightgown and her socks by herself when it’s raining out and the seas are really rough and you can’t even see at midnight, which made absolutely no sense if you really think about it,” said Corina.
Investigators have been investigating Wood’s death actively since reopening it six-plus years ago and are hoping that renewed interest in the cold case will produce more witnesses to shed light on exactly what happened.
Wood was 43 when she was found dead in November 1981. She went missing from Splendour, the yacht she owned with husband Robert Wagner, in the waters surrounding Catalina Island. Detectives named Wagner as a person of interest last week, decades after Wood was found bobbing in the water the morning after she went missing, held up only by an air-filled coat after drowning. She was known to be deathly afraid of the water because she could not swim.
Corina said investigators have all the information up until how she ended up in the water. “We interviewed a lot of new people — people on the island, people who were more near the boat that night or that weekend, people who knew the couple or had knowledge of what was going on that weekend. So it’s been extremely helpful in re-creating what happened.”
He said there was more than one witness who heard the famous couple arguing on the back of the boat, thereby corroborating the captain’s account of what happened. “It was really intense, and it got so bad that [captain Dennis Davern) went down out of the cabin to check on them because he was worried that there was some kind of assault going on. That’s when he was told to go away by Robert Wagner, and then Robert Wagner and Natalie ended up on the back of the boat arguing and then it goes quiet.”
Witnesses on a nearby boat corroborated the Davern’s 2011 account of what they heard that night as well.
At the time, the only people with Wood on the boat prior to her death were Wagner, actor Christopher Walken and Davern. Walken and Wood had been filming Brainstorm together, and Walken had been invited to join the couple on the boat over Thanksgiving weekend. There’s no question that Wagner and Wood had been arguing before the incident occurred. Wagner even wrote as much in his own 2008 memoir.
Wood appeared to have fresh bruises on her body and might have been a victim of an assault,” Corina said. “There were bruises on Natalie Wood’s body,” he said today. [The LA Coroner] said they are non-mechanical and probably caused by another person. … I can’t say who caused the injuries. We know the last person who was with her before she went in the water. And that was Mr. Wagner.
“We have a better understanding now,” Corina added, saying that what determines whether “it was accident or murder is we find out how she went in the water.” He noted that captain Davern confirmed that Walken was sleeping with Wood at the time. “Was she placed in the water? Was she unconscious and then placed in the water? Was she put in the water by somebody? Or did she accidentally fall into the water and nobody helped her?” Corina asked.
He said the new witnesses who came forward and their info “was extremely helpful … it helped us to re-create some of the timeline.” Up until a year and a half ago, the Sheriff’s Department was getting plenty of new information and tips, but they have been trickling in since and now it have dried up, Corina said. They came forward now to update the public about the case, which he said “remains a suspicious-circumstances death.”
“We’d love to hear from Robert Wagner. We’d love to hear his side, his version of events,” said the detective, who noted that the version Wagner gave to the media, the version he gave to investigators and what he has portrayed since then “really don’t add up to what we found and what we’ve heard” from other witnesses. Wagner turns 88 this week.
Gorina said Davern came down to check on what happened after it went silent “and there’s Robert Wagner in the salon of the boat saying, ‘Natalie’s gone. She’s missing.'” Wagner then sent the captain to go look around the boat. “It’s not that big of a boat, and the next thing you know, he says, ‘Oh and by the way, the dingy is now gone,” said Corina. “Didn’t make any sense. No one heard the dingy start up. No one heard the dingy take off. … I can go on and on, but it didn’t add up.”
He said Wagner is considered a “person of interest” — a term that has no legal meaning and does not mean that Wagner is a suspect. “Wagner has rights,” Corina said, and does not have to talk to investigators.” But they wish he would.
Walken and Wagner have maintained that it was a mere accident that took Wood’s life. The actress’ death was ruled just that in 1981 after a two-week investigation. In 2011, the Sheriff’s Department re-opened the case after new information came forth; a year later, the County Coroner’s office added on Wood’s death certificate from “accidental drowning” to “drowning and other undetermined factors.”
Sheriff’s spokeswoman Nicole Nishida issued a statement Thursday saying that new witness interviews had given statements that “portray a new sequence of events on the boat that night.” The statements differed from the original version of events that were provided by witnesses, including those who were on the boat, officials said.
“Do we have enough to make an arrest at this moment? No,” the statement read.