Mysterious Island: Natalie Wood

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Thirty-one years ago this month, the body of Hollywood legend Natalie Wood was discovered in the chill November waters of Isthmus Harbor.  This week’s column features an interview with long-time Islander Doug Bombard, who made the discovery.

By Jim Watson

While Catalina Island generally receives favorable press worldwide and is looked upon as a happy place, free of the world’s cares, from time to time an event occurs on the Island that generates tragic headlines.

Thirty-one years ago this month, the body of Hollywood legend Natalie Wood was discovered in the chill November waters of Isthmus Harbor.  This week’s column features an interview with long-time Islander Doug Bombard, who made the discovery.

By Jim Watson

While Catalina Island generally receives favorable press worldwide and is looked upon as a happy place, free of the world’s cares, from time to time an event occurs on the Island that generates tragic headlines.

Such an event was the untimely death in 1981 of Hollywood movie legend Natalie Wood at Two Harbors on Catalina’s West End.

According to official accounts of the event, at 3 a.m. on Nov. 29, 1981, Wood was said to have disappeared after going on the deck of the yacht belonging to her and her husband, Robert Wagner.  Actor Christopher Walken was also on board.

Several witnesses on other boats in the area reported they heard arguing board Wagner’s vessel earlier that night.  Wagner himself told police the two had had an argument but had “calmed down” before going to bed.

At some point during the night, Wood went up on deck. She did not return. Noticing their small inflatable dinghy gone, Wagner went looking for her in another boat.  Unable to find her anywhere in the dark, he notified the local Harbor Patrol who   looked in vain for her.

As the fruitless search wore on through the night, Doug Bombard, general manager for all business operations in the Two Harbors area at the time, was enlisted to join in the search.

“They’d been looking all night and they came up and got me about just a half hour before dawn,” he said.  “What they told me they thought happened is that she slipped and fell into the water during the night about 3 a.m.”

By the time Doug was awakened, searchers had recovered the inflatable dinghy.  But Wood was nowhere to be found.Knowing the ocean currents in the area as well or better than anyone, Doug first checked the kelp line along the east shore of Isthmus Harbor.

As he rounded Blue Cavern Point, Doug noticed a small red-colored “bubble” floating on the surface about 100 yards offshore.  The red bubble turned out to be a pocket of air in Wood’s red down jacket.  There, he found Wood’s body hanging feet first under the water by the jacket’s straps.

“I hung onto her,” said Doug, “and she was heavy.  Her lungs were full of water and she was hanging underneath the jacket.”

Doug described her as being dressed in mukluk-style boots with a long night gown.

“I hung onto her and called one of my shoreboats,” he said.  “One of (the shoreboats) came in and helped me lift her into the boat.”

By the time Doug found her, she “was long gone,” he said, adding that “With that water as cold as it is there was no rigor mortis.”

Afterwards, Doug went out to Wagner’s boat to tell him the news.  “I went and told him what I found and he didn’t say much.”

About 45 minutes later, Wagner and Walken came into Doug’s office at the foot of the pier at Isthmus Harbor and told him “what they thought happened.”

Wagner told Doug they had been out to dinner at the Bombard’s restaurant, Doug’s Harbor Reef.  Afterwards, they returned to their yacht in the inflatable and then tied the dinghy to the yacht’s stern cleat.  Then, both Wagner and Wood went below and eventually went to bed.

Wagner then told Doug that he believed Wood got up in the middle of the night to retie the dinghy to the cleat.  “He was guessing that what she probably did, was that the dinghy would be banging against the side of the boat and they had an aft stateroom.”  It was while Wood was retying the dinghy line that she fell in, said Wagner.

Doug doesn’t give much credence to recent stories that Wagner was somehow at fault, possibly even guilty of murder.  

“Basically what he (Wagner) told me makes sense,” he said.

Equally implausible to Doug is that wood, out of anger, got into the inflatable on her own to motor around in the night.

“I’ll guarantee you she wasn’t out for a night running around in the inflatable.  That wasn’t her bag at all.  She wasn’t real nuts about being out on the water,” he added.  “She wasn’t a swimmer.  She was always up on the bow sunning herself.”

The case of Natalie Wood’s drowning was re-opened on the 30th anniversary of her death in 2011, although authorities at the time came to the conclusion that there was no new evidence to contradict the original conclusion.

However, in a surprise announcement in July 2012 the Los Angeles County Coroner’s office changed the cause of death from “accident drowning” to “undetermined.”  The reason for the change was stated as being “some of the bruises on Wood’s body were inconsistent with death by drowning.”

Jim Watson is the author of “Mysterious Island: Catalina,” available on Amazon, Kindle and in stores all over Avalon.

Mysterious Island: Natalie Wood