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By Thomas T. Noguchi, Joseph DiMona
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1983 Thomas T. Noguchi, M.D. and Joseph DiMona
All rights reserved.
Medical Examiner's Case No. 81-15167
Santa Catalina is an island thirty miles out in the ocean, off the southern coast of California. About twenty-two miles long and eight miles wide, it is renowned for its spectacular beauty. The spurs and canyons which radiate from its mountain ridges carve picturesque coves in which sailboats and yachts anchor beneath cliffs. Avalon, on the island's southern tip, is a small community of a few thousand year-round residents, its lovely bay known to be perfect for sailing and for scuba diving, and there are glass-bottomed boats plying the harbor, through which marine life is studied. This is the area of Catalina which most tourists know.
Yachtsmen prefer the more isolated cove at the northern end of the island. In Isthmus Bay, where the mountains swoop straight down to the sea, there are no hotels or accommodations for tourists, and only one bar/restaurant ashore, Doug's Harbor Reef, a favorite meeting place for the sailors whose boats are anchored in the cove. On the night of November 28, 1981, Natalie Wood, her husband Robert Wagner, and actor Christopher Walken, their guest on that long Thanksgiving weekend, dined at Doug's Harbor Reef and then returned to spend the night on Splendour, the Wagners' yacht. In the early hours of the following morning, the body of Natalie Wood was found floating, face down, in the sea.
By a strange twist of chance, a deputy on the staff of the Los Angeles County Medical Examiner's Office, our chief consultant on ocean accidents, Paul Miller, was the captain of a schooner moored to the same buoy in front of the Wagners' yacht the night of the tragedy. Miller, a friend of the Wagners', was an Annapolis graduate, president of the California Sailing Academy at Marina Del Rey, one of the largest such schools in the world, and a man who knew intimately the dangerous waters around Catalina Island.
Perhaps never in my experience had the Medical Examiner's Office dealt with a more perfectly positioned expert at the scene of an accident. On that terrible night, Miller dined at the same restaurant as the Wagners and Christopher Walken. After dinner, he returned to his sailing ship half an hour before the Wagners' party, and was on deck when the actors passed by on their way back to Splendour. And later that night, it was he who first responded to Wagner's call for assistance.
By another strange coincidence, three years earlier, in 1978, Miller had invited me on a fact-finding mission aboard his schooner. That mission began on the same holiday weekend, Thanksgiving, and in the same bay in which Natalie Wood would perish.
Forensic scientists, as a function of their duties to the public, must explore all the environments of death, for in our profession we deal not only with homicides by gunshot and knife, but with accidents and disasters of every kind on land, at sea and in the air. Drowning fatalities were particularly numerous in Los Angeles, due to the popularity of scuba diving, surfing and sailing. And I had contacted Miller because I wanted to learn more about the factors which contribute to underwater accidents.
During my trip to Catalina, I dined at Doug's Harbor Reef, and as I traveled back to Miller's schooner that evening I noticed something that would become important to my understanding of how and why Natalie Wood died. From many of the boats anchored in the cove, hi-fi music blared across the water, along with the raucous sound of parties. Because of the enveloping noise, only two people, Marilyn Wayne and a friend, who were on a nearby boat, would hear Natalie Wood's anguished cries for help the night she died. By bad luck, they said, a party was being celebrated on a sailing ship close by Splendour, with loud rock music echoing across the waves. More poignantly, they reported that they heard Natalie Wood's cries, but didn't try to help because her pleas were answered by people on the deck of that party boat, who called out to her several times, "We're coming to get you."
Even Miller, in the cabin of his sailing ship moored right in front of Splendour, didn't hear Natalie Wood, also because of party noise. And, most significantly, Wagner and Walken, on the very ship from which she fell, said they remembered no cries.
As soon as I heard of Natalie Wood's death, I asked Miller for a special investigative report. When it was forwarded to me, I was able to match his expert findings with my own knowledge of the dangerous waters around that windswept little island far out at sea. Our investigations received wide publicity, but part of the story of Natalie Wood's last moments has never been told.
In 1955, three young actors appeared in a motion picture which transformed them, overnight, into major stars. The movie was Rebel Without a Cause, featuring James Dean. Sal Mineo and Natalie Wood.
All three of these young actors would suffer untimely deaths. Dean was killed in a highway crash while driving his Porsche to Salinas to compete in a racing event in the same year as the picture's release. (Giant would be distributed after his death.) Sal Mineo was stabbed to death in the driveway beside his Hollywood home in 1976. And Natalie Wood perished in a mysterious drowning accident in 1981.
If ever there was a child of Hollywood, it was she. Born Natasha Gurdin in San Francisco on July 20, 1938, she was earning a thousand dollars a week at 20th Century–Fox as early as the age of eight, appearing in such films as Tomorrow Is Forever and Miracle on 34th Street. In Rebel Without a Cause she played her first adult role, and audiences around America reacted enthusiastically both to her beauty and to her sensitive portrayal of a troubled teenager. In Hollywood, her peers in the motion picture industry nominated her for an Academy Award for her performance in the picture.
