L.A. Coroner Changes Natalie Wood’s Cause of Death

Through three decades of fevered tabloid speculation and whispers of a deeper story, the official account never changed: Natalie Wood drowned accidentally.

The 43-year-old star of “West Side Story,” who couldn’t swim, had been drinking the night before she was found floating face-down in frigid waters off Santa Catalina Island.

When the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department reopened the case in November 2011, around the 30th anniversary of her death, skeptics questioned the timing and doubted whether there was anything new to be learned.

Instead of quieting speculation, however, the investigation has raised fresh — and probably unanswerable — questions about one of Hollywood’s most enduring puzzles.

In a report released Monday, the coroner, Lakshmanan Sathyavagiswaran, questioned the original 1981 findings and changed Wood’s cause of death from “accidental drowning” to “drowning and other undetermined factors.”

The coroner’s report cited unexplained fresh bruising on the actress’ right forearm, left wrist and right knee, along with a scratch on her neck and a superficial scrape on her forehead.

Officials said the wounds open the possibility that she was assaulted before drowning.

“This Examiner is unable to exclude non-accidental mechanism causing these injuries,” the report said, adding that evidence suggested the bruising occurred before Wood entered the water.

Sheriff’s investigators said that the Wood case remains open but that detectives have reached an impasse.

One law enforcement source who has worked on the case said detectives may never have a conclusive answer given that “evidence is stale — with fading memories and incomplete forensics.”

The source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the case is ongoing, said there was not enough evidence to classify the case a crime, much less a homicide.

Experts said it was highly unusual for coroners to contradict the autopsy findings performed by their own office.

Michael Baden, a former New York examiner and noted trial expert witness, said that although both examinations of Wood’s body looked at the same evidence, the new report found the bruising to be far more significant — enough to change the cause of death.

“Sathyavagiswaran knows by issuing this opinion that he will unleash criticism on his predecessor and questions over how it handled a celebrity death three decades ago,” Baden said. “He knows in saying this he has criticized [former coroner] Dr. [Thomas] Noguchi and the office back in 1981.”

Noguchi did not return calls for comment.

The new report noted “conflicting statements” about when Wood disappeared, and whether she had argued with her husband, actor Robert Wagner, who — along Christopher Walken, her co-star in the film “Brainstorm” — were aboard the 60-foot yacht where she was last seen alive Nov. 28, 1981.

Hours before her death, authorities said, the three actors had had dinner at Doug’s Harbor Reef restaurant and then returned to the yacht, called the Splendour, where they drank and an argument ensued between Walken and Wagner.

According to the new autopsy report, Wood went missing about midnight, and an analysis of her stomach contents placed her death around that time. The report said Wagner placed a radio call to report her missing at 1:30 a.m.

Roger Smith, the L.A. County rescue boat captain who helped pull Wood’s body from the water, said he did not receive a call to look for her until after 5 a.m.

The original investigators believed Wood sustained her bruises after falling off the yacht and struggling to pull herself from the water into a rubber dinghy, whose starboard side bore scratch marks that seemed consistent with that theory.

But in his report, Sathyavagiswaran noted that investigators did not take nail clippings from Wood’s body to determine whether she had made the scratch marks, and the dinghy was no longer available to be examined.

The coroner believes Wood died soon after entering the water.

In an interview Monday, Smith said he wondered whether Wood might have been found alive if the rescue effort had gotten underway sooner.

“There’s no question in my mind that he just delayed calling for us,” Smith said, referring to Wagner.

Smith said he and a deputy examined Wood’s body but saw no bruises.

“We went over her very closely,” said Smith, 68. “When we looked at her, we didn’t see any bruises. We were looking for needle marks or anything like that — we didn’t see anything.”

He said the cold water may have delayed any bruising.

Smith said he examined the dinghy, which was found beached nearby, and saw dislodged seats and what appeared to be “nail marks along the inside of the raft,” as though Wood had tried frantically to reach in and pull herself up.

“She probably couldn’t pull herself in because she was so weak,” Smith said. “It looked like she was maybe grabbing things. I just think she was trying to get in.”

Smith said he had doubted an earlier claim by yacht captain Dennis Davern that he had seen bruises on Wood’s body.

