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Robert Wagner and Natalie Wood’s death: What you need to know about this mystery

Robert Wagner and Natalie Wood at the Pump Room in Chicago. | Courtesy of the Ambassador East Hotel/File photo

Here we go again: Natalie Wood may never rest in peace.

In November, it will be 37 years since Wood, the Hollywood child star-turned-Oscar-nominated actress, died in a mysterious drowning off the coast of Santa Catalina , the popular pleasure island in the Pacific, 49 miles southwest of Los Angeles.

Why is her death in the news again? On Thursday, sheriff’s detectives were back for another try. CBS News reported investigators have told the network’s news magazine, 48 Hours, that Wagner is once again a “person of interest” in the case and they want to speak with him. Again.

The last time investigators said this about Wagner was in November 2011 when they reopened the case citing “substantial new information.” The official cause of death was changed but no charges were ever filed against Wagner or anyone else.

“We have not been able to prove this was a homicide,” Detective Ralph Hernandez told 48 Hours. “And we haven’t been able to prove that this was an accident, either. The ultimate problem is we don’t know how she ended up in the water.”

So why have they decided Wagner is again a person of interest? They’re not saying.

This Nov. 29, 1981 file photo, the 55-foot yacht “Splendour,” belonging to actor Robert Wagner and his wife, actress Natalie Wood, sits in the waters at Avalon, Calif., on Santa Catalina Island, near where rescuers found the body of Wood, an apparent drowning victim. | AP Photo/Paul J. Harrington, File

Wood was on a yacht with Wagner, actor Christopher Walken and the boat captain on Thanksgiving weekend of 1981. After a night of drinking, her body was found floating in the water off California’s Catalina Island. She was 43.

Investigators initially ruled it an accident but reopened the case in 2011 to see whether Wagner or anyone else played a role after the boat’s captain said he heard the couple arguing the night of her disappearance. The coroner’s office amended Wood’s death certificate the next year to include “drowning and other undetermined factors.”

Investigators have said Wagner has not been interviewed since the probe was reopened. They said in 2013 that they had tried at least 10 times to interview him but he refused. Wagner has denied any involvement in his wife’s death and no charges have been filed. His publicist, Alan Nierob, declined to comment Thursday.

Two generations have been born since the peak of Wood’s fame so unless these newcomers are fans of her classic movies (“Rebel Without a Cause,” “Splendor in the Grass,” “West Side Story”), a primer on the case might be in order.

In this April 23, 1972 file photo, actor Robert Wagner and Natalie Wood, pose at the Dorchester Hotel in London, England. | AP File Photo

What happened?
Wood was 43, a mother of two, and married to her two-time husband, handsome TV actor Robert Wagner, then 51. Like scores of other rich Angelenos with yachts, they were anchored off Catalina after a day of sailing on their 60-footer, The Splendour.

Then, on Nov. 29, 1981, she disappeared from the boat under circumstances that remain murky at best. Hours later, her body was found, clad in a flannel nightgown, red down jacket and blue socks, floating in the Pacific about a mile away from the yacht and off the island’s Blue Cavern Point.

What happened after that?
Her death was ruled an accidental drowning at the time. But the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department reopened the case in 2011; the following year, the cause of death on her death certificate was changed to “drowning and other undetermined factors.”

What was the reaction to her death?
Everyone at the time agreed Wood’s death at the height of her beauty, fame and movie-star career was shocking and tragic. But that was the only point on which there was widespread agreement.

Her death set off feverish speculation in Hollywood, especially in the media: Was it an accident or was it murder? If so, who did it? Surely not her husband, R.J., as the beloved star was known in Tinsel Town. Did they have a fight before she disappeared and what was it about?

And how come the LACSD — suspicious of Wagner from the beginning — has spent nearly four decades trying to pin something on him, and so far failed?

Who was on the yacht that night?

Natalie Wood | File Photo

Wood: Born Natalia Nikolaevna Zakharenko, Wood began acting in films before the age of 5, shooting to stardom in the 1947 Christmas film, Miracle on 34th Street. She earned her first Oscar nomination for best-supporting actress as a teen in Rebel and added nominations for best actress in Splendor and Love with the Proper Stranger in the 1960s.

She was married to Wagner twice; the second time, she gave birth to their daughter Courtney. In between, she was married to producer Richard Gregson, father of her elder daughter, Natasha Gregson Wagner. (Now 47, she’s an actress and is close enough to Wagner to adopt his name.)

One of the most famous facts about Wood: Since childhood, she had been deathly afraid of drowning in dark water.

Wagner: Now 87 and a recurring guest star on CBS’ NCIS, he was a charming man-about-Hollywood when he married Wood in 1957 when she was in her late teens and he was in his mid-20s. Like a lot of other women in town, she had long harbored a crush on him. Their first marriage lasted only five years; they remarried in 1972 and were still married, seemingly happily, until that night on their yacht.

Christopher Walken: Now 74, the Oscar-winning character actor (The Deer Hunter, 1978) was co-starring with Wood in a film and was a guest of the Wagners on the yacht that night. Known as a quirky character at best, Walken has said almost nothing in public about what happened.

But in 1997, he offered a plausible theory in an interview with Playboy: Half asleep, Wood, who Walken says couldn’t swim, went to move a dinghy bouncing against the side of the boat and slipped on a ski ramp partially in the water. She hit her head, fell into the water and floated away.

Dennis Davern: The boat captain, now 55 and living in Florida, has said different things about what happened that night, at first telling police it was an accident and later implying that something sinister had happened.

In 2011, in an interview with the Today show, Davern said he lied to police at first. “I made mistakes by not telling the honest truth in the (initial) police report,” Davern said then. When asked if Wagner had more of a responsibility in the case, Davern said, “Yes, I would say so, yes.” But he refused to elaborate.

Even earlier, in a 1992 interview with Geraldo Rivera’s Now It Can Be Told, he implied that he knew how Wood got into the water. And in a long Vanity Fair piece in 2000, Davern is quoted as saying that Wood and Wagner fought in their cabin before the actress disappeared.

But Davern’s credibility has not been helped by the fact that over the years he has been paid to offer parts of his story to the tabloids.

Maria Puente, USA TODAY; Contributing: Associated Press

Actress Natalie Wood photographed in December 1981. | | AP Photo/File