Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Still Doesn't Float, LA Coroner contradicts LA Coroner

L.A. County Coroner changes Natalie Wood's Cause of Death
Citing bruises found on the actress' body, the medical examiner questions the original findings and revises the cause from an accident to "drowning and other undetermined factors".  (January 14, 2013, 7:28PM).
Investigators looking into Natalie Wood's death in 1981 believed that she had fallen off the yacht on which she, Robert Wagner and Christopher Walken were staying and struggled to pull herself into this rubber dinghy. (Los Angeles Times)
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.
Wood and 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.


katie8753 said...

Starship thanks for the thread. I saw this on the news yesterday. This case just won't be forgotten, and rightly so.

I've always thought that Natalie was killed. There are too many conflicting stories regarding what happened. Supposedly, Wagner & Walken were arguing because Wagner was jealous. Natalie & Walken were making a movie and he thought they were getting too close.

The ship's captain brought this out about a year ago.

katie8753 said...

Natalie was deathly afraid of the water. Why would she try to go out in the dinghy? That doesn't make sense. If she wanted to leave the yacht she could easily have had the captain take her to shore.

Matt said...

People take unreasonable risks when they are drunk and upset. Under normal circumstances maybe she doesn't overcome the fear of water but on this night she is too bombed to make a rational decision.

Unknown said...

I read somewhere that she had a phobia of water as she almost drowned as a little girl.

katie8753 said...

That could be true Matt, but I think it depends on the severity of the phobia. I don't know what the severity of Natalie's phobia of water was, but I think it was pretty acute as it was mentioned by several people after her death.

I believe Natalie's sister Lana also believes her death was not an accident. I remember when all this happened in 1981 and I think it caused a big riff between Natalie's family and Robert Wagner.

I remember when he started seeing Jill St. John and I always had the uneasy feeling that they got involved too soon after Natalie's death. Not that it had anything to do with it, but rather I thought that with a sudden death situation like this, the period of mourning would be longer.

I'm not saying I think Wagner killed her, I'm just saying that her death could possibly have been more than just accidental.

katie8753 said...

Natalie was filming Brainstorm at the time of her death, which is ironic because the subject matter of the movie has to do with experiments which allow someone to "get into someone else's brain" and experience what that person is experiencing, including the ultimate experience...death.

Here is a link to the synopsis:


I've seen this movie and since Natalie died during filming, they had to change the ending to leave her out. It's pretty noticeable and eerie.

Unknown said...

If She was so afraid of Water and drowning what was she doing on a Boat in the first place?
I always found Robert Wagner creepy for some reason that I can't explain.

LynyrdSkynyrdBand said...

She was a really beautiful woman.
That's all I've got... LOL!

Well that... and it certainly looks "suspicious".
That's the beginning and end, of my expertise on this subject. : )

Unknown said...

Creepier than Walken...and Walken is Creepy!

katie8753 said...

Matt that's a good question. If Natalie was that afraid of water, why even own a yacht?

And I also thought it was strange that it was just those 3 on the yacht (not counting the captain). If Wagner was convinced that his wife and Walken were "fooling around" why invite the guy on his boat?

And yes Walken is beyond creepy. B.C. LOL.

Bobby I used to watch Hart to Hart too. I just never considered Wagner that good looking. He did have an creepazoid element to him too. And I'm not an "anti-dentite". HA HA.

katie8753 said...

Lynyrd, Natalie WAS very beautiful. People say that Sharon Tate was the most beautiful woman in the world, but I think Natalie was more beautiful than she was.

She had a perky, smart personality. If you've watched any of her earlier movies her personality and quick smile are almost addictive.

It was a sad day when I heard she died.

Unknown said...

katie8753 said... If Wagner was convinced that his wife and Walken were "fooling around" why invite the guy on his boat?
Maybe He wanted to have a 'private Chat' about the situation

katie8753 said...

Matt, that's what I was thinking. Maybe it's the old "keep your friends close, but your enemies closer" thing.

I've read accounts that Wagner argued with Walken, and also with Natalie.

