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Image: Natalie Wood
Reuters
Natalie Wood, who played Maria in "West Side Story," drowned on Thanksgiving weekend in 1981.
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updated 11/19/2011 6:58:52 PM ET 2011-11-19T23:58:52

Natalie Wood's drowning death nearly 30 years ago came after a night of dinner, drinking and arguments but the question remains — was it anything more than a tragic accident?

Conflicting versions of what happened on the yacht shared by Wood, her actor-husband Robert Wagner and their friend, actor Christopher Walken, have contributed to the mystery of how the actress died on Thanksgiving weekend in November 1981.

Two sheriff's detectives are now diving into the mysterious events on the yacht Splendour, although whether they reach any different conclusions than their predecessors remains to be seen. They recently received new, seemingly credible information and heard from potential witnesses who weren't included in the original investigation of Wood's death, sheriff's Lt. John Corina said Friday.

Story: Police: Robert Wagner not a suspect in Wood's death
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But he said nothing has happened to change the official view that Wood's death was originally an accidental drowning. Wagner, the former star of "Hart to Hart," is not considered a suspect, he added.

Corina released few details about who investigators have contacted or plan to re-interview, but the inquiry will certainly lead them to speak with the three survivors of the trip — Wagner, Walken and skipper Dennis Davern.

Wood's sister, Lana, was not on the boat, but told CNN's Piers Morgan on Friday that she has spoken with Davern many times and believes her sister did not fall off the boat.

"I don't think she fell, I don't know if she was pushed, I don't know whether there was an altercation and it happened accidentally but she shouldn't have died and that does stay with me and hurt," Lana Wood said.

"I would prefer to always believe that RJ (Wagner) would never do anything to hurt Natalie and that he loved her dearly, which he did, and I don't believe that whatever went on was deliberate. I've always cared about him. I always will care about him," she said.

Davern said on NBC television's TODAY on Friday that Wagner is to blame for the Oscar-nominated actress' death in the chilly waters off Southern California in November 1981, but didn't offer many specifics. For years he has maintained that he heard the famous couple arguing on the boat before Wood went missing and Wagner refusing to immediately search the waters nearby for his wife.

(TODAY.com is part of msnbc.com, which is a joint venture between Microsoft and NBC Universal.)

Davern's account is dramatically different from what he told investigators after Wood's body was found in 1981, when no mention of an argument between the couple was made. Wood was wearing a nightgown, wool socks and red down coat when she was found floating off Santa Catalina Island.

Story: Boat captain alleges actor Robert Wagner responsible for Natalie Wood's death

The renewed investigation comes at a time when plenty of attention was sure to be focused on Wood, whose beauty and acting in films such as "West Side Story" and "Rebel Without a Cause" made her Hollywood royalty. Her death stunned the world and CBS' "48 Hours Mystery" has been looking into the case for a special airing on Saturday.

Sheriff's officials denied the renewed attention prompted their review, which could take months.

"We're not concerned with the anniversary date," Corina said. "It may have jarred some other people's memories."

The Splendour is currently docked in Hawaii, where it's used for charter cruises. The current owner said Friday that he was contacted by Los Angeles authorities several weeks ago. He did not reveal details of the conversation.

"I have known for a few weeks that there was going to be a police investigation," Ron Nelson, who purchased the boat in 1986, said in an interview with KHON-TV in Honolulu. "But I didn't know it was going to explode like it did overnight."

Los Angeles Sheriff's Department officials said they will travel to Hawaii to look at the boat as part of their investigation.

Davern and Wagner agree on one point about the fateful night — there was a heated argument on the yacht after the group returned from dinner on Catalina. All had been drinking, and here is where the three men's accounts begin to differ.

Davern said he heard Wagner and Wood arguing and its outcome had horrific consequences.

Was that fight "what ultimately led to her death?" Davern was asked by TODAY show host David Gregory.

"Yes," Davern replied.

"How so?"

"Like I said, that's going to be up to the investigators to decide," Davern responded after a long pause.

Wagner acknowledges a fight took place on the Splendour, but in his best-selling 2008 memoir "Pieces of My Heart," he wrote that the fighting was between him and Walken. The disagreement began over the acting profession and led to Wood retreating to her cabin, while the dispute raged on between Wagner and Walken. Later Walken went to bed, according to Wagner, who, after staying up with Davern for a while, went looking for his wife and couldn't find her on board. He then noticed that a dinghy attached to the boat was gone — as was his wife.

