Natalie Wood's Death Investigation 'Open and Ongoing,' Officials Say

1:02 PM PST 07/09/2012 by Daniel Miller
Natalie Wood

A new inquiry in the actress' 1981 drowning began in November.

The new inquiry into the 1981 drowning of Natalie Wood off the coast of Catalina Island is "open and ongoing," according to the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. The case had been ruled an accident three decades ago, but it was reopened in November just days before the 30th anniversary of Wood's death.

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Confirmation that the investigation remains an active probe has surprised some observers because in January a sheriff's department official said that it was highly unlikely any new information would come to light on how the actress died. William McSweeney, chief of detectives for the sheriff's department, told the Los Angeles Times in a Jan. 11 story that no evidence had been uncovered suggesting that Wood's death was not an accident.

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The Hollywood Reporter has been unable to confirm news reports that the Los Angeles County Coroner's Office has filed documents to change the cause of Wood's death from "accident" to "undetermined." TMZ first reported this July 6, and other news outlets followed suit. 

"We have no information on whether that has happened or not," said forensic attendant Julie Bishop of the coroner's office when asked July 6 about the potential change in the stated cause of Wood's death. The coroner's office did not return multiple phone calls seeking comment Monday.

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Wood was 43 when she died while boating off Catalina with husband Robert Wagner and Christopher Walken, her co-star in Brainstorm, which was released in 1983. Wood's death was originally ruled accidental, but on Nov. 17 -- days before a CBS News special featuring allegations by boat captain Dennis Davern that the actress' death came after a fight with Wagner -- the sheriff's department reopened the case, citing "substantial" new information. Wagner, 82, and Walken, 69, are not considered suspects.

The July 6 press release issued by the sheriff's department that confirmed that the case is open offered no details about the direction of the investigation. And officials have been unwilling to discuss the matter. "It's an ongoing investigation, I have no comment," said Steve Whitmore, spokesman for the sheriff's department. 

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In November, investigators said they would travel to Hawaii to examine the Splendour, the 60-foot yacht that carried Wood, Wagner and Walken on the night she died. And sheriff's department Lt. John Corina, lead detective on the case, said at the time that he might seek to interview Wagner and Walken. The outcome of these efforts is unknown.

Some observers, including forensic experts, have viewed the reopening of the case with skepticism. For example, in November, forensic pathologist Michael Baden told THR he was skeptical new information could be found from examining the Splendour. "It would be very hard to find anything new on a boat" that has likely been repainted and refurbished, he said. Last year, Davern had been promoting Goodbye Natalie, Goodbye Splendour, a book about Wood's death that he co-wrote in 2009, leading some to question the source of the new information that surfaced last year. 

Wood was nominated for a best actress Oscar three times, for Rebel Without a Cause, Splendor in the Grass and Love With a Proper Stranger. She also starred in such films as West Side Story, Sex and the Single Girl, Gypsy, The Great Race and Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice.

Email: Daniel.Miller@THR.com

Twitter: @DanielNMiller

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