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Natalie Wood could have been saved, lifeguard captain says

The man, who helped pull Natalie Wood's body from the water, is perplexed about why it took four hours for lifeguards to be notified. He says she likely survived for some time and cried out for help.

November 23, 2011|By Richard Winton, Los Angeles Times
  • The inflatable dinghy in the foreground was found near the body of Natalie Wood.
The inflatable dinghy in the foreground was found near the body of Natalie… (Associated Press )

The lifeguard captain who helped pull Natalie Wood's body from the water 30 years ago said he still believes the actress could have been saved had officials begun the search for her earlier.

Roger Smith, the former Los Angeles County supervising rescue boat captain, told The Times that he hoped the Sheriff's Department's reopening of her death investigation would answer lingering questions about why lifeguards were not alerted sooner when Wood disappeared from a yacht off Santa Catalina Island on Thanksgiving weekend 1981 during an excursion with her husband, actor Robert Wagner, and actor Christopher Walken.

The department, which reopened the investigation last week, has received written documentation of Smith's account, according to a law enforcement source.

The original investigation concluded that Wood accidentally drowned when she fell into the water while tying up a loose dinghy. But exactly how long she was in the water remains a mystery.

Smith said he's long been haunted by whether more could have been done to save Wood, 43.

"Based on the condition of her body when we pulled her from the water, I believe she survived for some time in the water and was blown out to sea. She probably cried for help for hours," Smith said in an interview. "I've always believed she could have been saved. Her fingers were still pliable when she was pulled from the water, suggesting she had not been dead for hours."

Smith said he was alerted to Wood's disappearance at 5:11 a.m., four hours after she went missing from the yacht Splendour about 200 feet off the island's isthmus. A lifeguard boat equipped with all the gear needed to conduct a search had been moored about 100 feet away from the yacht the whole time, he said.

The evening before — Saturday, Nov. 28 — Wood and Wagner had had dinner at Doug's Harbor Reef restaurant with Walken, who was then Wood's co-star in the film "Brainstorm" and was spending the holiday weekend with the couple.

Later, according to authorities, the trio returned to the yacht and had drinks, and Wagner and Walken got into an argument. The men eventually calmed down and said good night, Wagner said, but when he went to bed, Wood wasn't there.

Wagner has long maintained that his wife's death was a tragic accident. In a 2008 interview with The Times, he 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."

According to Smith, Wagner told him that Sunday morning that he had spent several hours looking for Wood and had contacted the operator of the small harbor. But Smith said he was perplexed over why it took so long to contact the lifeguards, who could have launched a full search for Wood.

Smith is now retired and living in Oakhurst, south of Yosemite National Park.

Sheriff's officials have stressed that Wagner is not a suspect in Wood's death. Wagner released a statement last week saying he welcomed the new investigation into the case.

The source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the case was ongoing, also said the department had received an account involving a woman on a nearby yacht who heard a woman apparently in the water screaming for help.

It's unclear, however, whether the screams were coming from Wagner's boat.

Officials said detectives are putting together a list of people they want to interview. They also plan to go to Hawaii to examine the Splendour. The current owner of the boat told media outlets in Hawaii over the weekend that L.A. authorities contacted him several weeks ago.

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