Riddle of Natalie Wood's final hours

New evidence has prompted LA police to reopen their investigation into the death of the Hollywood star

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The Independent US

It is almost 30 years to the day since the body of Natalie Wood was found bobbing in the sea off the southern California coast, a mile from the yacht she owned with her husband and fellow Hollywood star Robert Wagner.

At the time, police said the death of the 43-year-old actress, one of the most luminous figures of her generation, was a tragic accident. Officers concluded that she fell overboard from the 55ft yacht, Splendour, after a night of heavy drinking and was unable to pull herself to safety.

A coroner's report said Wood, the star of Miracle On 34th Street, Rebel Without A Cause and West Side Story, died from "accidental drowning", weighed down in the water by her nightgown, socks and down jacket. Yet several decades on, questions about the incident have never quite gone away. Why did Wood have an abrasion on her left cheek and 24 bruises on her body when her corpse was discovered? Why did no one on the yacht, which was anchored at Isthmus Cove on Santa Catalina Island, hear her crying for help, as she surely would have done after falling overboard? What took place between Wood, Wagner and their guest, the actor Christopher Walken, before she drowned? And how did Wood, a weak swimmer who often spoke of being terrified of dark water, allow herself to get into harm's way in the first place?

Yesterday, Los Angeles County's sheriff's department once more began trying to solve the mystery. John Corina, a homicide detective, said he had received new information from multiple sources, "which we felt was substantial enough to make us take another look at this case". Asked by reporters if Wagner, now 81, was considered a murder suspect, Corina responded: "No."

One of Mr Corina's "sources" is Dennis Davern, the Splendour's former captain, who was also on board that night and had worked for the couple for many years. He has told detectives he saw Wood and Wagner having a row shortly before she went missing.

Mr Davern made a compelling, if occasionally erratic appearance on NBC's Today programme yesterday morning. He was unwilling to answer detailed questions about the night's events and seemed evasive when asked to explain why he waited for three decades before coming forward with fresh information. But he did admit failing to fully brief investigators after the incident. "I made some terrible decisions and mistakes," he said. "I did lie on a report years ago. I made mistakes by not telling the honest truth in a police report."

In recent years, Mr Davern has attempted to draw public attention to the incident. He has co-operated with both a lengthy Vanity Fair article about Wood's death and an episode of the TV series 48-Hour Mystery which discussed the case. In 2009, he published a memoir, Goodbye Natalie, Goodbye Splendour.

With regard to the alleged row between Wood and Wagner, the co-author of Mr Davern's book, Marti Rulli, told reporters that Wagner was jealous of the attention his spouse was paying to Walken, her co-star in the science-fiction movie Brainstorm, which they were in the middle of filming. At one point in the evening, Ms Rulli claimed, he smashed a wine bottle and yelled at Walken: "What do you want to do – fuck my wife? Is that what you want?"

Walken promptly returned to his cabin, Ms Rulli says. Mr Davern later heard a loud argument between Wagner and Wood on the rear deck, but when he tried to intervene he was told to go away. A short time later, the skipper went to the deck to check the yacht was moored safely, and was told by Wagner: "Natalie is missing." Walken, now 68, declined invitations to comment on the renewed interest in the case.

Wagner, meanwhile, said he approved of the decision to re-open the investigation. A statement issued by his publicity team last night said: "Although no one in the Wagner family has heard from the LA County sheriff's department about this matter, they fully support the efforts of the sheriff's department and trust they will evaluate whether any new information relating to the death of Natalie Wood Wagner is valid and that it comes from a credible source or sources other than those simply trying to profit from the 30-year anniversary of her tragic death."

Natalie Wood was born Natalia Nikolaevna Zakharenko to Russian immigrants in San Francisco in 1938. She shot to fame as a child in the 1947 Christmas movie Miracle On 34th Street, went on to appear in 56 films and was nominated for three Oscars before she turned 25.

Her first marriage to Wagner, who currently appears in the television series NCIS, lasted six years, before they divorced in 1953. They remarried nine years later and became one of the most prominent Hollywood power couples of the era.

In his 2008 autobiography, Wagner admitted that he had argued with his wife on the night she died. He suggested that she may have drowned while subsequently attempting to flee the Splendour on a small dinghy moored to its side.

"Did I blame myself? If I had been there, I could have done something," he wrote. "But I wasn't there. I didn't see her. The bottom line is that nobody knows exactly what happened."