Investigators reexamining the mysterious 1981 drowning death of actress Natalie Wood reaffirmed that then-husband Robert Wagner is a “person of interest” in the case, Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department officials announced at a Monday press conference.
“He’s a person of interest because he’s the last person with her before she went into the water,” said Lt. John Corina. “We want to talk to Robert Wagner. We’d love to hear his version of events.”
News surrounding the nearly four-decade-long mystery comes to light after revelations of new witnesses aired during a Saturday night episode of CBS 48 Hours, which featured Corina.
On Nov. 29, 1981, Wood’s body was found floating in the water after she disappeared from the Splendour yacht, which she was spending Thanksgiving weekend with her husband Wagner and Brainstorm co-star Christopher Walken.
Initially, law enforcement officials classified Wood’s death as an accidental drowning. But officials reopened the case in 2011 and now deem her death as “suspicious.”
Homicide detectives received more than 100 tips after they reopened the case, officials said in a statement obtained by PEOPLE. “For the first time, we have witness statements that portray a new sequence of event on the boat that night,” investigators stated.
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Wagner has refused to speak with investigators since they began to look into the circumstances surrounding Wood’s death again. His attorney has not responded to PEOPLE’s request for comment.
A source close to the Wagner family tells PEOPLE, “Robert Wagner has not been contacted by law enforcement in over five years nor has he been alerted that there has been any change in the status of the case. In addition, the so-called ‘new’ witnesses they are referring to are the same ones that they had years ago.”
In Wagner’s account of the night featured in his 2008 book, Pieces of My Heart, he wrote he got into an argument with Walken about the direction of Wood’s career, during which he smashed a wine bottle on the table. But he wrote, “Natalie was already belowdecks” when he smashed the bottle.
Wagner wrote that the last time he saw Wood, “she was fixing her hair at a little vanity in the bathroom while I was arguing with Chris Walken. I saw her shut the door. She was going to bed.”
Dennis Davern – who captained and managed the 60-ft. yacht – paints a different picture of what happened the night she went missing. He told officials he opened a bottle of wine, which Wagner grabbed and smashed in front of Wood and Walken. “And he yells at Walken, ‘What are you trying to do, [expletive] my wife?’” Corina, relaying Davern’s account, told 48 Hours.
Davern also stated that after a sweaty, disheveled and nervous-looking Wagner told him, “Natalie is missing,” Davern implored his boss “to radio for help and to turn on the searchlight, but Robert Wagner told me, sternly, ‘We are not going to do that. We will wait and see if she returns.’”
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Wood was found almost eight hours afterward, floating in the water wearing a burgundy nightgown, red down jacket and blue wool socks.
Wagner has long said he had no involvement in her death, and no charges have ever been filed. Walken has never been considered a person of interest.
Davern told PEOPLE in 2011, after the investigation was reopened, “The only thing I know is what happened on the boat that night, I really can’t say that I would think that [Wagner] is responsible.”
In the statement released by the Sheriff’s department, officials stated new witnesses have come forward who back up Davern’s account regarding an argument involving Wood and Wagner.
“A witness provided details about hearing yelling and crashing sounds coming from the couple’s stateroom,” it stated. “Shortly afterwards, separate witnesses identified a man and a woman arguing on the back of the boat. The witnesses believed that the voices belonged to Natalie Wood and Robert Wagner.”
Wood was married to Wagner twice — first in 1957 (they divorced five years later) and again in 1972 until her death.
“I haven’t seen him tell the details that match all the other witnesses in this case,” Corina said of Wagner on 48 Hours. “I think he’s constantly changed his story a little bit. And his version of events just don’t add up.”
Detectives who spoke with 48 Hours noted that there were numerous bruises on Wood’s body that appeared to be new, according to her autopsy report. “She looked like a victim of an assault,” said Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department Detective Ralph Hernandez.
When asked if Wood’s death was a homicide rather than a tragic accident, Corina said, “I think it’s suspicious enough to make us think that something happened.”
For now, Corina and his team of homicide investigators hope the renewal of interest in the case will compel people to come forward with any new information.
“We’ve interviewed a lot of new people — near the island, near the boat, people who had knowledge about the couple and what was going on that weekend,” Corina said at the press conference. “We’re closer to understanding what happened.”
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