Later in her career, she would be honored with two more Oscar nominations, for Splendor in the Grass in 1961 and Love With the Proper Stranger in 1963. And the year before she died, this amazing actress was still on the rise. She was voted the Golden Globe Award as the best actress of 1980, no less than twenty-five years after her first starring role and thirty-nine years after her first movie.
For many Americans, Natalie Wood exemplified the legendary movie actress who dwells in what The New York Times called "the Hollywood of celluloid images, mansions and yachts, midnight swims and motorcycle rides, celebrity parties and night life." But in fact her personal life was relatively subdued. She married a handsome young actor, Robert Wagner, in 1957 and divorced him in 1962. Then, after a brief marriage to Richard Gregson, an English film producer, she remarried Wagner in 1972 and remained his wife until her death.
It was, by most accounts, an idyllic marriage of two working actors, rare in Hollywood. Both enjoyed professional success, but their union remained unscarred by the usual envy which undermines most such marriages. They were very much in love and delighted in their children, Katherine, who was sixteen in 1981, Natasha, eleven, and Courtney Broome, seven.
Their marriage was enhanced by another love: the sea. And recently their lives had revolved around Splendour, on which they spent most of their weekends and holidays. Natalie Wood, contrary to some reports, did not seem afraid of the water at all. Fellow sailors often saw her skimming around the harbor alone in the little rubber dinghy that served as a tender for the yacht.
In 1981, as the Thanksgiving holiday weekend approached, both Wagners were, as usual, enjoying professional success. Robert Wagner, known as R.J. to his friends, was co-starring with Stephanie Powers in a highly rated television series, Hart to Hart. And Natalie Wood was making Brainstorm, an MGM motion picture in which her co-star was Christopher Walken. The Wagners invited Walken to join them on their yacht in Catalina for the holiday weekend.
Bad weather was predicted for the night of November 28. A cold piercing rain swept over Isthmus Bay, pummeling the faces of those going ashore in small boats for dinner. But the sea was not rough, and the dinghies had no difficulty negotiating the waves. Twice, earlier that day, Paul Miller had seen Natalie Wood "buzz" in to shore in her dinghy alone. Then, at about 5 P.M., Miller and three friends eased their own dinghy into a dock and a few minutes later entered the warmth and brightness of Doug's Harbor Reef, where they noticed a party already under way at one table. Natalie Wood, Robert Wagner and Christopher Walken were gaily drinking champagne.
About 7 P.M. the Wagner party was seated for dinner, with which they ordered more champagne. They were still enjoying themselves when Miller and his friends left. But Don Whiting, the night manager of the restaurant, was worried. He felt that the Wagners were so intoxicated they might not make it back to their yacht. When they left the restaurant at 10:30 P.M., he called Kurt Craig of the Harbor Patrol and asked him to make certain the group reached their yacht safely in the dinghy.
Later that night, aboard Easy Rider, Miller and his wife couldn't sleep. Their quarters were in the bow of their boat, facing the shore, and in a house on that shore a party was raging. Two loudspeakers had been set up on a porch, and the sound of rock music blaring across the cove was keeping the Millers awake. This may have been the party noise which Marilyn Wayne, who heard Natalie Wood's cries, believed was coming from another boat. At 1:15 A.M. Miller sat up, reached wearily for the radio microphone, and turned to the harbor channel, which all boats monitor. He intended to call the Bay Watch, the private Isthmus Bay Coast Guard detail, to ask them to quiet the party on the beach.
"Bay Watch, this is Easy Rider."
Nothing but crackling static, and Miller realized at once that the man from the Bay Watch must be at the party.
Suddenly the radio sprang to life with a different voice. It was Robert Wagner, although Miller didn't recognize his voice at first. He didn't sound nervous or excited. Miller described Wagner's tone as "quizzical" as he said, "Easy Rider, are you cruising in the vicinity?"
"Well, this is Splendour. We think we may have someone missing in an eleven-foot rubber dinghy."
Don Whiting, the night manager of the restaurant, was reading a paperbook book in the cabin of the boat on which he lived year round, when the radio beside him crackled and he heard the conversation between Wagner and Miller. Whiting radioed a friend on the isthmus to go to the Wagner yacht at once and report back to him about the situation.
Thirty minutes later, light beams from Harbor Patrol boats, private boats of the Bay Watch, and Coast Guard helicopters began to crisscross the ocean. The beams illuminated rolling waves and swept over yachts and sailing ships rocking in the swells—but nothing was found in the sea.
At seven-thirty the following morning a Sheriff's Office helicopter was heading toward Catalina to aid in the search when suddenly one of the crew members detected a spot of red in the ocean waves below. "Go down," he shouted to the pilot. The helicopter descended toward the sea, the wind from its rotor blades churning the water beneath them. Face down, in a red jacket, Natalie Wood floated, her hair splayed out in the water.