Story: Wagner's book: Drinking didn't explain Wood's death

Walken, who has rarely spoken about the events that led to Wood's death, denied in a 1982 interview on "Good Morning America" that he and Wagner quarreled.

"No, that's not true," Walken said when asked if a fight was the reason Wood left the yacht. "They were very good to me, that family, and that's not true.

"We were having a Thanksgiving weekend, a good time," he said.

But Walken told sheriff's detectives that there was an argument, according to a 2000 Vanity Fair piece that included statements from a report by the investigating detective. It also included comments from Davern, who told the magazine that he heard Wagner and Wood fighting before she went missing.

The detective, Wagner and Walken and coroner's officials all have maintained that Wood's death was an accident, possibly caused by her trying to secure the dinghy to the side of the yacht.

"The people who are convinced that there was something more to it than what came out in the investigation will never be satisfied with the truth," Walken was quoted in the Vanity Fair piece as saying during an interview in the 1980s. "Because the truth is, there is nothing more to it. It was an accident."

Wagner too addressed the uncertainty about what happened in his book.

"Nobody knows," he wrote. "There are only two possibilities; either she was trying to get away from the argument, or she was trying to tie the dinghy. But the bottom line is that nobody knows exactly what happened."

Wagner said through a spokesman that his family trusts the sheriff's department to conduct a fair investigation into Wood's death.

The couple was married twice, first in 1957 before divorcing six years later. They remarried in 1972.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Photos: Natalie Wood

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  1. Child star

    Natalie Wood started her career as a child actor and went on to adult stardom. She wasn't yet 10 when she starred in the Christmas classic, "A Miracle on 34th Street," in 1947. (Everett Collection) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Lovely ingenue

    Wood, seen here in 1955, moved easily from child acting to more adult roles. (AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Rebels

    One of Wood's most famous roles came in 1955's "Rebel Without a Cause," in which she starred with James Dean. She was nominated for a best supporting actress Oscar for her role. ( Everett Collection) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Hollywood love story

    Wood was just 18 when she began dating 25-year-old Robert Wagner. The two wed a year later, in 1957, and starred together in the box-office flop "All the Fine Young Cannibals" in 1959. A 1980s band took its name from the film. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. I've just met a girl named Maria

    Wood and Richard Beymer played star-crossed lovers in 1961's "West Side Story." The film won 10 Oscars, but the two stars did not receive individual acting awards. (Everett Collection) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Hollywood royalty

    Wood and notorious womanizer Warren Beatty, co-stars in 1961's "Splendour in the Grass," attended the Oscars together that year. Their relationship did not last long. (William Lovelace / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Screen star

    Wood snagged a second to relax in her dressing room in 1962. At the height of her fame, she rivaled legend Liz Taylor for magazine cover appearances. (William Lovelace / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. 'Race' time

    Wood holds a parasol in a scene from 1965's "The Great Race." (Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Golden night.

    Wood and Paul Newman received Golden Globes in 1966 for World Favorite Actor and Actress. (Everett Collection) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Second time around

    Wood and Wagner divorced in 1962, and she married British producer Richard Gregson and had a daughter. But Wood and Gregson split in 1972 and she and Wagner remarried and had a daughter of their own. (Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Seventies style

    Once her daughters were born, Wood, seen here in 1975, moved into semi-retirement from acting, and would only make four more films. (Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Family affair

    Wagner, Wood and their daughter Courtney (held by Wood) and her daughter Natasha arrive in London in 1976. (AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. With Sir Laurence

    Wagner and Wood appeared with Sir Laurence Olivier on his 1976 show, "Laurence Olivier Presents," which adapted famous plays for television. (Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. On the red carpet

    Wagner, sporting a rare mustache, and Wood made for a glamorous couple at the 1979 Oscars. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Final film

    Christopher Walken and Wood starred together in 1983's "Brainstorm," the film they were working on when she died in 1981. Walken was on Wood and Wagner's yacht the night she drowned. (Everett Collection) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Sorrow and Splendour

    Wood died after an evening on the 55-foot-yacht Splendour that she and Wagner owned, named for her 1961 hit "Splendour in the Grass." She was found wearing a down jacket over a nightgown. There had reportedly been an argument between the couple that night. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. A lost mother

    Wagner comforts the couple's daughter, Courtney at her mother's funeral. Courtney was just 7 and Natasha Gregson 11 when Natalie Wood drowned. (Paul Harris / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Rest in peace

    Wood is buried in the quiet Westwood Village Memorial Park in Los Angeles, an urban oasis just steps away from busy UCLA. The mystery of her death has never been fully explained. (Gabriel Bouys / AFP-Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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