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Detectives running out of time in Natalie Wood mystery

Robert Wagner initially said Natalie Wood must have drowned while trying to leave their yacht in a small inflatable boat.

After nearly four decades of speculation and media frenzy, it had come to this.

In a last-ditch effort to generate more leads in the drowning death of actress Natalie Wood, detectives appeared on the CBS program "48 Hours."

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In the episode, which aired Saturday, they cast doubt on the story told by Wood's husband, actor Robert Wagner, who initially said she must have drowned while trying to leave their yacht in a small inflatable boat.

The detectives say they know more now about the events leading up to Wood's death off Santa Catalina Island on the night of Nov. 28, 1981.

Yet the case remains classified as a suspicious death, not a homicide. The detectives admit they still cannot prove how Wood, 43, went into the water — was it an accident or did someone intend for her to die?

"Our biggest challenge is time," Lt. John Corina of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department's Homicide Bureau said at a news conference Monday. "Many witnesses have passed away, who were on boats nearby. The original investigator has passed away. We're reaching out one more time to see if people will come forward with information."

Detectives would also like to talk to Wagner again, but the 88-year-old actor has refused to be interviewed in recent years.

Corina believes Wagner was the last person to see Wood before she plunged into the waters that Thanksgiving weekend. There were only two others on the yacht besides Wood and Wagner.

Wood, who couldn't swim, had spoken publicly about her fear of "dark water."

"Was she placed in the water? Was she unconscious and placed in the water?" Corina said. "Or did she accidentally fall in the water and nobody helped her?"

The chances those questions will ever be answered are slim, said Stanley Goldman, a professor at Loyola Law School and a former public defender.

"Unless the early versions of TMZ were taking pictures of three stars on a boat, or Robert Wagner actually confessed, or if someone with some credibility comes forward and says, 'Twelve years ago, he confessed to me, he threw her over the side' — I find it very hard to believe they can charge him at this point," Goldman said.

From the beginning, celebrity elevated the tragic nature of Wood's death.

Wood and Wagner were a Hollywood golden couple who had divorced and then married a second time, their tempestuous relationship adding to their glamorous aura. On the yacht with them were another well-known actor, Christopher Walken, and the vessel's captain, Dennis Davern.

The case quickly went cold after the Los Angeles County coroner ruled Wood's death an accident.

The actress slipped into the water and drowned while trying to board the small dinghy, according to the coroner, Thomas T. Noguchi.

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Bruises on Wood's left cheek were consistent with injuries she might have sustained if she hit the yacht as she fell, Noguchi said at a news conference days after the death. Noguchi noted that Wood's blood-alcohol content was .14% on a night when there was "much recreational drinking."

In 2011, almost 30 years to the day after Wood's death, sheriff's officials reopened the investigation. Then, in 2013, with Noguchi long out of office, coroner's officials changed Wood's cause of death from "accidental drowning" to "drowning and other undetermined factors."

The new coroner's report cited fresh bruises on the actress' arms and knee, along with a scratch on her neck and a scrape on her forehead, as evidence that she might have been assaulted before she drowned.

The coroner, Lakshmanan Sathyavagiswaran, said in his report that investigators never took nail clippings from Wood's body to see if she made scratch marks on the dinghy. If Wood made the marks, that would support the theory that she was trying to get into the smaller boat.

More than 100 people contacted authorities after the investigation was reopened, Corina said at Monday's news conference.

Among them were witnesses on a nearby boat who said they heard Wood and Wagner arguing that night, corroborating Davern's account.

Davern, who wrote a book about the incident, said he heard an intense argument coming from Wood and Wagner's cabin. He went to check on them, worried that "some kind of assault was going on," Corina said at the news conference.

"That's when he was told to go away by Robert Wagner," Corina said. "Natalie Wood and Robert Wagner ended up on the back of the boat arguing, and then it goes quiet."

After hearing the additional witness accounts, Corina concluded that what Wagner told investigators at the time "made absolutely no sense."

"He figures, 'Oh, she must have gotten the dinghy and went into town,'" Corina said. "In her pajamas, in her socks, in the middle of the night, it's raining out, and for some reason, she's going to take the dinghy, which she doesn't drive, she probably doesn't know how to drive it, and take it into town."

When Davern suggested that they turn on a searchlight and look for Wood, Wagner said no, Corina added. Nor did Wagner call for help, instead insisting that Davern drink alcohol with him for the next hour and a half, according to Corina.

Wagner's attorney, Blair Berk, declined to comment when reached by phone Monday. In 2013, Berk said that Wagner had nothing to do with the death.

"After 30 years, neither Mr. Wagner nor his daughters have any new information to add to this latest investigation," she said then in a statement, blaming publicity seekers for exploiting the case.

More people claiming knowledge of the case have come forward since the "48 Hours" episode aired, Corina said. Whether Wood's death was an accident or murder depends on how she got into the water.

Walken was asleep in his room at the time, Corina said. Wagner, he said, remains a "person of interest," not a suspect.

For more news on the Los Angeles Police Department, follow me on Twitter: @cindychangLA

Times staff writer Maya Lau contributed to this report

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