Then-assistant Los Angeles County Sheriff Robert Edmonds happened to be on Catalina Island the weekend in 1981 that actress Natalie Wood drowned. With renewed investigation of the circumstances of her death, the retired undersheriff publicly shares his account for the first time. Patrick Healy reports for the NBC4 News at 11 p.m. on Feb. 19, 2013.
Then-Assistant Sheriff Robert Edmonds still vividly remembers being awakened at 5am with the news that actress Natalie Wood had gone missing from a boat moored off Catalina Island in November 1981.
Hours later he was aboard the Los Angeles Sheriff's helicopter with the crew that spotted Wood's body, buoyed by a red down parka but lifeless in the water, about a quarter mile offshore from the isthmus.
"I'm just looking at what a tragedy here. How could this happen?" Edmonds recalled 32 years later.
It's a question that's yet to be fully answered. Wood's drowning was originally ruled an accident, but 15 months ago, citing "new information," sheriff's homicide department reopened the investigation.
It was Thanksgiving weekend in 1981. Edmonds happened to be on the island, having traveled to Avalon for a weekend getaway with some friends. The 43-year-old Wood had also traveled to the island for the weekend with her husband, Robert Wagner on their boat, Splendour.
With them was their regular captain, Dennis Davern, along with a guest, fellow actor Christopher Walken. At the time, Wagner starred in the hit televsion show, "Hart to Hart." Wood had been on something of a hiatus from screen work to stay at home with their children, but was making a new film with Walken as her romantic lead.
In the years since, Davern has alleged a jealous Wagner quarreled angrily with his wife, yelling at her to "get off my...boat," before she disappeared, and then allegedly discouraged Davern from searching and delayed calling for help.
Davern's account is detailed in a 2009 book "Goodbye Natalie, Goodbye Splendour," written by Marti Rulli.
When the Avalon sheriff's office was notified of Wood's disappearance, Edmonds oversaw the initial response.
Edmonds is now retired from his final position as undersheriff, and his account has never before been made public. But with new questions about the circumstances of Wood's drowning, Edmonds decided he's ready to speak out.
"This is a situation where we've arrived on the scene. We have a person dead. We don't know if we have an accident or a homicide or what we have," Edmonds said during an exclusive interview with NBC4 News.
After landing at the isthmus, Edmonds took charge of Wagner, staying with him as arrangements were made for a homicide detective to handle the investigation.
"He was a shocked man, I could see that," Edmonds said of Wagner. "He said he was really concerned about his kids."
Edmonds arranged for the sheriff's Sikorsky helicopter to fly Wagner and Walken to the sheriff's Aero Bureau at Long Beach Airport to be interviewed by Detective Sgt. Duane Rasure.
Afterwards, the sheriff's helicopter delivered Wagner to Santa Monica Airport, the closest to his Beverly Hills home.
Rulli contends this is evidence the original investigation was deferential to Wagner, and failed to pursue the possibility Wood's death was not an accident, but a homicide.
Edmonds disputes this.
"If somebody has that problem, and I can get what I need for the investigation and get them to their children, I would do that for anybody," Edmonds said.
After Sgt. Rasure spoke to Wagner and Walken, the helicopter brought Rasure to Catalina to question Davern.
Wagner, Walken and Davern all said the outing had been uneventful until Wood's disappearance. None reported hearing any calls for help, though a woman on another boat nearby later said she had.
Edmonds recalls one surprise early on. Wood had not spent the first night at the island on the Splendour, but instead at a Catalina lodge--with Davern. That information came from the innkeeper. Edmonds said he tried, but was unable to relay that information to Rasure before he spoke with Wagner and Walken on the mainland.
Davern made no mention of it in his initial interview on Catalina, but when confronted by Rasure, said he wanted to speak with an attorney before making any further comments, according to Edmonds.
It would be years before Davern changed his account, explaining that initially he felt pressure to conceal ugly truths. About the first night, Davern said Wagner had wanted to move the Splendour from Avalon havor to the isthmus. Wood did not want to make the trip in the dark, and so she went ashore with Davern as her bodyguard, accoridng to his later accounts.
During the second night, when Wood disappeared, the Splendour's dingy had come loose and in the morning was found empty at the shore. That figured into theories of what happened, including one given credence by then-Coroner Thomas Noguchi, MD, that Wood had attempted to tighten the dingy's tie-downs, but instead fell from the stern deck as the dingy drifted free, and lacked the strength to pull herself into it.
Within weeks, the case was closed.
"I drew the conclusion on the island, and later, that it was an accident," Edmonds said, though he is quick to acknowledge he never was directly involved in the investigation, his knowledge coming mainly from reports that crossed his desk.
Faced with the new uncertainty, Edmonds said he's speaking out because he wants to reassure Rasure, now 81, that his work was appreciated.
"The old guy still thinks he did a good job," Edmonds said.
When the sheriff's department reopened the investigation, the coroner's office also agreed to review its original autopsy findings.
The supplemental report was finished and approved last June, but not released officially until last month.
"The cause of death will be changed to drowning and other undetermined factors. Manner will be changed to undetermined," concluded the report, signed by Lakshmanan Sathyavagiswaran, MD, the chief medical examiner-coroner.
Among the issues the report raised were bruising the original autopsy had concluded were "probably sustained at the time of drowning." The new report found that "bruises especially in the upper extremities...could have occurred before she entered the water," and raised the possibility of "non-accidental mechanism for certain bruises."
Since the sheriff's investigation was reopened, Wagner, now 83, has declined to speak with investigators or answer questions from media.
Looking at the coroner's supplemental report, former undersheriff Edmonds wondered aloud if the "undetermined factors" will ever be known.
Determining them is the challenge for the new investigation.
View more videos at: http://nbclosangeles.com.