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The mystery surrounding Natalie Wood’s death is back in the spotlight, and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department is giving it “one last shot” to solve the case.
The department held a press conference Monday morning in Los Angeles to update the public on what they know about the death of Wood, who drowned off the coast of Catalina Island on Nov. 29, 1981. The press conference opened with Capt. Christopher Bergner, who said that the department reopened the investigation into Wood’s death in 2011 and it remains a “suspicious circumstances death.”
As a result of their efforts, new witnesses were identified in 2011 and 2012, and thus, detectives were able to piece together a timeline of the weekend’s events prior to Wood’s death. “I’d like to thank the witnesses that came forward and reached out to the general public who have firsthand knowledge of that night,” Bergner offered.
It was clear by the end of the press conference that the latter sentiment was one of the main objectives for addressing the media — the department is hoping more people come forward with information about the case. He then introduced Lt. John Corina, who revealed that after the first and only press conference about the case, held in 2011, more than 100 people came forward with claims of having information about the case. “People wanted to get involved and tell us what they knew,” said Corina.
People continued to come forward until “about a year and a half ago,” with tips trickling in over that time. More recently, Corina added, the department was approached by CBS to revisit the case. “We thought it was a good idea to let everyone know where we’re at,” he said.
Among the new witnesses were people who knew Wood and her husband Robert Wagner, people on the island or people near the boat that night. “As the investigation progressed, we’ve re-created the timeline, and [Wagner] was the last person on the boat with her,” Corina said, noting that Wagner remains a “person of interest.” “We’re closer to understanding what happened.”
“We would love to talk to Robert Wagner,” Corina explained, adding that the actor’s story doesn’t “add up to what we’ve found.”
The central question has always been why Wood, one of the biggest movie stars of the time, would attempt to get in a dingy on her own, in the dark, only wearing pajamas and socks, to head into town after what witnesses describe was a loud fight with Wagner.
“We want to find out how she went into the water,” Corina said. “Was she unconscious and put in the water? Or did she accidentally fall in the water?”
Without Wagner’s help, they may never know. “We can never force him to talk to us. He has rights and he can not talk to us if he doesn’t want to,” Corina said.
He claimed that Wagner’s story has changed over the years, and said that Wagner did not immediately attempt to look for her once he determined that she was not on the boat.
Corina said that his department has reached out to Wagner “two or three times,” either to him or through his lawyer. “He’s refused to talk to us,” he said.
Corina explained several times that the case remains a “suspicious death investigation” and not a murder investigation. “We’re not pressing charges on anyone,” he said. “We’re still trying to figure out what happened.”
Aside from Wagner’s refusal to speak, Corina said they are facing another foe: time.
Witnesses have passed away, as has the original investigator assigned to the case. “Time is our biggest enemy here,” he said. “We’re doing our last shot here to see if anyone else will come forward,” Corina continued. “When all the tips dry up, we’ll move on to the next case.”
Last week, investigators told CBS News that Wagner is a person of interest, saying that they want to speak with the actor about the circumstances surrounding Wood’s death.
“As we’ve investigated the case over the last six years, I think he’s more of a person of interest now,” Corina told CBS of Wagner. “I mean, we know now that he was the last person to be with Natalie before she disappeared.”
Wood drowned after she went missing from Splendour, her family’s yacht. Wood, Wagner, Christopher Walken and yacht captain Dennis Davern were all on board the night before Wood was found floating in the water wearing a red down jacket and flannel nightgown. The death was originally ruled an accident, following a two-week investigation, but in 2011, the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department reopened the death investigation, and a year later the L.A. coroner’s office amended Wood’s death certificate to change the manner of death from accidental drowning to “drowning and other undetermined factors.” Wood’s autopsy revealed fresh bruises that, as Det. Ralph Hernandez told CBS, may have made her “the victim of an assault.”
There have long been rumors of foul play surrounding Wood’s death. Wagner and Davern’s shifting accounts of what happened the night Wood, famously terrified of dark water, went missing, have raised red flags for investigators.
But Wagner has refused to talk to investigators, and Corina told CBS that he doesn’t think the actor has told the whole story.
“I haven’t seen him tell the details that match all the other witnesses in this case,” said Corina. “I think he’s constantly changed his story a little bit. And his version of events just don’t add up.” Walken has spoken with police.
Investigators told CBS that they haven’t yet been able to prove that Wood’s death was a homicide, nor can they prove it was an accident.
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