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As the new inquiry into the 1981 drowning of Natalie Wood begins, law enforcement experts tell THR that the investigation will rely on improved forensic technology and a more skeptical re-examination of the evidence. “You are looking at it from a different set of assumptions — that something nefarious happened,” says Robert Wittman, a former senior investigator for the FBI. “You are not looking to prove the theory that she fell in, you are looking to prove a homicide.”
Wood was 43 when she died while boating off Catalina Island with husband Robert Wagner and Christopher Walken, her co-star in Brainstorm. Wood’s death was ruled accidental, but on Nov. 17, days before the 30th anniversary of the incident and a CBS News special featuring bombshell allegations by boat captain Dennis Davern, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department reopened the case, citing “substantial” new information.
Criminal experts say the next step might be to reclassify the case as a homicide investigation. “It’s a mind-set of ‘this person died at the hands of another,’ ” says Mark Fuhrman, the former LAPD detective who investigated the Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman murders. “That means there is somebody out there who caused this person’s death.”
Sheriff’s investigators will travel to Hawaii to examine Splendour, the 60-foot yacht that carried Wood, Wagner and Walken on the night she died. Wittman says new forensic tools using infrared lights could uncover evidence like bloodstains. But forensic pathologist Michael Baden cautions that “it would be very hard to find anything new on a boat” that has likely been repainted and refurbished.
At the same time, Sheriff’s Lt. John Corina, lead detective on the case, might seek to interview Wagner, 81, and Walker, 68, though neither is considered a suspect. THR revealed Nov. 18 that Walken has hired attorney Mathew Rosengart, a former federal prosecutor. Wagner has not indicated whether he will be represented by counsel.
At a press conference, Corina declined to say whether Wood’s body, buried in Westwood Memorial Village Park, would be exhumed. Corina also would not address incendiary statements made by Davern, who says he previously lied for Wagner and now claims Wagner is responsible for Wood’s death (he alleges Wagner limited the search effort after Wood went missing).
Davern is pushing a book he co-wrote in 2009, leading some to question the source of the new information. But Radar reports that at least one other witness, Marilyn Wayne, a retired stockbroker who was on a boat 90 feet from the Splendour, has provided investigators with a sworn declaration stating she heard a woman screaming for help from the water and a man’s slurred voice saying, “Hold on, we’re coming to get you.”
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