“He could not have seen bruises on her because out of decency, I covered her up with a disposable blanket,” Smith said.

Wagner has said his wife hadn’t been suicidal and called her death a tragic accident.

According to the account given by Wagner’s spokesman, when he noticed his wife missing he believed she had taken the dinghy, and he went looking for her after 10 to 15 minutes, then contacted the Harbor Patrol when he couldn’t find her.

Wagner could not be reached for comment Monday.

“I have gone over it so many millions of times with people,” Wagner told The Times in 2008.

-Los Angeles Times

20 comments

  • erinlansing2012

    "Key witnesses were ignored by case detectives. Marilyn Wayne, moored next toSplendour ,offered information crucial to establishing a timeline that was never officially composed.Wayne was never interviewed by authorities even after phoning to offer her account.Roger Smith, the Coast Guard lieutenant who retrieved Wood’s body, was never interviewed. He became a threat to exposing facts, so he was quickly transferred and demoted"
    FROM: http://www.heavy.com/regions/2013/01/bombshell-ev

  • erinlansing2012

    "Marilyn Wayne, the only witness to hear Natalie’s cries for help—a vital witness ignored by authorities—has offered to publicly submit to a polygraph test to validate her account. Leaddetective Rasure has always belittled Wayne for her adamant claim that Wood was in the water just minutes after 11P.M. Wayne’s account is consistent with Davern’s account, yet these twocrucial witnesses, both willing to undergo professional polygraph testing, continue to bediscounted and their motives questioned"
    FROM: http://www.heavy.com/regions/2013/01/bombshell-ev….

  • erinlansing2012

    "No effort was made to determine how Wood received dozens of wounds, scratches, and bruises or to determine how and why she left the yacht in her nightgown. Chief Coroner Thomas Noguchi was fired for wanting to dig deeper into the case."

  • erinlansing2012

    —Robert Wagner, Christopher Walken, and DennisDavern—lied to authorities when briefly questioned on the morning of November 29,1981. Davern, however, witnessed the circumstances leading to Wood’s disappearingfrom the yacht and has since passed a certified polygraph test indicating thatRobertWagner was with Natalie Wood, arguing on the back deck of the yacht with her when she went missing.

  • erinlansing2012

    Natalie Wood had a terror of water and a phobia about drowning so why would a woman so fearful of it climb into a small dingy at night in her nightgown??? This is the lie perpetrated by the murderers.

  • erinlansing2012

    Dennis Davern witnessed the circumstances leading to Wood’s disappearing from the yacht and has since passed a certified polygraph test indicating that RobertWagner was with Natalie Wood, arguing on the back deck of the yacht with her when she went missing. Wagner, decades later, admitted there was an argument duringwhich he angrily smashed a wine bottle less than an hour before Natalie “went missing.

  • Sambo

    erinlansing2012, Shut Up! Were you there? NO! The bruises and other marks could have come from trying to get back in the dingy or boat. And the reason it took 4 hr.'s to call the Police is because Robert was banging Jill St. John on the other side of the yacht while Christopher was filming. Have you seen the size of her rack? They are still together today….

  • erinlansing2012

    I repeat – Pay attention now

    "Roger Smith, the Coast Guard lieutenant who retrieved Wood’s body, was NEVER interviewed. He became a threat to exposing facts, so he was quickly transferred and demoted."

  • erinlansing2012

    SATURDAY, NOV. 28, 1981 | CATALINA ISLAND

    Dennis Davern: "Christopher and Natalie went ashore to the restaurant and had a few drinks. RJ and myself we went in later. When RJ…saw Natalie and Christopher sitting at the bar laughing and having a wonderful time, he started to…really really heat up.

    "We go back to the boat…Natalie and Christopher continue to giggle just having fun. …And then Robert Wagner, out of the clear blue, picked up the bottle of wine and smashed it right on the coffee table. …"Natalie went down below… Christopher went into his stateroom. Then RJ went into…Natalie and RJ's room and started arguing, yelling…things being thrown about. And then the fighting went back to the back of the boat and … then it was quiet.

  • erinlansing2012

    "When I had gone down below…Natalie wasn't there…and he says, 'You must search the boat and see where Natalie is.'

