Coroner: "Unplanned Entry" into Water Possible in Natalie Wood Drowning Death

The actress, who drowned while on a yachting trip with her husband, Robert Wagner, and a friend, may not have gone into the water deliberately, the LA County coroner said Monday

By Sharon Bernstein
|  Monday, Jan 14, 2013  |  Updated 7:48 PM PDT
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One of Hollywood's most mystifying deaths continues to garner headlines as the Los Angeles County Coroner's Office rules that Natalie Wood's death was

Patrick Healy

One of Hollywood's most mystifying deaths continues to garner headlines as the Los Angeles County Coroner's Office rules that Natalie Wood's death was "undetermined." Patrick Healy reports for the NBC4 News at 5 p.m. on Jan. 14, 2013.

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The circumstances surrounding the drowning death of actress Natalie Wood may have been different than originally believed, the  Los Angeles County Coroner's office  said in a report released Monday.

In the report, which was dated May 29, 2012, Coroner Lakshmanan Sathyavagiswaran, MD said he could not rule out the possibility that Wood, whose death was originally ruled accidental, did not go into the water that night of her own volition.

MORE: Who was Natalie Wood? | LA Sheriff Re-Opens Natalie Wood Case | Man Who Found Natalie Wood's Body Speaks Out

Instead, Sathyavagiswaran said, the circumstances surrounding the death were "not clearly established."

Wood had been on a weeked outing to Catalina Island  with husband, Robert Wagner, on their motor yacht Splendour.  Also aboard were a guest, acting colleague Christopher Walken, and Splendour's captain, Dennis Davern.  One theory explored by the original investigators held that during the night, while Splendour was moored offshore in a harbor, Wood had attempted to climb onto a dinghy at the stern, possibly to travel to shore, but instead fell unheard  into the water.  Wood did not know how to swim.

But the dinghy was never started, the coroner's report said, and Wood was not dressed in a way that indicated that she had planned to go to shore. The 43-year-old actress had bruises on her arms and legs, but no head trauma, the report said.

These factors, the coroner wrote, led to the possibility that she did not go into the water deliberately, arguing against a theory she took her own life.

"This Medical Examiner is unable to exclude non-volitional, unplanned entry into the water," he wrote.

However, the coroner refrained from speculating as to what really happened. He did not say that she was pushed, that she fell, or even completely rule out the prior theory that she left deliberately in the dinghy.

In a 2009 book, the captain of the yacht, Dennis Davern, said that Wood and Wagner had been arguing, and that he overhead Wagner say, "'Get off my...boat.'"

In November of 2011,  the original investigating agency, the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department, revealed it was re-opening the case.  As part of that review, the coroner's office was asked to reexamine its original findings.

Then Coroner Thomas Noguchi, MD had discussed a scenario in which Wood fell overboard, then suffered bruises during a desperate and unsuccessful effort to climb into the dinghy.

The coroner's review noted that Dr. Noguchi, now retired, was consulted for the new report.  Reached at his Los Angeles home, Dr. Noguchi declined to comment.

In the review, Sathyavagiswaran looked anew at bruise factors, and concluded they "support bruising having occurred prior to the entry into the water."  The report did not speculate on how Wood may have suffered those bruises.

Sathyavagiswaran also said that he was changing Wood's cause of death from "probable drowning" to "drowning and other undetermined factors."

The manner of death is being changed to "undetermined."

"How injury occurred will be listed as found floating in ocean," the coroner wrote. "Circumstances not clearly established."

The Sheriff's Department has been aware of the Coroner's revision since last summer, according to Sheriff's spokesman Steve Whitmore.  Investigators put a hold on the document's public release while their investigation proceeded, but have concluded that hold is no longer necessary, Whitmore said.

Seven months after the coroner's revised conclusions, the Sheriff's investigation is "ongoing," Whitmore said.  "Our job is to find the determining factor, if possible ."   Part of the challenge, he noted, is the length of time that has elapsed.

Among those who have been skeptical of the accidental drowning theory is the victim's sister, Lana Wood.  Reached at home Monday, Lana Wood said she was reading the coroner's revised report, and would not comment until she had a chance to go over it thoroughly.

Robert Wagner has said over the years that he has no direct knowledge of how his late wife drowned.  More recently, in November, 2011,  a statement from Wagner's publicist said, "the actor's family 'fully supports the efforts of the LA County sheriff's deptartment.  And trust they will evaluate whether any new information relating to the death of natalie Wood Wagner is valid..."

Wagner was given advance notice of the release of the coroner's review, Whitmore said.  Wagner's publicist did not respond Monday to a request for comment on it.

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