36 Years Later, the Twists and Turns of the Investigation into Natalie Wood's Drowning Death
Wood drowned in 1981 while sailing with her husband, Robert Wagner, on their yacht, Splendour
Editor’s note: This story was originally published on April 13, 2016. On Thursday, CBS News published a report quoting an investigator who described Robert Wagner as “more of a person of interest now” in then-wife Natalie Wood’s drowning death.
The circumstances surrounding the death of Natalie Wood on Nov. 29, 1981, while sailing off of Catalina Island outside Los Angeles, have become the stuff of Hollywood legend and mystery.
Wood, 43, drowned while sailing with her husband, Robert Wagner, on their yacht, Splendour. Christopher Walken, Wood’s then-costar in the movie Brainstorm, and the boat’s captain, Dennis Davern, were also on board.
At the time, Wood’s death was classified as an accidental drowning. Thirty-six years later, the case, which was reopened in 2011, is still making headlines.
“We continue to look into it and we will continue to look into it until we can come to some conclusion,” L.A. County Sheriff Lt. John Corina told PEOPLE in 2016.
For an upcoming 48 Hours‘ episode on the case to air in February 2018, Corina told CBS, “As we’ve investigated the case over the last six years, I think he’s [Wagner is] more of a person of interest now. I mean, we know now that he was the last person to be with Natalie before she disappeared.”
Wagner’s attorney did not immediately respond to PEOPLE’s request for comment about the 48 Hours report.
In Wagner’s 2008 memoir, Pieces of My Heart, he wrote that after a night of drinking, he got into an argument with Walken over Wood’s career.
At one point, Wagner wrote, “I picked up a wine bottle, slammed it on the table and broke it into pieces.”
As for what caused her to fall off the boat, Wagner wrote it was “all conjecture. Nobody knows. There are only two possibilities: either she was trying to get away from the argument, or she was trying to tie the dinghy. But the bottom line is that nobody knows exactly what happened.”
Speaking to PEOPLE for a cover story in 2016, Wagner said the family was left in despair over Wood’s death. “We were all so shattered by the loss, and we were hanging on to each other,” he said.
In his memoir, Wagner also wrote of his grief and shock following his wife’s untimely death.
“Did I blame myself?” he wrote. “If I had been there, I could have done something. But I wasn’t there. I didn’t see her. The door was closed; I thought she was [below decks]. I didn’t hear anything. But ultimately, a man is responsible for his loved one, and she was my loved one.”
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Three years after Wagner’s memoir was released, the case took a strange turn when the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department reopened the case after Davern came forward claiming he lied to investigators about certain details related to Wood’s death.
At the time, a sheriff’s spokesperson made clear that Wagner was not a suspect.
Wagner also released a statement through his spokesman expressing support for the sheriff’s investigation, stating his family would “trust they will evaluate whether any new information relating to the death of Natalie Wood Wagner is valid, and that it comes from a credible source or sources other than those simply trying to profit from the 30-year anniversary of her tragic death.”
Corina, who declined to discuss details of the investigation at the time, said detectives did travel to Hawaii to inspect the yacht: “I can’t tell you what we did because it is still part of the investigation.”
Two months after the case was reopened in 2011, a sheriff’s department official told the L.A. Times that detectives found no new evidence to dispute the official findings.
“At this point, it is an accidental death,” said William McSweeney, chief of detectives for the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department. “Nothing has been discovered to suggest changing that at this time.”
A year later, Wood’s death was reclassified from accidental drowning to “drowning and other undetermined factors.”
In 2016, a spokesperson for the L.A. County Medical Examiner’s office told PEOPLE the case will remain undetermined “unless additional evidence is brought forward.”