L.A. County Sheriff Reopens Natalie Wood Case

The Los Angeles County Sheriff is reopening the investigation into the death of Hollywood legend Natalie Wood. She died in 1981 while on a yacht anchored off Catalina Island with her husband Robert Wagner and actor Christopher Walken. At the time, her death was ruled an accidental drowning.

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GUY RAZ, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Guy Raz.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block. Thirty years after the actress Natalie Wood drowned, the investigation into her death has been re-opened.

LIEUTENANT JOHN CORINA: Recently, we have received information, which we felt was substantial enough to make us take another look at this case.

BLOCK: That's Lieutenant John Corina of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. Natalie Wood drowned near Catalina Island, off the coast of Southern California. And as NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates reports, today's news has set off a new round of speculation.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: Natalie Wood charmed audiences as the child who refused to believe in Santa in "Miracle on 34th Street." She went on to have a lustrous career as a young starlet in films like "Rebel Without A Cause" and the musical "West Side Story."

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "WEST SIDE STORY")

NATALIE WOOD: (as Maria) All of you, you all killed him. And my brother and Riff. Not with bullets and guns - with hate.

BATES: Wood and actor Robert Wagner, whom she married twice, were considered young Hollywood royalty. So when Wood drowned while the couple spent a weekend aboard their yacht Splendor, it became national news, as this old CNN tape shows.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: The Los Angeles county coroner tonight says Natalie Wood apparently slipped, hit her head and drowned. The coroner says the 43-year-old actress was legally drunk when she died...

BATES: There's just always been speculation about what happened aboard the Splendor that night: Were the Wagners arguing because Robert was jealous of actor Christopher Walken, who was the couple's guest that weekend? Did anyone hear Wood fall overboard? And why, once she was missing, were alarms not raised immediately? In a new book about that evening, Splendor Captain Dennis Davern claims Wood's body wasn't recovered for hours because Wagner wanted no calls for help. At their press conference today, the L.A. County Sheriff's Department wouldn't say whether Davern's assertions were the catalyst for re-opening the case.

CORINA: People who have remembered things from back then or back then didn't talk to the police and now wanted to tell their story, so already, people are coming forward and want to talk to us.

BATES: Lieutenant John Corina wouldn't say a lot of things, but he was quite definite about one thing.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Is Robert Wagner a suspect?

No.

BATES: Wagner's publicist released a statement late Thursday saying the Wagner family welcomes the re-investigation of Wood's death if the information comes from, quote, "a credible source or sources other than those simply trying to profit from the 30-year anniversary of her tragic death." Meanwhile, the news has revived old clips of Wood throughout her career, including this one. It's from a 1979 American Film Institute tribute to Bette Davis. Wood, who was famously afraid of water, describes how she had a small part in a Davis movie as a child and how she almost didn't get it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

WOOD: And all of a sudden, it turned out that I had to jump off the boat and swim to a faraway raft. So there I was, faced with the threat of being flung into the ocean or losing the part, and I went into hysterics. It must have been heard all the way to Catalina.

BATES: Davis heard Wood then and insisted the swim be cut from the script. Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News.

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