Lakshmanan Sathyavagiswaran: The coroner who made sure the hunt for Natalie Wood's ‘killer’ kept going
LA County Chief Coroner Lakshmanan Sathyavagiswaran made some amends to Wood's death certificate. The cause of death was changed from accidental drowning to "drowning and other undetermined factors"
Hollywood was struck by a huge tragedy when the 43-year-old charming actress Natalie Wood's body was found floating in the waters off Santa Catalina Island in 1981. The question remains: How did she die? The suspense circled around for days and major details surrounding her death were unknown.
Some of the biggest mysteries revolved around how she entered the water and why the three other people on the yacht, Splendour — actor-husband Robert Wagner, the ship's Captain Dennis Davern, and Natalie's actor-friend Christopher Walken — didn't know about her whereabouts. Why the case that was reopened in 2011 could not be solved? Did LA County Chief Coroner Lakshmanan Sathyavagiswaran have a hand in it?
Her body was recovered by authorities at 8 am on November 29 one mile away from the boat. When questioned, her husband Wagner said she was not with him when he went to bed. What's even more mysterious is that the actress had bruises on her body and arms as well as a scrape on her left cheek, according to the autopsy report. No one had a clue about how she had gotten those injuries.
Captain Davern said that Wood and Wagner had an argument earlier that evening. While her husband denied the allegations at the time, he later confessed in his memoir 'Pieces of My Heart' that he had an argument with Wood before she disappeared. In the autopsy, Wood's blood-alcohol level was 0.14% and traces of a motion-sickness pill and a painkiller were found. At that time, the cause of her death was stated as accidental drowning and hypothermia after a ruling by Los Angeles County coroner Thomas Noguchi.
It was also speculated that Wood was so drunk that she may have slipped while boarding the dinghy. Her sister Lana Wood rebuffed this saying she could not swim and was "terrified" of water. If that wasn't proof enough, two witnesses stated they heard a woman yelling for help at night. Nevertheless, the case was closed.
In November 2011, the case was reopened after Davern publicly confessed that he lied to cops earlier. He said Wood and Wagner argued as the former flirted with her friend Walken on the boat, and it infuriated Wagner. "I did lie on a report several years ago," he told NBC, adding, "I made mistakes by not telling the honest truth in a police report."
Was Wagner "responsible" for Wood's death? Davern said, "yes, I would say so. Yes." He added, "We didn't take any steps to see if we could locate her. I think it was a matter of, 'We're not going to look too hard, we're not going to turn on the searchlight, we're not going to notify anybody right now.'"
A year later, Los Angeles County Chief Coroner Lakshmanan Sathyavagiswaran made some amends to Wood's death certificate. The cause of death was changed from accidental drowning to "drowning and other undetermined factors". However, it didn't lend any insight into how the accident took place. Reportedly, detectives instructed the coroner's office not to discuss or comment on the case.
Six years later, in February 2018, Wagner was named a "person of interest" in the investigation. The investigators said, "We know now that he was the last person to be with Natalie before she disappeared." But that's all. Moreover, her autopsy also revealed bruises on her right forearm, left wrist, and right knee, a scratch on her neck, and a superficial scrape on her forehead. However, nothing could be established by those marks and the investigation was not taken forward. Sadly, Sathyavagiswaran simply made sure the hunt for Natalie Wood's "killer" kept going instead of getting a final verdict on the case.
Interestingly, the coroner was the medical examiner during the O. J. Simpson murder case and testified in the trials of Dean Carter and Phil Spector. Well, that's not all. Sathyavagiswaran supervised the autopsy of Michael Jackson's body too.
Uncovering major details of the tragedy, a new docuseries, 'Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind: Season 1' premieres on HBO on May 5 at 9 pm ET.