Natalie Wood death: New witnesses come forward, case now ‘suspicious’

Robert Wagner and Natalie Wood during the AFI Salute to Fred Astaire at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Beverly Hills, Calif.
Robert Wagner and Natalie Wood during the AFI Salute to Fred Astaire at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Beverly Hills, Calif. Ron Galella/WireImage

Nearly 40 years after actor Natalie Wood‘s mysterious drowning death in 1981, new witnesses are coming forward with enough fresh information that authorities are now calling her passing “suspicious.”

On Thursday, Los Angeles Country Sheriff investigators also said that Robert Wagner, Wood’s two-time husband, is now a “person of interest” in her death.

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Wood drowned at age 43 after disappearing from her family’s yacht, Splendour, off the coast of Catalina Island, Calif. Besides Wagner, on board that night were the captain, author Dennis Davern, and actor Christopher Walken, who was friends with Wood. Her body was found the next day in the water, and she was wearing a down jacket and a nightgown.

At the time, the investigation lasted two weeks and eventually the death was ruled an accident.

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The investigation was reopened in 2011, and in 2012 the L.A. Coroner’s Office made an amendment to her death certificate, changing her cause of death from accidental to “drowning and other undetermined factors.”

CBS investigative news show 48 Hours has rekindled public interest in the case, and is airing a special — Death in Dark Water — on Wood’s mysterious death on Saturday night.

WATCH BELOW: ’48 Hours’ previews its Natalie Wood special

Robert Wagner now person of interest in death of Natalie Wood: report
Robert Wagner now person of interest in death of Natalie Wood: report

After reviewing more than 100 tips, sheriff’s officials revealed on Thursday that they have obtained new witness accounts, and Wood’s case is classified as a “suspicious death.”

The new witnesses, say the officials, “portray a new sequence of events on the boat that night.”

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One of the witnesses described hearing yelling and crashing sounds coming from the couple’s stateroom, she said. Shortly after that, separate witnesses heard a man and a woman arguing on the back of the boat and believe the voices were those of Wood and Wagner, said sheriff’s department spokeswoman Nicole Nishida.

The statements differed from the original version of events provided by witnesses, including those who were on the boat.

Other witnesses include John Payne and his girlfriend, Marilyn Wayne, who were both on a boat moored near Splendour on the night of Wood’s death. They claim to have heard a woman yelling “Help me, someone please help me!” around midnight. They said the voice seemed to be coming from the stern of Splendour, and Payne suggested it may have come from a dinghy attached to the back of the boat.

They said they also heard a man’s drunken voice reply to the woman, “OK honey, we’ll get you.”

The pair didn’t respond to the cries for help because there was a loud party taking place on another nearby yacht, and they brushed it off as typical intoxicated behaviour.

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Over time, investigators claim, both Wagner’s and Davern’s stories have changed, adding yet another red flag to Wood’s death. The three men on the yacht initially said that Wood, who was notoriously scared of dark water, decided to head back to shore in a dinghy. There have been some conflicting witness reports as well.

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Pointing to Wood’s autopsy, investigators are stymied by the number of fresh bruises on the actor’s body. (You can see a picture of Wood’s autopsy results here.)

“She looked like a victim of an assault,” said Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department Detective Ralph Hernandez.

Investigators are eager to speak with Wagner, who’s now 87 years old. He has not made any comment about the case since the 48 Hours investigation revelations were made public, nor has he been interviewed since the investigation was reopened in 2011. His publicist, Alan Nierob, declined to comment on Thursday. Investigators said in 2013 that they had tried at least 10 times to interview him, but that he had refused.

He has flatly denied any involvement in his wife’s death, and no charges have ever been filed against Wagner.

“As we’ve investigated the case over the last six years, I think he’s more of a person of interest now,” said L.A. County Sheriff’s Dept. Lt. John Corina to 48 Hours. “I mean, we know now that he was the last person to be with Natalie before she disappeared.”

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“I haven’t seen him tell the details that match all the other witnesses in this case,” Corina continued, speaking about Wagner. “I think he’s constantly changed his story a little bit. And his version of events just don’t add up.”

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Authorities have declared that Walken is not a suspect, and he has co-operated with officials since the beginning.

“Do we have enough to make an arrest at this moment? No,” said Nishida.

“We have not been able to prove this was a homicide. And we haven’t been able to prove that this was an accident, either,” Hernandez said. “The ultimate problem is we don’t know how she ended up in the water.”

Conflicting versions of what happened on the yacht have contributed to the mystery of her death. Wood, Wagner and Walken had all been drinking heavily in the hours before she disappeared.

Wagner wrote in a 2008 memoir that he and Walken had argued that night. He wrote that Walken went to bed and he stayed up for a while, but when he went to bed, he noticed that his wife and a dinghy that had been attached to the yacht, were missing.

As for how Wood fell off the boat, Wagner wrote in his memoir it was “all conjecture. Nobody knows. There are only two possibilities: either she was trying to get away from the argument, or she was trying to tie the dinghy. But the bottom line is that nobody knows exactly what happened.”

Wood and Wagner had two highly publicized marriages, one in 1957 and again in 1972. They were still married at the time of Wood’s death.

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With files from The Associated Press

(‘48 Hours‘ has an upcoming special outlining all of the new details, airing on Sat., Feb. 3 at 10 p.m. ET on CBS. You can see a preview of what’s to come in the video, above.)