    "She wasn't anywhere… the dinghy was gone. I said to Robert Wagner, 'Maybe I should turn on the searchlight.' He said, 'Don't do that.'"

    On a nearby yacht, three people claim they heard cries for help sometime after 11:00. One of them was Marilyn Wayne.

  • erinlansing2012

    Marilyn Wayne: "I heard a woman calling for help…'Help me somebody, please help me. I'm drowning.' We called harbor patrol several times. No one ever answered. … At 11:25, call for help ceased. That was the beginning of the nightmare."

    SUNDAY MORNING

    Sam Kashner: "They found her floating in the water…wearing a red down jacket, socks and a flannel nightgown… In a way almost as if she was standing up in the water."

  • erinlansing2012

    After a two week investigation, Natalie Wood's death was ruled an accident. But the new detectives, Kevin Lowe and Ralph Hernandez, are searching for answers to some troubling questions: Like why did it take Robert Wagner so long to radio for help?

    Suzanne Finstad: "The first call isn't made until 1:30 in the morning… That's two-and-a-half hours between the time that someone is heard screaming in the water."

  • erinlansing2012

    Suzanne Finstad: "She had a lifelong fear that she would die in dark water…and then to be in this circumstance that is her greatest horror, it's just beyond imagining."

    The local Baywatch rescue boat captain on duty, Roger Smith says he wasn't called until after five in the morning – six hours after Natalie went into the water.

    Roger Smith: "I think she was at least alive for three of the hours, hanging on that skiff."

    Smith brought Natalie's body to shore. He says rigor mortis had not yet set in and believes the decision to wait so long before calling for help cost Natalie Wood her life.

  • erinlansing2012

    Wagner on audio book: "She slipped on the swim step on the stern…and was either stunned or knocked unconscious and rolled into the water. The loose dinghy floated away."

    Sam Kashner: "There are great holes in that story … why wasn't someone called earlier? …Why did someone hear screaming in the water if, in fact, she's unconscious."

    Because it didn't happen that way, Davern told "48 Hours".

    Dennis Davern: "I believe that Robert Wagner was with her up until the moment she went into the water."

  • erinlansing2012

    Roger Smith was the Coast Guard who came on the scene early in the morning to investigate Natalie wood's disappearance on 11-29-81.

    It's been almost 30 years since actress Natalie Wood, 43, mysteriously died in ocean waters off Catalina Island. But for Oakhurst resident Roger Smith — a rescue boat captain at the time, who carried her lifeless body to shore — the tragedy, and the incidents leading up to it, still haunt him to this day.
    http://www.sierrastar.com/2011/11/23/56935/actres… was recently interviewed on Catalina Island where the tragedy occurred,

  • erinlansing2012

    Roger Smith Coast Guard – "When I examined the raft, it had nail marks where someone had been reaching in the raft to pull themselves into it and everything inside was dislodged," Smith said. "Apparently she wasn't strong enough to pull herself into the raft and hung onto the safety line while being blown out to sea."Even though Smith pronounced Wood dead, he said he was never even questioned by the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department.

    Smith was leery about talking to the media and when he was contacted by a reporter at the L.A. Times, he said he wasn't ready to talk about it but was finally convinced. Smith told his story and soon found himself demoted from his position as supervising captain of the department of beaches for Catalina to captain and he was transferred to another area — also receiving a 16% cut in pay. He was no longer allowed to even run a rescue boat — instead, he was a deck hand."

  • erinlansing2012

    Robert Wagner's Story -"Wagner was then brought on to the boat, Smith said, so the deputy could ask him some questions. Wagner was on the boat about 10 minutes and seemed very matter-of-fact, Smith said. "

    "Smith said he was standing next to the deputy when the deputy asked Wagner about the delay in calling authorities. "

    "The story was that, after the argument, Wood went to her room and then out in the night to tie down their dinghy that was banging against the side of the boat — but she never returned. "

    "According to Smith, Wagner said he didn't want to call the lifeguards because they are a public
    agency and that Wood might be found on one of the other boats, fooling around, and that he didn't want that to become public."

    "The deputy said to me, 'Did you hear what he said?' I said, 'Yes, I did.' It's too bad the famous can't be rescued because they're so famous they might go in the paper."

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