It's just like the TLB saga. Lots of theories, legends and "he said, she said" stuff.

Unknown said...

It was a fear of dark water,tiny correction on my part.

katie8753 said...

Thanks Lauren.

We haven't touched on the fact that Noguchi was the coroner in this case, and now it's been thrown back in his face.

I have a feeling that due to the celebrity status of this case, it was shoved under the carpet, much as Paul Bern's death was ruled a suicide, even though it was questionable.

Noguchi's not commenting as yet....

LynyrdSkynyrdBand said...

Some related reading, on a really cool blog. LOL


starship said...

Thanks, Lynyrd...excellent job putting this post together.

A couple of follow ups: Yesterday after this broke I pulled out my copy of the Noguchi book, CORONER and again read the chapter on Natalie Wood. Noguchi did not do the autopsy himself, but claims he supervised it. The bruises are noted but not exactly as they have been referred to in the recent reports. Noguchi mentions a scrape on her cheek which he believes she got when she fell into the water, scraping her face on the side of the dingy. The other bruises to him were consistent with her trying to repeatedly climb aboard the dingy as she quickly floated away from the harbor because of a wind funnel effect created by Catalina Island.

When found, she was wearing a heavy red overcoat which contributed to her death by sapping her strength quickly. Noguchi wonders why she wouldn't have removed it, but she was really drunk...his findings was that she was at a bca of 0.14 at the time of her death and believed it would have been much higher when she first entered the water.

Noguchi had an employee investigator whose boat was moored right in front of the Wagner/Wood boat. He confirms Wagner called for help at 1:15am. The weather was crappy too, raining.

There was a loud party, either on the shore or on another boat with loud music blaring out on the harbor. Two people, only one mentioned by name, heard a woman's voice calling for help, but said the cries were answered by people at the party saying, 'don't worry, we're coming to get you' So they didn't worry about it.

Also, Noguchi says that NW did not have a fear of the water as she was often seen jetting around between shore and the yacht by herself on the dingy...even that very day.

Apparently they all were very jolly at the bar for dinner...drank lots of champagne. The guy who ran the bar was worried they would make it back safely and called the harbor patrol to have them check on them.

No mention at all about the skipper being on the boat....

And finally, at this point from what I've gathered, the new report truly only cites that the bruises might be consistent with an assault and not an accident. So it may be much ado about nothing unless the investigation turns up something new.

katie8753 said...

Starship thanks for the info.

This case, like the TLB case, is so full of conflicting facts.

Noguchi states that Natalie wasn't afraid of the water, but yet it was mentioned multiple times at the time of her death that she was in fact afraid of the water and couldn't swim.

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.

If Wagner did call in at 1:30am for help, why did Smith not get the call until after 5am?

starship said...

Yes, interesting....

Noguchi says that witness testimony points to it's just a myth that she was afraid of the water because of thedingy thing....Dark water? That may be another issue.

I caught that about Roger Smith too. Noguchi has it that his man on staff, Paul Miller heard Wagner's radio call that someone was missing with the dingy slightly after 1:30am. Don Whiting, the night manager of the bar also heard the radio call and that 30 minutes later a fuul force search was being conducted by private boats, Harbor Patrol, and Coast Guard helicopters. NW body was found at 7:30am.

starship said...

oops, I meant slightly after 1:15 am....

starship said...

Not for nothin, but Noguchi's book is copyright 1983.

Roger Smith might be thinking back over 32 years....

katie8753 said...

From what I've been reading about Natalie Wood, I believe she had a pathological fear of water due to an accident while filming "The Green Promise" in 1949 when she was 11. There was an accident on the set and she was thrown into a river by accident and nearly drowned.


The incident was kept a secret from the press and Natalie's mother didn't threaten the producers with a lawsuit because she believed if you sued a studio, you were blacklisted in the industry and would never work again. Still, the incident left Wood with a pathological fear of water that would haunt her the rest of her life.

I really think this is an important part of this case.

MrPoirot said...

Yea Katie she got tossed in a river but it was a young Robert Wagner that tossed her.

katie8753 said...

