Police Say Media Interest Prompted New Inquiry Into Natalie Wood Death

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A “48 Hours” investigation helped accelerate Sheriff Department’s decision to re-open the investigation nearly 30 years after actress’s death

Media attention surrounding the drowning death of actress Natalie Wood nearly 30 years ago played a key role in Los Angeles County Sheriff Department's decision to officially reopen the case on Friday, TheWrap has learned.

"Increasing news media attention likely is what caused more than one person to recently come forward with several pieces of new information," Lt. John Corina told TheWrap on Saturday morning. He said that a two-year-old book by captain Dennis Davern and co-author Marti Rulli did not “have an impact in the decision.”

Police decided to reopen the investigation just as CBS producers were closing out a “48 Hours” program spotlighting Wood’s death that was originally intended to air Nov. 26. Since then the captain for Wood and husband Robert Wagner’s boat has gone on the interview circuit, and CBS has moved the program up to Saturday night.

Also read: Detective in Natalie Wood Case Insists Her Death Was an Accident (Video)

Police, meanwhile, are talking with the current owner of the Splendour in Hawaii.

It’s a fast-moving story sparked by a 10-year-old article in Vanity Fair that is the basis for the “48 Hours” investigation. The magazine, which tied a special edition about Hollywood scandal to the CBS program, quickly took credit for its role in the reopened investigation. But the “48 Hours” program seems to have really accelerated the process.

Also read: CBS Juggles Robert Wagner as Suspect on 'NCIS' … and Himself on '48 Hours'

"We're grateful for the opportunity to drive the discussion and motivate the L.A. County Sheriff's Department to take a second look," "48 Hours" executive producer Susan Zirinsky told TheWrap during a break from the editing room Saturday afternoon, where they were rushing to prepare the segment for air.  

At the very least, she believes their impending show compelled the Sheriff's Department to hurriedly announce the new investigation — which, in turn, compelled "48 Hours" to move things up by a week.

Also read: Sheriff's Department: Robert Wagner 'Not a Suspect' in Natalie Wood's Death (Updated)

Zirinsky said that as of Tuesday, “48 Hours” was prepared to report that “the L.A. County Sheriff's Department was looking at the material and they would decide, based on their assessment, whether or not they would reopen the case.

"On Wednesday, we were clarifying and checking in again, because we were doing the final post-production on the show that would air Thanksgiving weekend — and they flagged us and said, 'Well, you know what, you don't have to say 'looking at it to assess.' Call it 'opened'."  

Explosive allegations about the actress's death have been out in the open for two years — ever since Davern, the captain of her ill-fated voyage, collaborated on tell-all book “Goodbye Natalie, Goodbye Splendour” with Rulli. Both figure prominently in the "48 Hours" piece.

Zirinsky said that a big part of what drove the "48 Hours" segment and, she believes, the police's willingness to take another look at things has been the petitioning organized by a Washington, D.C.-based attorney who has been "obsessed" with gathering facts about the case.

Some come from Davern, the only person on the ill-fated boat that night besides Wood, her husband, and actor Christopher Walken. Wood's co-star in "Brainstorm" was, by all accounts, asleep in his quarters before and during Wood's initial disappearance.

But there are other, more tangential witnesses, like Marilyn Wayne, whose boat was moored nearby Wood's and Wagner's craft. She has long been cited as someone who said she heard the cries of a woman screaming she was drowning, followed by the voice of a man saying help was coming — in contrast to the official conclusion that Wood had slipped into the water, unknown to anyone on the boat.

Also read: Natalie Wood's Yacht Captain: I Was Loaded When She Disappeared

The "48 Hours" segment also includes an interview with the EMT who examined Wood's body when it was finally found, more than six hours after her disappearance, and said that "rigor mortis had not totally set in," says Zirinsky. "That meant she was in the water for a long time before she perished. His theory is that had someone called for a search right away, they could have saved her. This guy breaks down and says '30 years later, I'm still having a problem with this'."

The Davern/Rulli book of two years ago puts the blame on Wagner, for, at best, not having called for a search earlier, and, at worst, more sinister accusations having to do with domestic violence that allegedly took place before Wood disappeared that night.

Corina said Friday  that Wagner was not a suspect.

In another media twist, the actor will appear this week on "NCIS," playing a character that gets arrested after a body is discovered in the trunk of the car he is driving.   

Wagner has been one of the most popular annually recurring guest stars on "NCIS," playing the lovable-scoundrel father of Michael Weatherly's character. Individuals with knowledge of the situation tell TheWrap that there was some discussion about airing these spots after Friday's news, but there was no way to re-cut a commercial that didn't involve Wagner's crucial character — "and anyway, the sheriff said he's not a suspect."

CBS spokesman Chris Ender told TheWrap on Saturday: "The episode is running as scheduled."

The network now finds itself in the odd position of promoting a popular drama starring Wagner and a documentary in which insinuations are made about his actions three decades ago.

Davern has told versions of his tale to tabloids as far back as the mid-‘80s, after falling out with longtime buddy and sometimes-roommate Robert Wagner. Included in his version of the story was the tale of Wagner's open jealousy over his wife's friendship with Walken, and his overhearing the sounds of a physically violent dispute in their bedroom.

