Rafu Wire and Staff Reports
Natalie Wood’s manner of death was changed from “accidental” to “undetermined” in her file at the Los Angeles County Coroner’s Office, according to a supplemental report about the actress’ drowning while spending Thanksgiving weekend with husband Robert Wagner and friend Christopher Walken.
Injuries found on the 43-year-old actress’ arm, wrist and neck, initially attributed to Wood trying to climb into an inflatable dinghy, probably occurred before she fell into the chilly water about midnight on Nov. 29, 1981, according to the latest report, which was dated June 15 and released Jan. 14.
Wood likely died shortly after going into the water. The official cause of death, drowning, was essentially unchanged but referred to “drowning and other undetermined factors,” coroner’s Assistant Chief Ed Winter said.
“How (the) injury occurred will be listed as found floating in ocean,” the coroner’s supplemental report stated. “Circumstances not clearly established.”
Sheriff’s spokesman Steve Whitmore said his department has been aware of the coroner’s supplemental report “for a long, long time … and there is nothing new to us.”
When asked if foul play was suspected in the death, Whitmore would say only, “This is an ongoing investigation.”
Wood disappeared and died after a boozy, testy night in which Wagner and Walken argued, and Wagner smashed a bottle of wine.
Sheriff’s detectives reopened the case in the fall of 2011 and asked the coroner’s office to review its case.
As part of his re-evaluation, Los Angeles County Coroner Dr. Lakshmanan Sathyavagiswaran met with former coroner Dr. Thomas Noguchi, who conducted Wood’s autopsy in 1981.
Michael Baden, a former New York medical examiner who has testified in high-profile trials, told The Los Angeles Times that the amended coroner’s report raises questions about the initial investigation: “[Sathyavagiswaran] knows in saying this, he is criticizing Dr. Noguchi and the office back in 1981. And he doesn’t like to criticize other people, I can tell you.”
Noguchi, who has declined media requests for comment, was known during his tenure as “coroner to the stars.” He also conducted the autopsies of Marilyn Monroe (as a junior medical examiner), Sharon Tate, Robert Kennedy, Janis Joplin, William Holden and John Belushi, among others, which he wrote about in his best-selling memoir, “Coroner” (1983). Noguchi was said to be the inspiration for the TV series “Quincy,” which starred Jack Klugman as a medical examiner who solves murders.
In a March 2, 2012, meeting with sheriff’s detectives, Sathyavagiswaran “discussed his evaluation of the case and (his) concern for non-accidental mechanism for certain bruises of the upper extremities” of Wood’s body.
“He also opined that there was no evidence of head trauma and that the bruises especially in the upper extremities appeared fresh and could have occurred before she entered the water,” the report stated.
In April 2012, the Sheriff’s Department asked the chief medical examiner-coroner to formalize his findings into the form of a report.
When they announced the reopening of the investigation into Wood’s death, sheriff’s officials said their investigators had been contacted by several people who claimed to have new information.
That information apparently came courtesy of the captain of the yacht that Wood was aboard with husband Robert Wagner and actor Christopher Walken the weekend she died. Capt. Dennis Davern and his ghost writer, Marti Rulli, wrote a book titled “Goodbye Natalie, Goodbye Splendour” — a reference to the name of the yacht.
The book suggested that foul play may have led to Wood’s demise, noting that drugs and alcohol were being used by the actors on the boat, and that Wood and Wagner got into an extended heated argument the night she disappeared.
Wagner said he assumed Wood had left the yacht using a small inflatable boat, because she had done so before.
When she failed to return after about 15 minutes, Wagner went to look for her but couldn’t find her, the actor said. Her body was found about a mile away from the yacht and a dinghy was found beached nearby.
The section of the coroner’s supplemental report titled “discussion and opinion by the current chief medical examiner-coroner” said, in part:
— “There are conflicting statements as to when the decedent went missing from the boat and whether there were verbal arguments between the decedent and her husband.”
— “With the presence of fresh bruises in the upper extremities of the right forearm/left wrist area and a small scratch in the anterior neck, this examiner is unable to exclude non-accidental mechanism causing these injuries.”
— “This medical examiner is unable to exclude non-volitional, unplanned entry into the water.”
— “Since there are many unanswered questions and limited additional evidence available for evaluation, it is opined by this medical examiner that the manner of death should be left as undetermined.”