Investigators reopened the case of Natalie Wood's 1981 death in 2011

By Elaine Aradillas
February 05, 2018 01:49 PM

It has been nearly four decades since Hollywood icon Natalie Wood was found dead in the water near Santa Catalina Island off the California coast — but the question of how she got there remains unanswered.

Wood’s body was found floating in the water on Nov. 29, 1981, after she disappeared from the Splendour yacht, on which she was spending Thanksgiving weekend with her husband Robert Wagner and Christopher Walken, her co-star in the movie Brainstorm.

Initially, law enforcement officials classified Wood’s death as an accidental drowning. But officials reopened the case in 2011 and now deem her death as “suspicious.”

“She got in the water somehow, and I don’t think she got in the water by herself,” Lt. John Corina of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department told CBS correspondent Erin Moriarty in an episode of 48 Hours, which aired Saturday.

Homicide detectives received more than 100 tips after they reopened the case, officials said in a statement obtained by PEOPLE. “For the first time, we have witness statements that portray a new sequence of events on the boat that night,” investigators stated.

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Wagner has refused to speak with investigators since they began to look into the circumstances surrounding Wood’s death again. His attorney has not responded to PEOPLE’s request for comment.

A source close to the Wagner family tells PEOPLE, “Robert Wagner has not been contacted by law enforcement in over five years nor has he been alerted that there has been any change in the status of the case. In addition, the so-called ‘new’ witnesses they are referring to are the same ones that they had years ago.”

Sheriff’s office spokeswoman Nicole Nishida tells PEOPLE that the last time the office requested an interview with Wagner was late in 2012.

In his account of the night featured in his 2008 book, Pieces of My Heart, he wrote he got into an argument with Walken about the direction of Wood’s career, during which he smashed a wine bottle on the table. But he wrote, “Natalie was already belowdecks” when he smashed the bottle.

Robert Wagner and Natalie Wood
Robert Wagner, Natalie Wood
| Credit: Roy Illingworth/Mirrorpix/Getty

Wagner wrote that the last time he saw Wood, “she was fixing her hair at a little vanity in the bathroom while I was arguing with Chris Walken. I saw her shut the door. She was going to bed.”

Dennis Davern – who captained and managed the 60-ft. yacht – paints a different picture of what happened the night she went missing. He told officials he opened a bottle of wine, which Wagner then grabbed and smashed in front of Wood and Walken. “And he yells at Walken, ‘What are you trying to do, [expletive] my wife?’” Corina, relaying Davern’s account, told 48 Hours.

Davern also stated that after a sweaty, disheveled and nervous-looking Wagner told him, “Natalie is missing,” Davern implored his boss “to radio for help and to turn on the searchlight, but Robert Wagner told me, sternly, ‘We are not going to do that. We will wait and see if she returns.’”

Wood was found almost eight hours afterward, floating in the water wearing a burgundy nightgown, red down jacket and blue wool socks.

Davern told PEOPLE in 2011, after the investigation was reopened, “The only thing I know is what happened on the boat that night, I really can’t say that I would think that [Wagner] is responsible.”

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Wagner has long said he had no involvement in her death, and no charges have ever been filed.

In Saturday’s special, Corina was asked whether Wood’s widower Wagner, now 87, is considered a suspect. He responded by saying Wagner is now considered “more of a person of interest,” and not a suspect, in the reopened case.

In the statement released by the Sheriff’s department, officials stated new witnesses have come forward who back up Davern’s account regarding an argument involving Wood and Wagner.

“A witness provided details about hearing yelling and crashing sounds coming from the couple’s stateroom,” it stated. “Shortly afterwards, separate witnesses identified a man and a woman arguing on the back of the boat. The witnesses believed that the voices belonged to Natalie Wood and Robert Wagner.”

Wood was married to Wagner twice — first in 1957 (they divorced five years later) and again in 1972 until her death.

“I haven’t seen him tell the details that match all the other witnesses in this case,” Corina said of Wagner on 48 Hours. “I think he’s constantly changed his story a little bit. And his version of events just don’t add up.”

Detectives who spoke with 48 Hours noted that there were numerous bruises on Wood’s body that appeared to be new, according to her autopsy report. “She looked like a victim of an assault,” said Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department Detective Ralph Hernandez.

When asked if Wood’s death was a homicide rather than a tragic accident, Corina said, “I think it’s suspicious enough to make us think that something happened.”

However, the case is being investigated as a suspicious death and not a homicide.

• With reporting by CHRISTINE PELISEK