In 1981, the world was shocked and saddened to hear that actress Natalie Wood had drowned after spending the weekend on a yacht with her husband Robert Wagner and her Brainstorm co-star Christopher Walken. At the time, her death was ruled an accident, but the circumstances surrounding the incident were suspicious — so much so that the case was reopened in 2011, with nearly 100 new witnesses coming forward.
Soon after, her cause of death was changed from "accidental drowning" to "drowning and undetermined factors." It's these new witnesses' stories that prompted Lieutenant Corina of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department to come forward, stating that they are now considering her husband a person of interest.
The couple around 1965.
"Do we have enough to make an arrest at this moment? No,” the Sheriff's Department's Feb. 3 statement read. "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.” Read on to learn more about the case.
Robert and Natalie had a messy romance.
After an 18-year-old Natalie confessed to having a crush on Robert, then 26, the two went out on a date. Just a year later in 1957, the lovebirds tied the knot, despite her mother's disapproval. By 1961, the pair had called it quits, and Natalie went on to have a short-lived marriage to producer Richard Gregson, with whom she had daughter Natasha. After her and Richard's divorce was finalized in 1972, she and Robert rekindled their romance and married that summer. They had one daughter together named Courtney.
Everyone aboard the yacht was drinking alcohol.
The 43-year-old actress' bruised body was found floating the next morning, and a coroner later confirmed that the three-time Oscar nominee had a blood-alcohol level of 0.14.
Robert was the one who reported Natalie's disappearance.
According to Investigation Discovery's Natalie Wood: An American Murder Mystery, Natalie and Robert were vacationing in Catalina Island with friends over Thanksgiving weekend. At 1:30 on that fateful Sunday morning, local restaurant owner Doug Whiting heard a voice over ship to shore radio — and it was Robert, reporting Natalie missing. "This is splendor, we need help," Robert allegedly said." Someone is missing from the boat."
Robert's account of the night has raised questions.
According to the star, he was in the midst of a heated argument with Christopher when he saw Natalie for the last time, stating that she shut the door behind her as she went into the bedroom to go to sleep. Sometime later, he headed to their room, but he noticed that Natalie and the boat's dingy were missing. Because of his story, many believed Natalie lost her balance while trying to tie the dingy to the boat.
The pair in April 1981.
New witnesses gave a different timeline of events.
The boat's captain, Dennis Davern, told police that he heard Natalie and Robert screaming at each other, which prompted him to check if things were okay. "It was really intense, and it got so bad that [he] went down out of the cabin to check on them because he was worried that there was some kind of assault going on," Corina said. "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.” Corina added that multiple witnesses gave the same account, saying, “They have no reason to lie. And their story matches what Dennis Davern says."
Corina continued, "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."
What really happened to Natalie Wood?
No one really knows, but former LA Chief Medical Examiner-Coroner Dr. Thomas Noguchi worked on Natalie's autopsy and he was able to piece togehter the confusing events from that night — and he revealed his thoughts on his findings in his memoir Coroner.
"Natalie Wood, possibly attempting to board the dinghy, had fallen into the ocean, striking her face. Because she had sustained no deep traumatic head wounds, we knew she had been conscious while in the water. The bruises on her lower legs, I believed at the time, were incurred during her fall," Dr. Noguchi concluded, after taking into account Natalie's toxicology report and the bruises he found on her face, arms and legs. But he thinks that the thing that played the biggest factor in her drowning was the fact that she wore an extremely heavy coat that night that weighed her down in the water. Even though Natalie was conscious, she was intoxicated and probably not thinking clearly enough to take the coat off, and if she had, Dr. Noguchi thinks she could have survived.
Robert is keeping his lips zipped.
Though the actor, now 87, cooperated back in 1981, and was never named as a suspect, the Sheriff's Department said that since re-opening the case, he's refused to speak to investigators. “I haven’t seen him tell the details that match all the other witnesses in this case,” Corina said on a 48 Hours special. “I think he’s constantly changed his story a little bit. And his version of events just don’t add up.”