Though the definition of a cold case varies between agencies, common knowledge suggests it is any case whose investigative leads have been thoroughly exhausted.
That was the case with the death of beloved Hollywood actress Natalie Wood, after a tragic drowning took her life off the coast of California’s Catalina Island. Though originally deemed merely an “accident,” throughout the years many have questioned if that was, in fact, true.
And now, nearly 40 years after her death, investigators have reopened the case with what some are calling “damning evidence.”
It was Nov. 29, 1981, when Wood was on a yacht sailing with husband, Robert Wagner, along with Wood’s co-star Christopher Walken and the boat’s captain, Dennis Davern. Original reports simply stated that the actress was attempting to climb into a dinghy and fell, drowning in the darkness of night, while others say she fell from the boat.
Unable to draw any other conclusions — or unwilling to — investigators closed the case, and that was that.
However, new information surfaced when the case was reopened in 2011, where it was reported that the acting trio had gotten into a heated booze-fueled argument about Wood’s career. Wagner suddenly didn’t seem the innocent widower investigators were lead to believe.
“I picked up a wine bottle, slammed it on the table and broke it into pieces,” Wagner admitted in his 2008 memoir “Pieces of My Heart.” Yet, he maintains his wife’s death is still a mystery.
“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,” Wagner wrote. “But the bottom line is that nobody knows exactly what happened.”
But investigators, who claim Wagner has failed to fully cooperate with the new investigation, are lead to believe there is much more to it than what was originally reported. By 2016, the Cold Case Investigative Research Institute had teamed up to take on Wood’s mysterious case.
“As we’ve investigated the case over the last six years, I think he’s more of a person of interest now,” said Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department Lieutenant John Corina. “I mean, we now know that he was the last person to be with Natalie before she disappeared.”
And as for Wagner’s cooperation — and omittance of details — the Sheriff’s department has raised concerns over whether or not the 87-year-old actor is being completely truthful.
“I haven’t seen him tell the details that match all the other witnesses in this case,” Corina said. “I think he’s constantly changed his story a little bit. And his version of events just don’t add up.”
A grand jury has been given new evidence in light of an autopsy that shows conflicting causes of death, leading coroners to change the original cause of death from a mere “accidental drowning” to “undetermined.”
It’s also been surmised by investigators on the case that marks and bruises found along Natalie’s body — mainly her neck — prove she was “choked to unconsciousness” and rolled from the yacht in a heavy coat, which would cause her to drown.
“She looked like a victim of an assault,” admitted Detective Ralph Hernandez of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.
Reports state that other “troubling” evidence includes Wagner’s four-hour delay in calling for help for his unconscious wife, as well as his supposed refusal to turn the vessel’s searchlights on. A voice stress analysis conducted by expert Michael Sylvesteri also suggested that Wagner had been “lying” during his denial of culpability.
Sheryl McCollum from CCRI added that they have been consulting “experts in body language, underwater crime scene, domestic violence, statement analysis and criminal profiling” to find the truth of the case.
“Once this goes to the grand jury, he’s sunk and will finally pay for what he did,” one investigator, who remained anonymous, reportedly said. “Justice has been perverted from the very beginning.”
Through it all though, Wagner remains adamant about his innocence, stating how heartbreaking the incident was and how he has maintained a close relationship with Wood’s daughter and his stepdaughter, Natasha Gregson Wagner, through their grief.
“We were all so shattered by the loss, and we were hanging on to each other,” Wagner admitted. “My bond with Natasha is very, very intense. We’ve hung onto each other through the years and she means the world to me.”
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