Mr. P!!! I've missed you!!! You funny rascal!!!


Venus said...

I noticed the comment about why would Natalie be ona boat if she was afraid of the water. I've done a lot of research into this case (I'm a Natalie fan) and she had said (although this probably isn't an exact quote) that she liked being by the water, or on a boat, but didn't like being IN water. That's the difference.

Katie, I also remember when RJ started dating Jill and thought it was a bit soon after natalie's death. Everyone grieves in different ways, but it still seemed like he recovered from his grief pretty quickly.

I've never thought that her death was quite so "accidental." They all were drinking that night. Could the men have gotten into a fight, Natalie tried to break it up and she got knocked overboard and they didn't notice?

Natalie and RJ were seen (and heard) arguing by the captain, Dennis Davern. This was right before she disappeared which seems to be a bit convenient.

"Inside Edition" had a story about this the other day and the police said RJ was not cooperating. He said he had nothing new to add to the story. That makes no sense. If it'd help solve the case, why not cooperate? Or does he have something to hide?

Katie, I'm with you. While I think Sharon Tate was beautiful, I think Natalie was prettier. And so tiny!!!!! I saw one of her dresses on display (the black one from "The Gereat Race") and could NOT believe how little it was.

Muirmaiden said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Muirmaiden said...

I've believed for many years now that her death was at the very least, negligent homicide. Robert Wagner delayed searching for her - he confirmed that when the police asked him why he hadn't reported her missing and contacted the Coast Guard right after he claimed he noticed she was missing. (He waited at least two hours, and then asked them to "keep it low key" - odd response for a man whose wife is missing of a boat in the middle of the night, especially given her fear of drowning and dark water). Wagner now is tripping over all the lies and inconsistencies he has told all these years. And here's the latest: he's hired a criminal lawyer. He knows he's in trouble. It's obvious that he never thought he'd have to answer for what he did. If he was so supportive of the re-opening of the investigation, why has he refused to cooperate? Why didn't he press for a fuller investigation back in 1981?

Wagner was seen with Jill St. John in public ten weeks after Natalie's death. He tries to claim that it was six months later, but Jill herself has said that Valentine's Day is their most sentimental anniversary, and it was on Valentine's Day 1982 that they first appeared in public together. Just a little too coincidental, wouldn't you say?

Wagner robbed Natalie of her life, leaving her to die in the element that she feared most - water. He robbed her daughters of their mother, and has continually tried to twist things around so that Natalie's sister Lana Wood couldn't get work in the industry. She sees through him so he does whatever he can to discredit her, and that can be see in the book biography of Natalie by Gavin Lambert which he sanctioned, as long as it was written his way. He was a jealous husband, he didn't want Natalie to go back to work full-time. When they were married the first time, she was the star and a respected actress, he was just a pretty boy who had made a few good films. He was never in her league - he was a TV star later but he never was an actor of Natalie's caliber.

I hope he will be exposed, it's long overdue. Natalie deserves justice and people deserve to know the truth.

Venus said...

I couldn't have said it better myself!

Muirmaiden said...

Venus, I knew you'd agree! Great minds think alike!

Wagner really thinks that he's above the law. People were walking around him on eggshells for years, as if he was still some grieving widower. Notice he never really pays tribute to Natalie. He moved on without a backward glance. I hope Lana Wood finally can confront him with everything he has robbed her of. I feel bad for Natalie's daughters because I know they love him but they need to know the truth.

Venus said...

Let's just hope the truth does finally come out!! Natalie deserves to be able to rest in peace.

chris said...

Natalie Wood was a movie star, She would never have gone onto shore on another boat dressed in a nightgown and wool socks, which is how she was found. Anyone who believed Wager saying he thought she went to shore was gullible as hell. It was raining, it was dark, She was afraid of dark water, Wagner more than likely pushed her and untied the dingy. Davern said he heard Wagner yell'get off my fucking boat." If this remark of Davern's is true, that statement of Wagner's in itself says it all. He was responsible for Natalie's death whether her death was intentional or not.