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11.18.11

L.A. Sheriff Reopens Natalie Wood Drowning Probe, Citing New Information

Sheriff’s officials have reopened the investigation into the actress’s 1981 death based on ‘additional information,’ including from a woman who ‘heard Natalie’s cries for help.’

The Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department announced on Thursday that it is reopening the investigation into the 1981 death of Rebel Without a Cause actress Natalie Wood. At the time, law-enforcement officials said her drowning death while she was boating off the isthmus of California’s Catalina Island was accidental.

“Recently Sheriff’s Homicide Investigators were contacted by persons who stated they had additional information about the Natalie Wood Wagner drowning,” according to a statement by the department. “Due to the additional information, Sheriff’s Homicide Bureau has decided to take another look at the case.”

Wood’s death on Nov. 29, 1981 is one of Hollywood’s greatest mysteries, and has fueled widespread speculation about what really happened to the beautiful 43-year-old actress. According to reports at the time, Wood drowned after a night of partying with her husband, actor Robert Wagner, and The Deer Hunter actor Christopher Walken. They were spending the weekend on a yacht called Splendour.

On the night of her death, the three had drinks and dinner at a local restaurant on Catalina Island, and then continued drinking back on the yacht, where Wagner and Walken began a verbal fight, according to law-enforcement officials. While they were arguing, Wood went to the bathroom, and later Wagner went to look for her and discovered she was missing.

Officials said they believed Wood slipped off the yacht when she went on deck to reattach a dinghy that came loose. Others, such as Natalie’s sister, Lana Wood, and the boat’s captain, Dennis Davern, have long said they believed the actress and Wagner quarreled that night about Walken, who was costarring with Natalie in a movie.

A woman on a nearby yacht claimed she heard Wood call for help around midnight. It was later discovered that the actress was intoxicated at the time.

Last year, Davern, who was on the yacht the night the actress died, and Lana Wood, asked the sheriff’s department to reopen the case. At the time, Lana told CNN she just wanted “the truth to come out, the real story.”  She told CNN she did not suspect foul play.

More recently, Lana Wood and Marti Rulli, who coauthored a book with Davern about the night Natalie drowned, began another effort to reopen the case. On Sept. 18, they delivered a package to the sheriff’s department containing “statements from witnesses who wanted their voices to be heard just prior to the 30th anniversary of the death of legendary actress Natalie Wood to Sheriff Lee Baca’s office at the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department,” according to the Canyon News.

According to the L.A.-based community newspaper, the package contained six signed statements from Lana Wood and Davern, as well as the woman on the nearby yacht who “heard Natalie’s cries for help but was never interviewed by authorities,” and Roger Smith, a Coast Guard staffer who “recovered Natalie’s body and believes she lived hours through the night in the cold ocean.”

“Rulli as well as Lana Wood are determined to see justice served in this case,” according to the Canyon News. “Although Lana never accuses anyone of committing a crime, she does believe the case was closed too quickly, and she fears that her family’s star power may have been involved in the decision to call the death an accidental drowning in order to close the case and protect others, who may have had a lot to lose if the case had been thoroughly investigated.”

A Coast Guard staffer who “recovered Natalie’s body… believes she lived hours through the night in the cold ocean.”

Natalie Wood began her acting career at the age of 4 and starred in dozens of movies. She was transformed from a well-known child actress to a sought-after movie star in 1955, after she starred opposite James Dean and Sal Mineo in Rebel Without a Cause. She was nominated for a supporting-actress Oscar for her portrayal. Two years later, she beat out Elizabeth Taylor and Audrey Hepburn for the lead in Marjorie Morningstar. In 1961, she starred in West Side Story and Splendor in the Grass. And, in 1962, she starred in Gypsy

Wood married Robert Wagner twice. They married in 1956, divorced in 1965, and remarried in 1972. She later starred in such films as Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, and Meteor. She was working on the MGM production, Brainstorm, with Walken when she drowned over Thanksgiving weekend. 

The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department plans to hold a press conference today about the case.