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The Natalie Wood mysteries

It's been three decades since the actress' death. Why is the L.A. County Sheriff's Department reopening the case at all?

November 22, 2011
  • Actress Natalie Wood is shown in Los Angeles in 1979.
Actress Natalie Wood is shown in Los Angeles in 1979. (Wally Fong / Associated…)

Natalie Wood died in the waters off Santa Catalina Island three decades ago. The details of her last night aboard a yacht with her husband, Robert Wagner, and Christopher Walken have been the stuff of gossip and rumor for years, but the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department long ago ruled the death of the 43-year-old actress — who couldn't swim — an accidental drowning.

Now the department has reopened the case, saying it has new information, which so far it has not divulged. Authorities should aggressively investigate mysterious deaths and reopen cold cases when they can, but what qualifies the Wood case for renewed attention and resources?

The mystery is why the Sheriff's Department is reopening the case at all. And maybe we can solve that one. Not only is the 30th anniversary of Wood's death approaching — along with magazine and TV coverage — but the new investigation comes at a time when Sheriff Lee Baca has reason to want to change the subject from himself. He faces a federal probe into allegations of brutality and misconduct by deputies in the county jails. Federal authorities have also launched a civil rights investigation into allegations of racial discrimination by sheriff's deputies in the Antelope Valley.

Neither Baca nor Lt. John Corina, who is supervising the investigators on the Wood case, will elaborate on the new information because it's an ongoing investigation. But as Corina said: "If we just ignored it, we wouldn't be doing our job." Fair enough. But very little that has emerged sounds compelling enough to revisit. Authorities are following up information from the yacht's skipper, who claims he has new revelations. Even Baca acknowledges that the skipper is self-promoting. And although Corina says his investigators would like to interview both Wagner and Walken, Wagner is not a suspect and Wood's death is still classified as an accidental drowning. Corina points out that the news conference last week alone brought 70 calls with information — some of it useful, he says. Two investigators are working on this full time, probably for the next three to four months, according to Corina.

The Sheriff's Department should of course pursue credible leads, but it also has a responsibility to prioritize resources and manpower. And right now, the department has unsolved crimes to investigate, a profoundly troubled jail system to reform and deputies in the Antelope Valley to rein in.

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