But not until the two-year-old book, which slipped under most of the media radar until now, did Davern go so far to say that he’d seen Wagner and Wood outside on the deck just prior to Wagner reporting her missing. Of course, the fact that everyone on board was apparently drunk that night — including, by his own admission, Davern — may have contributed to law enforcement dragging their feet on giving the allegations credence,

Davern says in his book that Wagner asked him to identify the body, and when he first saw Wood's corpse, his thought was, “Water doesn’t cause bruises like that.”

Wood’s death in the predawn hours of Nov. 29, 1981 was the tragic conclusion to what much of the public and entertainment industry considered a near-fairytale marriage – even though the couple had been through one tumultuous divorce in the ‘60s before wedding for a second time in the ‘70s.

Born in 1938, Wood made her first on-screen appearance as a child actress when she was 5. At the ripe old age of 9, she thoroughly captivated the American public, as the Santa-suspicious pre-teen in “Miracle on 34th Street.”

In 1955, “Rebel Without a Cause” provided her entrée to adult roles – and decidedly adult relationships, too, as she had a romance with the film’s director, Nicholas Ray. “Rebel” earned her the first of her three Oscar nominations. She subsequently got nods for “Splendor in the Grass” in 1961, playing opposite Warren Beatty in a role that ended her first marriage to Wagner, and “Love With a Proper Stranger” in 1963.

“West Side Story” didn’t win her any Oscar glory, possibly because her singing voice was dubbed by Marni Nixon, but the 1961 musical gave her arguably her most enduringly popular role, if the full house that turned out for the film’s re-premiere at Grauman’s Chinese just last week is any indication.

Wagner, eight years older than Wood, was a movie heartthrob when they met. The couple first wed in 1957, a year after their first date, and separated four years later, at which point each quickly was linked to other partners – Beatty, in Wood’s case.

Both partners wed others and had children before they came back together and married for a second time in July 1972.

Wagner had a succession of hit TV shows: “It Takes a Thief,” in 1968, “Switch,” beginning in 1975, and most famously, “Hart to Hart.” That series boosted his stardom to new levels with a long run that started in ’79, two years before Wood’s death.

At that point, he would have had little reason to feel professionally insecure, with Wood having worked less in the late ‘70s, despite still being renowned as one of the world’s most beautiful women. The film she was shooting at the time of her death, Douglas Trumbull’s sci-fi drama “Brainstorm,” was to be a sort of comeback.

Rumors have long swirled about romantic entanglements that might have led to a fateful argument: Did Wagner interrupt a tender moment between his wife and Walken? Did Wood walk in on a tryst between Walken and her husband?

In the book he co-authored, Davern shoots down all of the sexually provocative theories that have come up since 1981, on his way to getting at just what kind of violence he says he saw and overheard that night.

According to Davern, Wood did sleep with another man in a motel room on Catalina the night before she died. But it was Davern himself, not Walken, and it was purely non-sexual.

Following a heated argument over Wagner’s desire to move the boat 10 miles in the dead of night, Wagner and Wood both agreed that the upset actress should spend the rest of the night ashore, so the captain drove Wagner to Avalon on a dinghy and protectively spent the night with her, he says.

But that was the veritable calm before the storm, compared to the blowout that Davern and his co-author describe happening the following night. Wood was getting platonically cozy with Walken, and even though Davern says there was no affair, he thinks Wagner mistook her enthusiasm for her “Brainstorm” co-star with romantic infatuation.

Wagner suddenly broke a half-full wine bottle over a table, in the captain’s account, and shouted: “So, what do you want to do to my wife? Do you want to f— my wife? Is that what you want?”

On Friday, Davern repeated the story in interviews with media. 

The book states that, after a long silence, a shaken Walken retired to his quarters “without a word,” and Wagner said he was going to apologize. During a long contretemps that Davern says he could only hear, not see, Wagner allegedly yelled words to the effect of “You can leave the f—ing boat.”

Davern then alleges that he glimpsed Wagner and Wood together outside on the boat, with the actress in the skimpy clothing she was later found drowned in – a nightgown, a red down jacket, and a pair of socks – just prior to Wagner announcing that he’d been looking for his missing wife.

All this was at odds with the official accounts, of course, that led then-coroner Thomas Noguchi to soon declare Wood’s death an accidental drowning.

At the time, Noguchi theorized that Wood must have untied the dinghy, slipped, hit her head, and fell into the water.

Years later, in his memoir, “Coroner,” Noguchi went with a different theory: that the dinghy banging against the boat had disturbed her sleep, so she’d gone to secure it more tightly, only to fall into the sea. She clung to the dinghy, the coroner suggested, but had been unable to pull herself onto it because of the weight of the down jacket.

He theorized that she tried to kick her way to shore while holding on, making it to within 200 yards of the island before succumbing to hypothermia.

But Davern insists Noguchi's book was off-base, saying he'd pulled the dinghy's mooring tight enough that Wood — who had a known phobia about nighttime water — would have had no reason to fiddle with the ropes, even if she'd been less frightened by the ocean.

The Sheriff's Department has suggested they have witnesses or sources to re-interview, though, with everyone agreeing that Walken was asleep, it would come down to Davern’s word against Wagner’s, if police pursue that avenue.

The woman who heard cries from a nearby boat, Marilyn Wayne, says in the "48 Hours" segment that she was never extensively questioned by police — although the show will point out that her name does show up in reports from 1981.

As for whether the current investigation would be moving forward if "48 Hours" hadn't pressed the issue, Zirinsky is unsure whether to be humble or take credit. 

"If that's us, we welcome that role."