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OTRC: Natalie Wood death not an accident? New report questions cause of bruises

Natalie Wood's grave in Los Angeles. / Natalie Wood appears in a scene from the 1961 movie 'West Side Story.' (flickr.com/photos/16539699@N00/ Mirisch Corporation / Seven Arts Productions)

Natalie Wood's mysterious 1981 death may not have been an accident, according to a new report released by the Los Angeles County Coroner's Office, which cites bruises that it suggests may have been caused by assault.

The case remains one of Hollywood's biggest mysteries. Wood, who played Maria in the musical film "West Side Story," died at age 43 on Nov. 29, 1981 during a yacht trip near Catalina Island in California with Robert Wagner, her then-husband, and Christopher Walken, who co-starred with her in the sci-fi thriller "Brainstorm." The men are not suspects.

At the time, her death was ruled an accidental drowning. Wagner had told authorities she may have fallen off the boat after trying to re-tie a dinghy. Wood's blood alcohol level was .14 percent -- she had had seven or eight glasses of wine hours before her death.

An investigation into the death was reopened in late 2011 after new evidence emerged. A security hold was put on the case. Nine months later, in August 2012, it was revealed that Wood's death certificate changed so that cause of death now reads "drowning and other undetermined factors," rather than "accident."

According to a new coroner's report, released this week and obtained by OTRC.com, Wood's body had "numerous bruises" on her legs and arms after she was pulled out of the water. It says the chief medical examiner-coroner had met with experts and had "concern" about "non-accidental mechanism for certain bruises of the upper extremities."

The chief medical examiner-coroner, Lakshmanan Sathyavagiswaran, said in his report that there were "conflicting statements" as to whether or not Wood went missing from the boat and whether she and Wagner had verbal arguments.

"With the presence of fresh bruises in the upper extremities in the right forearm / left wrist area and a small scratch in the anterior neck, this Examiner is unable to exclude non-accidental mechanism causing these injuries," the report states.

"Based on a) the fact that she was wearing a blue and red plaid flannel nightgown, down jacket, socks with no underclothing, but had jewelry (ring / bracelet right hand, three rings on left hand and a chain around her waist), b) the intoxicated state, c) lack of life jacket, d) dinghy having never been used, e) her bladder still containing 300 cc of urine, f) lack of history of any suicidal ideation or note, g) the time of incident (around midnight) in darkness, this Medical Examiner is unable to exclude non-volitional, unplanned entry into the water," it adds.

Wood's body was found at 7:44 a.m. The report says that given the temperature of the water -- 63 degrees Fahrenheit -- and the time of death, it appears that she "drowned within a short time of her entry into the water."

"The location of the bruises, the multiplicity of the bruises, lack of head trauma or facial bruising support bruising having occurred prior to the entry into the water," the report adds. "Since there are many unanswered questions and limited additional evidence available for evaluation, it is opined by this Medical Examiner that the manner of death should be left as undetermined."

Also last year, the boat's captain, Dennis Davern told "48 Hours Mystery" and the "Today" show that he heard Wagner and Wood arguing on the night of her disappearance. Wagner wrote in his 2008 memoir that he had argued with Walken that evening and after he and Walken had gone to bed, he noticed that Wood and a dinghy were missing.

In late 2011, several witnesses have spoken the press about Wood's death, including a woman who said she was on a nearby boat and heard a female voice telling for help and the lifeguard captain who found the actress' lifeless body in the water.

Wood was born as Natalia Zakharenko in California. She started out as a successful child actress in films such as "Miracle on 34th Street." She later went to star in several films including the 1955 film "Rebel Without a Cause" opposite James Dean and the movie adaptation of "Gypsy."

Wood earned two Oscar nominations for "Splendor in the Grass" in 1961, the same year "West Side Story" was released, and "Love with the Proper Stranger" in 1963.

Wagner, known to younger audiences as the villain "Number Two" in the "Austin Powers" films, married Wood in 1957. They divorced about four years later, then remarried in 1972 and had one child, Courtney. Wood also had another daughter, Natasha, from her marriage to British producers Richard Gregson. Wagner married for the fourth time in 1990.

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