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Mystery of the reopened Natalie Wood case

When Natalie Wood died in the cold, dark water near Santa Catalina Island 30 years ago, the story elicited a frenzy of media attention. Rumors of suicide or foul play never disappeared, even after authorities closed the case as the accidental drowning of a 43-year-old actress who’d been drinking and couldn’t swim.

It is unclear what compelling evidence — if any — prompted the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department to reopen the case, and what accounts for the peculiar timing. Detectives formally announced the probe Friday, two weeks from the three-decade anniversary of Wood’s death, and days before the scheduled retrospective on the case on CBS’ “48 Hours.”

What is new, apparently, are the ominous yet ambiguous pronouncements of Dennis Davern, captain of the yacht on which Wood was last seen alive with husband Robert Wagner and her “Brainstorm” co-star Christopher Walken.

PHOTOS: Natalie Wood |1938-1981

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Davern, who co-wrote a book about the case, made the TV news rounds Friday, claiming Wagner was responsible for Wood’s death but refusing pointed requests to give details. He was joined by other figures in the case including Wood’s sister, Lana, who has long campaigned for a new investigation.

Their remarks reverberated in a media echo chamber that makes the tabloid pace of 1981 seem stately by comparison. Amid all the recent noise came the question: What were detectives doing?

Bill McSweeney, chief of the Sheriff’s Department Detective Division , said he hoped the new probe would resolve unanswered questions and “put an end to the phone calls from the media and others.”

At least on Friday, the opposite seemed to be happening.

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More than 40 journalists crammed around a podium outside department headquarters Friday morning for the news conference as the 30th anniversary of Wood’s death suddenly received the stamp of actual news.

Kotaro Kato, a reporter for Japan’s Nippon TV, said he was covering the event not because of Wood’s celebrity but because other media outlets were covering the event. “In Japan, Natalie Wood is not so popular,” Kato said. “But I think people may be interested because the story is catching such fire in the U.S.”

Some reporters stood, some knelt. They tapped on smart phones and laptops as the minutes passed. Behind them stood rows of TV news trucks, satellite dishes extending toward the sky. At about 10:53 Steve Whitmore, a sheriff’s spokesman, emerged to make an announcement. “In about three minutes, we’re going to go live,” he said.

Then came homicide Lt. John Corina, to say little that everyone didn’t already know.

“Recently we received information which we felt was substantial enough to make us take another look at this case,” Corina said. He said “several sources” had come forward, but he refused to say what the new information might be. Nor would he say who detectives had interviewed so far, or who they planned to interview.

Was Robert Wagner a suspect? “No,” Corina replied firmly.

Has murder been ruled out? “If our investigation, at the end of it, points to something else then we’ll address that. But right now her death is an accidental drowning.”

Corina said that the department was “not concerned” with the anniversary date of Wood’s death, and that recent media coverage — including Davern’s book — was “inconsequential.”

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The press seemed largely disappointed by the lack of new information. “This is very frustrating,” one TV news reporter said at the news conference.

Inside the Sheriff’s Department, where veteran investigators know that three-decade-old cases are forbiddingly hard even when they involved non-celebrity players, some officials were trying to privately reduce expectation. “Whatever happens, it is unlikely to change the outcome of the original investigation so many decades after the death,” said a source familiar with the investigation.

Another source said officials hope that media reports don’t “build up expectations because the reality is [that] anything like this is tough.” Both sources spoke on the condition of anonymity because the case was ongoing.

Suzanne Ely, a professor of journalism at New School University, said she was skeptical that the media spectacle would lead to anything new in the investigation. “There’s nothing new here,” said Ely, who has taught courses on celebrity and tabloid journalism. “It appears that law enforcement is following media, not the other way around.”

Frank Griffin, a celebrity photographer, said the development in the Wood case seemed to arrive at a slow point for celebrity news — and that perhaps that’s the point.

“There really isn’t anything else around except Demi Moore’s divorce and Justin Bieber,” he said.

The motives behind the “new information” in the Wood case remain a mystery. Wagner pointed that out in a statement his publicist released Thursday night, saying he supported the sheriff’s inquiry but was concerned about “those simply trying to profit from the 30-year anniversary of her tragic death.”

In the 2009 book “Goodbye Natalie, Goodbye Splendour,” Davern tells co-author Marti Rulli that he never revealed to detectives the real story of events on the night of Wood’s death because he was trying to help Wagner, whom he considered a friend.

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According to his account, Wagner complained that Wood’s recent movie, “Brainstorm,” had taken his wife away from him, prompting Walken, her co-star in the film, to respond that that was an actor’s life.

By Davern’s account, Wagner angrily accused Walken of wanting to sleep with his wife and broke a wine bottle on a coffee table. Davern said that he later heard Wagner and Wood screaming at each other on the yacht. Davern said he underwent hypnosis to recall what he witnessed.

“I saw her in her nightgown standing starboard. She was scared. She must have known it wasn’t a good place to be because of how crazy R.J. [Robert Wagner] was,” Davern said in the book.

Davern said that after Wood disappeared, Wagner told him he suspected she had gone to shore in a rubber boat. Davern said Wagner would not allow the captain to use a searchlight to scan the waters for her or make a radio call.

Wagner has long maintained his wife’s death was a tragic accident. In a 2008 interview with The Times, he said: “I have gone over it so many millions of times with people. Nobody heard anything.”

Wagner said the evidence suggests “she had slipped and rolled into the water, which makes a lot of sense because the boat — when they found it, it hadn’t been started and the oars were all in the same position.”

Elizabeth Currid-Halkett, an assistant professor at the USC School of Policy, Planning and Development, said she was skeptical that the Sheriff’s Department’s investigation was motivated by the media, noting that law enforcement has a responsibility to investigate new leads in case.

The “48 Hours Mystery” segment on the case, produced in partnership with Vanity Fair magazine, had originally been scheduled to air Nov. 26. With news of the fresh investigation, however, producers are scrambling to put it on the air Saturday.

FULL COVERAGE: Sheriff reopens Natalie Wood death investigation

sam.allen@latimes.com

richard.winton@latimes.com

christopher.goffard@latimes.com

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer Andrew Blankstein contributed to this report.


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