1981 Findings in Natalie Wood Case Called Into Question

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Rafu Staff and Wire Reports

The former captain of the boat from which actress Natalie Wood drowned in 1981 said today he believes actor Robert Wagner, her husband at the time, was responsible for her death off the coast of Santa Catalina Island nearly 30 years ago.

Dennis Davern spoke in an interview on NBC’s “Today” one day after the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department announced it was reopening the investigation into Wood’s death, which followed a night of heavy drinking. The renewed investigation is being led by sheriff’s homicide Lt. John Corina, who scheduled a news conference at the sheriff’s Monterey Park headquarters on Friday to discuss the case.

Wood was with Wagner and actor friend Christopher Walken, Wood’s co-star in the movie “Brainstorm,” on a Thanksgiving sailing trip on Nov. 29, 1981, when she perished in what then-Los Angeles County Coroner Thomas Noguchi ruled an accident.

“It was not a homicide. It was not a suicide. It was an accident,” the flamboyant medical examiner said at the time, asserting that the 43-year-old actress, known for such movies as “West Side Story” and “Rebel Without a Cause,” had a blood-alcohol level of 0.14 percent following “much recreational drinking.”

Noguchi said that Wood had slipped while trying to enter a dinghy and drowned, and that bruises on her left cheek were consistent with the theory that she fell and struck the yacht as she went into the water.

Nicknamed “Coroner to the Stars,” Noguchi is known for having performed autopsies on such celebrities as actress Marilyn Monroe, presidential candidate Sen. Robert Kennedy, actress Sharon Tate (one of the victims in the Charles Manson murders), actor William Holden, rock star Janis Joplin and comedian/actor John Belushi. He served as chief medical examiner from 1967 to 1982, authored a best-selling memoir, “Coroner,” and is said to have been the inspiration for the TV series “Quincy, M.E.”

An attempt to reach Noguchi for comment was unsuccessful.

Davern, and his ghost writer, Marti Rulli, wrote a book in 2008 entitled “Goodbye Natalie, Goodbye Splendour.” It suggests foul play may have led to Wood’s demise and provides lurid details about drug and alcohol use by the actors the night of the incident. “Splendour” refers to the name of the boat that Wood, Wagner and Walken were on.

Assistant Chief Coroner Ed Winter said the agency hadn’t been asked to do any additional investigation into Wood’s case.

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