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Natalie Wood: Charting the Case of Her Mysterious Drowning

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Jan 18, 2013 | 1:22pm EST

Natalie Wood Drowning Death Investigation

It's one of Hollywood's greatest mysteries: what happened in the early morning hours of Nov. 29, 1981 that resulted in the drowning death of Natalie Wood?

Thirty-one years later, we're still not entirely sure. The actress was one of the most successful to ever make the jump from child-star, in films like Miracle on 34th Street (1947) and The Ghost of Mrs. Muir (1947), to angsty teenager in Rebel Without a Cause (1955) and The Searchers (1956), to accomplished adult thespian in Splendor in the Grass (1961) and West Side Story (1961). Wood and her movie-star husband Robert Wagner were one of Hollywood's true power couples. Since she'd never been a subject for scandal-mongers, her death at the age of 43 came as a true shock.

The incredible thing is that the tragedy has been back in the news the past year and a half, ever since the captain of the yacht on which Wood and Wagner were vacationing announced that he had lied to investigators about what happened that night. He said Wagner was "responsible for her death" because he allegedly refused to look for Wood when she went missing following an argument. Just this week, on January 14, the Los Angeles County Coroner's office released 10 additional pages to its autopsy report on Wood's body that suggested she may have incurred bruises before she went into the water. There's no way to conclusively determine that that was the case, but it suggests an assault may have proceeded her death.

It's a lot to make sense of, so if you're scratching your head about the details we've taken it upon ourselves to round up what we do know...and what we still don't.

What was the original account of the events surrounding Wood's death?

Wood had just finished shooting Douglas Trumbull's science fiction film Brainstorm with Christopher Walken, so she, Wagner, and Walken rented a yacht, the Splendour, to take a vacation cruise to Santa Catalina Island off the Southern California coast. According to the initial account given to investigators, the three of them ate at a restaurant on the island on the evening of Nov. 28, 1981. Afterwards, they returned to the yacht, and Wagner and Walken got into a major shouting match. Wood was dragged into it, and eventually she stormed off to her cabin. However, when Wagner, who had remained on deck drinking, went to join her in their cabin, she was nowhere to be found. The next morning Wood's body drifted ashore about a mile away from the yacht and was found near an inflatable dinghy.

What was the long-held theory about the circumstances of her death?

When the L.A. County Coroner's Office got the results back from a toxicology study performed on Wood's body, it showed she had a blood alcohol level of 0.14%. The legal limit in California is 0.08%. She also had taken two prescriptions: one was for motion sickness, the other a painkiller. Those would undoubtedly have amplified the effect of the alcohol. The theory was that Wood noticed the dinghy was getting loose from the side of the yacht, so she tried to tie it back up. And in doing so, fell overboard. That would explain the bruises on her torso and arms, and the abrasion on her left cheek. The official cause of death was listed as both drowning and hypothermia. The other possibility is that, enraged by the argument she had with her husband, she took off in the dinghy to head for shore and never made it.

Who was listed as being responsible for Wood's death?

No one. The Coroner's Office determined that her death was nothing more than a tragic accident.

So why was the inquiry reopened in 2011?

On the 30th anniversary of Wood's death, the Splendour's captain, Dennis Davern, announced on on the Today show that he had lied to authorities during the initial inquiry. He alleged that Wagner delayed reporting his wife missing, "didn't take any steps to see if [he] could locate her," and thus, in his opinion, was "responsible for her death." The initial autopsy concluded, based on the contents of Wood's stomach, that she had died right around midnight on the morning of Nov. 29. Wagner didn't report her missing until around 1:30 a.m.

L.A. Coroner Dr. Lakshmanan Sathyavagiswaran, a semi-celebrity from his extensive testimony during the O.J. Simpson murder trial, reopened the case, as did LAPD investigators. They interviewed 100 new witnesses and reexamined the original autopsy report. Nine months after Davern's new allegations, Dr. Sathyavagiswaran changed the cause of death on Wood's death certificate to "drowning and other undetermined factors." Beyond that the LAPD had ordered the coroner's office not to divulge any further details of the new investigation.

Was there any indication of foul play?

For the past 31 years, the official answer to this question has been "no." However, on Jan. 14, Dr. Sathyavagiswaran released a ten-page addendum to the original autopsy report, which suggested that the bruises on Wood's torso and arms, and the gash on her left cheek, might have been the result of a struggle before she went into the water and not from her body getting carried by the tide after she'd drowned, as had always been assumed. There's no conclusive evidence to definitively determine when was those bruises were incurred. They could still just has easily have come after she was in the water, but it's not a certainty.

If there was foul play, is the LAPD circling suspects in her death?

No. The official position of the LAPD is that Wood's death was an accident, and that there are no pending charges or suspects in the case.

What's Robert Wagner's response to the investigation and Capt. Davern's claims?

The only response Wagner has had to the latest update in the investigation he released as a statement through his attorney, Blair Berk: "After 30 years, neither Mr. Wagner nor his daughters have any new information to add to this latest investigation, which was unfortunately prompted by those seeking to exploit and sensationalize the 30th anniversary of the death of his wife and their mother." Additionally, The Los Angeles Times reports that Wagner has not agreed to grant the LAPD an interview regarding the new developments in the probe, and that he is the only surviving person who was on that yacht the night of Wood's death with whom they have not spoken since the initial inquiry in 1981.

Follow Christian Blauvelt on Twitter @Ctblauvelt

[Photo Credit: Getty]

More:

New Development in Natalie Wood Case

Natalie Wood’s Death No Longer Ruled ‘An Accidental Drowning’

Natalie Wood’s Cause of Death Changed to ‘Undetermined’

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