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Natalie Wood and Robert Wagner Had Public Blow-Out Fight Before Her Death, Prosecutor Says

The West Side Story star drowned under mysterious circumstances in 1981.

One of the most enduring celebrity mysteries is the 1981 death of Natalie Wood. It was determined that, on Nov. 29, 1981, Wood died by drowning off the coast of California's Catalina Island. The West Side Story star was taking a cruise on her boat with her husband Robert Wagner, friend and Brainstorm co-star Christopher Walken, and the captain, Dennis Davern. It's unclear how exactly Wood came to be in the water, and the unanswered questions regarding her death have fascinated the public for decades, especially since there have been new developments in the case even in recent years.

One person who has followed the case closely is retired prosecutor and former Arkansas Assistant U.S. Attorney Sam Perroni. Perroni wrote the 2021 book Brainstorm: An Investigation of the Mysterious Death of Film Star Natalie Wood and has petitioned for the case to be reexamined. As reported by Radar Online, Perroni has also claimed that Wood and Wagner got into a verbal fight at a hotel restaurant prior to her death, which he believes is relevant to the case. Read on to find out more, including the current status of the investigation.

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Wood's death was initially ruled an "accidental drowning."

Natalie Wood at Heathrow Airport in 1968
George Stroud/Daily Express/Getty Images

When Wood died, the coroner's office said her cause of death was an "accidental drowning." As reported by the Los Angeles Times, it was determined that she couldn't swim and had been drinking the night before she was found. But, in the years since, there have been some new developments. In 2011, the investigation was reopened, and in 2013, her cause of death was changed to "drowning and other undetermined factors." This new coroner's report also noted that bruises and scratches found on her body could indicate that she was assaulted prior to her death.

Wagner was named a "person of interest."

Robert Wagner and Natalie Wood in 1972
Roger Jackson/Central Press/Getty Images

In 2018, the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department told CBS News that Wagner was a "person of interest" in the death of his wife. (The two actors were married twice: from 1957 to 1962, and then from 1972 until her death.)

"As we've investigated the case over the last six years, I think he's more of a person of interest now," Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department Lieutenant John Corina said.

Corina claimed that the actor had "changed" his story and said "his version of events just don't add up."

According to Biography, an example of a potential inconsistency is Wagner telling authorities that he and Wood had been arguing before she disappeared, but later saying that she had gone to bed when she grew bored of his and Walken's conversation about politics.

Wagner, now 93, has denied responsibility for Wood's death. In 2018, when Davern and Wood's sister, Lana Wood, said that they believe Wagner killed Wood, his representative responded in a statement (via USA Today), "They are despicable human beings, capitalizing on the accidental death of a beloved member of the Wagner family. They should be ashamed of themselves."

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Perroni claims that Wagner and Wood were seen fighting.

Robert Wagner and Natalie Wood at a Life magazine event in 1976
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

As reported by Radar Online in 2022, Perroni claimed that Wood and Wagner got into a major fight at a North Carolina hotel weeks before the boat trip in his petition to the court to launch a coroner's inquest jury. He also claimed that her co-star was there.

"I uncovered critical motive evidence from Natalie's probate file and North Carolina where Natalie was shooting the film Brainstorm, including an argument between Natalie and Wagner in a hotel restaurant with Walken present," Perroni wrote in the document obtained by Radar.

Perroni continued, "Wagner was in North Carolina the week before Natalie died, likely checking with spies he had watching her." He added, "Finally, I have proof from a good friend of Natalie's that Wagner and Walken were arguing well before their Catalina Island trip started on November 27, 1981." (It has been reported that Wagner and Walken got into an argument on the boat.)

The prosecutor concluded, "After 40 years, Natalie Wood's death deserves an unbiased inquiry unhampered by celebrity, cronyism, and ulterior motives."

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Wood's sister believes Wagner was involved.

Natalie Wood and Lana Wood in Los Angeles circa 1960
Earl Leaf/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Lana has been outspoken about her sister's death and her suspicions. Her book, Little Sister: My Investigation into the Mysterious Death of Natalie Wood, was published in 2021.

"I don't believe it was premeditated," Lana told the New York Post the same year. "But that doesn't mean I don't think he did it: Of course he did!"

As reported by USA Today, during 2018 episodes of Dr. Phil, Lana and Davern both said they believe Wagner is responsible. "Are you suggesting that he knocked her out and threw her in the water?" Phil McGraw asked Lana. She responded, "Something like that, absolutely."

McGraw asked Davern, "You believe Robert Wagner murdered Natalie Wood?" He responded, "Yes, I really do."

In 1983, Walken was asked for the "real story" by Entertainment Tonight. "The real story of her death is that she drowned," The Deer Hunter said replied. "And nobody knows how she drowned or what happened. Except her. That's what it is. There is no real story. Nobody will ever know."

In May 2022, Page Six reported that the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department had again declared Wood's death "an open, unsolved case" after "all leads … have been exhausted," indicating that Wagner was no longer a "person of interest." Representative Lieutenant Hugo Reynaga also told the outlet, "If additional leads surface in the future, which have not already been investigated, the case will be reassigned to a detective to investigate the new leads."

Lia Beck
Lia Beck is a writer living in Richmond, Virginia. In addition to Best Life, she has written for Refinery29, Bustle, Hello Giggles, InStyle, and more. Read more
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