01.14.13

Natalie Wood Findings: Was the Actress Bruised Before She Drowned?

Did the actress accidentally drown—or was she assaulted before she hit the water? Christine Pelisek on a new report that could cast the glamorous star’s death in a disturbing light.

The Los Angeles County coroner’s office released a stunning report Monday that calls into question original findings that Natalie Wood accidentally drowned off the coast of California in 1981. The glamorous star’s death has been reclassified to “drowning and other undetermined factors.”

The report, which was completed in May but only released Monday, specifically honed in on unexplained bruises found on the Rebel Without a Cause actress’s arm, legs, neck, and face. Chief medical examiner Dr. Lakshmanan Sathyavagiswaran concluded that he was “unable to exclude non-accidental mechanism causing these injuries,” and that “the bruises especially in the upper extremities appeared fresh and could have occurred before she entered the water.”

Wood’s case was reopened by the coroner’s office in the fall of 2011 after the L.A. sheriff’s office asked for a reevaluation of the original findings. One of Hollywood’s greatest unsolved mysteries, each new development in the case has stirred up a frenzy of interest. 

Because the bulk of the forensic evidence in the case had been destroyed or missing, Sathyavagiswaran based his autopsy findings on a reexamination of the existing evidence: 10 histology slides that were found of the bruises, the fact that Wood had no history of suicide attempts, and new information provided by the sheriff’s department.

To be clear, the details of Wood’s death are still murky at best. “There are conflicting statements as to when [Wood] went missing from the boat and whether there were verbal arguments between the [actress] and her husband,” Sathyavagiswaran wrote.

He did not reclassify the case as a homicide. Nor was he able to determine exactly when the injuries happened. “This Medical Examiner,” he wrote, however, “is unable to exclude non-volitional, unplanned entry into the water.''

Bill McSweeney, chief detective at the L.A. sheriff’s office, was careful to temper the new findings. “We’ve been working with that information for a long time,” he said. “Nothing has changed. We have an open case, and we will always keep looking at everything.”

According to reports at the time, Wood, then 43, 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 said they believed the actress and Wagner quarreled that night about Walken, who was costarring with Natalie in a movie.

In 2011, Davern, who was on the yacht the night the actress died, and Lana Wood, asked the sheriff’s department to reopen the case. Davern along with Marti Rulli, who co-authored a book with Davern about the night Wood drowned, delivered a package to the sheriff’s department containing six signed statements from Lana Wood, Davern, a woman on a nearby yacht who claimed she heard Wood screaming for help, and Roger Smith, a Coast Guard staffer who helped recover Wood’s body.

The sheriff’s department reopened the case and re-interviewed the witnesses, but has not made any arrests in the case.

In the new autopsy findings, Sathyavagiswaran reported that because of the partially digested food material found in her stomach, Wood most likely drowned at midnight, one-and-a-half hours before the call from the Splendour came at 1:30 a.m. reporting her missing. “She drowned within a short time of her entry into the water,” he wrote.

Wood was found the following morning floating face up in the Pacific Ocean and wearing a blue-and-red flannel nightgown, argyle socks, and a red down jacket. The dinghy was discovered near the shoreline with the key in the ignition in the off position, the gear in neutral, and the oars tied down—indicating the boat had never been used, according to the report.

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 an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for the role. Two years later, she beat out Elizabeth Taylor and Audrey Hepburn for the title role 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.