Natalie Wood drowning inquiry reopened

Los Angeles homicide detectives have reopened their investigation of Natalie Wood's death almost 30 years after the actress drowned in the waters off Southern California.
Los Angeles sheriff's homicide detectives are taking another look at actress Natalie Wood's 1981 drowning death based on new information, officials announced Thursday. (Associated Press)

Los Angeles homicide detectives have reopened their investigation of Natalie Wood's death almost 30 years after the actress drowned in the waters off Southern California .

The renewed look at Wood's Nov. 29, 1981, death was prompted by new information detectives received about the case, Los Angeles County sheriff's spokesman Steve Whitmore said Thursday.

No additional details were provided, but a detective planned to hold a news conference Friday, and anyone with information about the case was being asked to contact sheriff's officials.

Robert Wagner in 2002, 21 years after Natalie Wood's death. (Reuters)

Wood's death was a mystery then, and remains one now. It starred three actors on a motor yacht: Wood, her husband Robert Wagner and her co-star Christopher Walken. They were on a boat anchored in a cove off Santa Catalina Island, about 30 kilometres southwest of Los Angeles.

A lot of wine had been consumed — a coroner later estimated Wood had drunk at least seven glasses — and  the official explanation was that she went on deck in the middle of the night to secure a dinghy banging against the yacht. That didn't sound like the whole story to reporters in 1981.

Actor Christopher Walken, who was co-starring with Wood when she died. (Reuters)

Wood was a poor swimmer, afraid of the water. Her sister Lana always found the dinghy story suspect. Last year, Lana Wood — and the yacht captain — formally asked the sheriff to reopen the case.

"I'm tired of not really knowing," Lana Wood said. "And I'm tired of the way that, ah, the so-called investigation went."

The yacht captain who co-wrote a book on Wood's death three years ago has said there was a fight that night that he was told not to report — and he was told not to call the coast guard.

That may be part of the "new information" the sheriff has cited as a reason to reopen the case.

The Wagner family released a statement saying it trusts the sheriff to judge whether the information is credible … or simply someone trying to profit from the 30-year anniversary of a tragic death.

Wood, a three-time Oscar nominee famous for roles in West Side Story, Rebel Without a Cause  and other Hollywood hits, was 43 when she died. She and Wagner, star of the TV series Hart to Hart, were married twice, first in 1957 before divorcing six years later, and then again in 1972.

Wood's drowning sparked tabloid speculation that foul play was involved, but the family dismissed any suggestion of that at the time.

A spokesman for Wagner said the family trusts the sheriff's department will take appropriate action but has not been contacted about the case being reopened.

A dinghy that had been attached to the couple's yacht Splendor was found in a Catalina cove.

The Los Angeles Times reported that detectives were prompted to look at the case again after comments by the ship's captain, Dennis Davern. He was recently interviewed for a collaboration between the magazine Vanity Fair and the television series 48 Hours Mystery that focuses on Wood's death.

"Although no one in the Wagner family has heard from the LA County Sheriff's department about this matter, they fully support the efforts of the LA County Sheriff's Dept. and trust they will evaluate whether any new information relating to the death of Natalie Wood Wagner is valid, and that it comes from a credible source or sources other than those simply trying to profit from the 30 year anniversary of her tragic death," Wagner spokesman Alan Nierob wrote in a statement.

Lana Wood wrote in a biography on her sister, "What happened is that Natalie drank too much that night."

Wagner wrote in a 2009 autobiography that he blamed himself for his wife's death.

Phone and email messages from The Associated Press to Walken's publicist were not immediately returned. Attempts to contact Davern were unsuccessful.

With files from CBC's Jennifer Westaway in Los Angeles and from The Associated Press