The location of her body was no less than one mile south of the Wagner yacht, off an isolated cove known as Blue Cavern Point. The missing dinghy was discovered on the shore, even farther to the south. The key in the ignition of the boat was turned to the off position, the gear was in neutral, and the oars were tied down.
Police were surprised, because the boat obviously had not been used. Even more startling was Natalie Wood's clothing. She was clad only in a nightgown, knee-length wool socks and a down-filled jacket. It was apparent that she had not dressed for a boat ride—and yet police believed she must have untied the line which held the dinghy to the yacht. But why had she untied it if she didn't intend to go out in the boat? That was only one of the mysteries surrounding her tragic death.
On the day Natalie Wood's body was found, I dispatched Pamela Eaker, a skilled investigator on the Medical Examiner's staff, to Catalina. Eaker interrogated Robert Wagner, who told her that after they had returned from the restaurant that night he and Walken went to the wardroom of the yacht for a nightcap while Natalie retired to her quarters. The last time he remembered seeing his wife was at about quarter of eleven. Then, sometime after midnight, Wagner went to their cabin and noticed that his wife was not in bed. When he searched for her elsewhere on the yacht, he discovered that the dinghy was also missing. Even so, he said, he wasn't concerned at first, because his wife often took the boat out alone. But as time passed and she didn't reappear, he became more and more upset, and finally radioed for help.
Eaker asked Wagner if it was possible that his wife had taken her own life. Wagner said that his wife was definitely not suicidal.
Eaker also spoke to Don Whiting, the restaurant manager, and to various sheriff's deputies and Santa Monica detectives. Her official report described the findings up to that point in the investigation and concluded:
Decedent's body had been taken from the ocean and placed in the Hyperbaric Chamber for safe-keeping. Upon this investigator's arrival at location, decedent observed lying in "stokes litter." Decedent is wrapped in plastic sheet, she herself is dressed in flannel nightgown and socks. The jacket that she was wearing when found floating is no longer on the body, having come off when she was pulled from the water. At time decedent was pulled from the water, Sheriff's personnel say that body was absent of any rigor and they noted foam coming from mouth. Decedent still has foam coming from mouth. Rigor is now present of a 3 to 4 + throughout her entire body. Decedent has numerous bruises to legs and arms. Decedent's eyes are also a bit cloudy appearing. No other trauma noted and foul play is not suspected at this time.
Nor did police suspect foul play in Natalie Wood's death, but by nightfall on that Sunday Hollywood was alive with rumors. Wasn't it strange that the two men on the yacht didn't even know that she had left the boat? Hadn't she spoken to them? Why had she slipped out to the stern of the yacht in the middle of the night, climbed down a ladder, and untied the dinghy? What was she doing? Where was she going? And why?
In any case of unusual death, it is the first duty of medical examiners to suspect murder. Indeed, some authorities on forensic science argue that the search for murder is our only real mission, and that anything else we accomplish is merely additional service to the community above and beyond that primary duty.
I believe that forensic science is—and should be—broader in its horizons. But I concur with those authorities in one particular: every death is a homicide, until proven otherwise. So, even while Pamela Eaker was interrogating people on the island, I was telephoning Paul Miller, my host on that fact-finding mission three years before. I wanted a special investigation to be conducted by an expert to determine the facts of Natalie Wood's death. And when I learned that Miller had been there at Isthmus Bay that very night, I was convinced his report would be conclusive.
I gave Miller some specific instructions which were basic to any forensic investigation of such a tragedy:
1. Examine the stern of the Wagners' yacht for any disturbance, or evidence of violence, that the police might have missed.
2. Check the dinghy for any sign of a struggle.
3. Examine the algae (marine plant growth) on the bottom of the swimming step for signs of disturbance. (Did she try to reboard the yacht?)
4. Check the sides of the dinghy for fingernail scratches. (Did she try to climb into the dinghy?)
But these questions should be only the beginning, I stressed to Miller. I was relying on his experience and knowledge for the complete investigation.
When I hung up, I was pleased that I had commissioned the right man in the right location for the job. But I also knew that his special report might take days, and the public was demanding to know now what had happened to Natalie Wood. That first morning the whispers were of murder, and I could not deny them. But I hoped that with the information contained in Eaker's fine investigative report, plus the findings of the autopsy to be performed the following day, I would obtain enough data to form a preliminary opinion on the cause of her death, and to replace rumor and speculation with official facts.
That Monday morning, November 30, 1981, was hectic for me. Dr. Sugiyama and Dr. Ishikawa (who was a classmate of mine at Nippon Medical School) were conducting a seminar in forensic science, and I was scheduled to give a breakfast talk to the seminar. But meanwhile the Medical Examiner's Office was besieged by the press, demanding answers to the mystery of Natalie Wood's death. I attended the meeting, said a few words, then apologized for having to leave early.
Excerpted from Coroner by Thomas T. Noguchi, Joseph DiMona. Copyright © 1983 Thomas T. Noguchi, M.D. and Joseph DiMona. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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