Natalie Wood autopsy not enough evidence to show homicide, sources say
Despite new revelations about the death of Natalie Wood contained in an autopsy report released Monday, Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department sources said detective are far from ready to classify the case as a homicide.
The coroner's review found that the actress had several fresh bruises and scratches on her arm, wrist and neck that likely occurred before she landed in the Pacific Ocean and drowned.
One law enforcement source told The Times that detectives have been reexamining the case for more than a year and have gathered new evidence. But the evidence still leaves the death as "undetermined," said the source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the case was ongoing.
“This remains an ongoing investigation,” said Steve Whitmore, the Los Angeles County sheriff’s spokesman. “Yes this is a revelation to the public but this report was written in June 2012.”A sheriff's spokesman said his department has known the contents of the new autopsy for some time.
Whitmore said the Wood investigation became active again in November 2011 when the department received new information and the department asked the coroner to reexamine the case as part of that ongoing investigation.
“As in any death investigation, they remain ongoing until they reach a conclusion,” Whitmore said.
The new report, which was released on Monday, said that it could not verify that those injuries were caused by a fall off a dinghy or attempt to climb back into the boat, which has long been the theory of how she died on Nov. 29, 1981, off Catalina Island.
The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department re-opened the case in November 2011 and the coroner later changed the cause of death from accidental to drowning and other undetermined factors.
In supporting that change, Dr. Lakshmanan Sathyavagiswaran filed a supplemental report dated June 15, 2012, that found that Wood died shortly after she entered the water.
"The location of the bruises, the multiplicity of the bruises, lack of head trauma, or facial bruising support bruising having occurred prior to the entry into the water," the supplemental report states.
"Since there are many unanswered questions and limited additional evidence available for evaluation, it is opined by this Medical Examiner that the manner of death should be left as undetermined."
The original dinghy could not be examined for scratches and no nail clippings from Wood were kept to be examined further, leaving new investigators unable to confirm that the actress might have been injured by the boat.
The coroner's report also found there were conflicting statements as to when Wood went missing and whether she argued with her husband, Robert Wagner.
The coroner estimates, based on her stomach contents, that she died about midnight. The first report of her missing came at 1:30 a.m. on Nov. 29, 1981, according to the report.
The coroner said he could not rule out "non-volitional, unplanned entry into the water."At the time of her death, officials ruled that Wood's drowning death while boating off Santa Catalina Island was an accident, but speculation remained.
On Thanksgiving weekend 1981, Wagner and Wood had invited actor Christopher Walken to be their guest on Catalina aboard their boat, the Splendour. On the evening of Nov. 28, they had dinner and drinks at Doug's Harbor Reef. They returned to the boat and continued to drink until a heated argument erupted between the two men.
Wagner told The Times in 2008 that the argument concerned how much of one's personal life should be sacrificed in pursuit of one's career; he was upset that Walken was advocating that Wood give her all to her art, even at the expense of her husband and children.
Wood left to go to the master cabin's bathroom. Wagner says he and Walken eventually calmed down and said good night. When he went to bed, he says, Wood wasn't there. It is believed that the yacht's dinghy had come loose and that Wood came up on deck to tie it up.
"I have gone over it so many millions of times with people. Nobody heard anything," Wagner told The Times in 2008.
-- Richard Winton and Andrew Blankstein