It’s a mystery that’s haunted Hollywood for over 35 years – was actress Natalie Wood’s untimely drowning death in 1981 a tragic accident or murder? The then-43-year-old was staying on her yacht off the coast of Santa Catalina Island, California, during the filming of the movie Brainstorm in late November 1981 when she went missing one night. She was discovered the next morning about a mile away, dead and floating in the water, dressed in a flannel nightgown and red down coat.
After a two-week investigation, the police ruled her death an accident, but rumors have swirled ever since that something more sinister occurred. The yacht’s other passengers – Brainstorm costar Christopher Walken, yacht captain Dennis Davern and Wood’s two-time husband, Robert Wagner – had given conflicting statements, and it was never clear how or why Wood, who was terrified of deep water, ended up in the ocean or why the yacht’s dingy washed ashore nearby. In 2011, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Office reopened the case and the following year, the coroner amended Wood’s autopsy conclusion from “accidental drowning” to “drowning and other determined factors.” Now, according to a 48 Hours exclusive airing this Saturday, investigators have honed in on Wagner, officially naming him as a “person of interest” in his wife’s death. (A representative for Wagner declined to comment to the Washington Post.)
“As we’ve investigated the case over the last six years, I think he’s more of a person of interest now,” Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department Lieutenant John Corina told 48 Hours. “I mean, we know now that he was the last person to be with Natalie before she disappeared.”
Born Natalia Zakharenko in San Francisco, Wood began acting as a child and earned accolades for her performance in the holiday classic Miracle on 34th Street, at the age of 8. After a series of smaller roles on the big and small screens, Wood matured into a teen ingenue opposite James Dean in the film Rebel Without a Cause in 1955, a role that earned her a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination. In her twenties, Wood showed off her singing and dancing chops in the musicals West Side Story and Gypsy, and, after a brief career lull, earned two more Best Actress Oscar nominations for her critically acclaimed work in Splendor in the Grass and Love with the Proper Stranger.
Wood became familiar with Wagner at the very beginning of her career, nursing a crush on the actor, eight years her senior, after seeing him on the studio lot when she was 10. “I turned to my mother and said, ‘I’m going to marry him,'” Wood told People in 1976. And she did – twice. Their romantic relationship began as a decidedly old-Hollywood arrangement – the pair were set up by publicity-courting studio heads from 20th Century Fox when Wood turned 18, believing she’d be the perfect match for the dashing up-and-coming actor. They were married for the first time in 1957, but divorced five years later, in 1962; both moved on to marry and have children with other people. Wood left her second husband, British producer Robert Gregson, in 1971, not long after the birth of their daughter Natasha. Within three months of her second divorce, Wood was walking down the aisle again, remarrying Wagner in 1972. They had a daughter, Courtney, and were seemingly happy to have had a second chance at love, only to see it cut short by Wood’s death.
But were they really happy? In November 2011, the investigation was reopened after Dennis Davern, the yacht’s captain that fateful night, came forward to publicly admit that he had lied to investigators and did not disclose that Wagner and Wood had gotten into an explosive argument just before her disappearance. According to Davern, Wagner had smashed a wine bottle on a coffee table, prompting Walken to retreat to his room; the couple’s argument continued and Davern said that when he attempted to intervene, Wagner ordered him to leave. Not long after, Wood was suddenly gone – but according to Davern, her husband didn’t seem too concerned.
“We didn’t take any steps to see if we could locate her,” Davern told NBC News’ David Gregory in 2011. “I think it was a matter of, ‘We’re not going to look too hard, we’re not going to turn on the searchlight, we’re not going to notify anybody right now.'” Asked outright if he thought Wagner was responsible for Wood’s death, Davern replied, “Yes, I would say so. Yes.”
In 2012, the autopsy report was amended to no longer classify Wood’s death as an accident, casting new light on other, less reported details. The actress’s body had fresh bruises and, according to one detective, she “looked like the victim of an assault.” The coroner’s original report noted Wood’s blood-alcohol level showed she had been drinking and her toxicology results found traces of both a painkiller and a pill for motion sickness; the report surmised that she may have slipped and fallen overboard. The report’s 10-page amendment in 2012 stated that how Wood ended up in the water was “not clearly established” and that her bruises may have been inflicted before she disappeared.
“We have not been able to prove this was a homicide,” Detective Ralph Hernandez told 48 Hours. “And we haven’t been able to prove that this was an accident, either. The ultimate problem is we don’t know how she ended up in the water.”
Though Wagner has publicly denied having any involvement in Wood’s death, including in his 2009 memoir, his refusal to cooperate with investigators is a major red flag. While Walken lawyered up as soon as the case was reopened, he also met with investigators and is not considered a suspect. As the last person to see Wood alive, detectives have tried and failed to reinterview Wagner multiple times over the last six years, leading them to wonder if he knows more than he’s ever let on.
“I haven’t seen him tell the details that match all the other witnesses in this case,” Lt. Corina told 48 Hours. “I think he’s constantly changed his story a little bit. And his version of events just don’t add up.”