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Feb. 11, 2013
Natalie Wood and Robert Wagner
Without a doubt, this glamorous woman’s fatal midnight plummet from the deck of The Splendour into the cool ocean waters off Catalina Island in 1981 has got to be the most high profile “accidental drowning” on record.
In the hours preceding her watery demise, she was overheard loudly quarreling with an enraged and jealous husband. They had been at this all day, in fact. All evening they’d been drinking.
Married, divorced, and remarried for a second try, the two were known to have a volatile relationship, with more than their fair share of public and private disagreements, be they drunk or sober. But this argument was different. The worst one yet.
When she drowned, she had prominent contusions in “no particular pattern” all over the front and back of her body. Some of these were fresh injuries, said to have been obtained as she frantically grappled with a small, wooden dinghy secured to the side of the yacht. Some she’d received just days before plunging to her death.
She had a variety of unexplained abrasions, too: On her flawless face, on her lovely hands, on her shapely thighs and calves.
And, as demonstrated by her casual attire on the morning would-be rescuers fished her bruised body from the ocean—in a flannel nightgown, cotton socks, no lifejacket—she had clearly not entered the water voluntarily.
Yet it still took the loved ones of celebrated actress Natalie Wood over three decades to prove that her saltwater drowning was more than a little suspicious.
A perfect crime, re-evaluated
It was said to have been foretold by a family member that she would someday lose her life “in dark water,” and on November 28, 1981, during an escalating argument with a husband on the rampage, die in dark water she did.
His famous wife had been lost at sea for practically two hours when Robert Wagner finally decided to report that Natalie Wood had gone missing from his boat. By that time she was surely dead, as the emergency personnel who first responded to his SOS call strongly suspected. Consequently, they found Wagner’s delay peculiar and perplexing.
The actor’s answer when questioned about it told them all they needed to know. “I thought she was off on another boat screwing around,” a sweaty, anxious, and inebriated Wagner blurted, “because that’s the kind of woman she is.”
So there were already whispers of abuse and foul play even before Wood’s beaten corpse was retrieved from the ocean a few hours later. Still, the coroner’s office of Los Angeles County, where the deceased was immediately transported for autopsy, didn’t hesitate to pronounce her drowning death an accident. Thereafter, these officials’ final determination, signed, sealed and certified, would remain undisturbed for 31 consecutive years. Until, in the summer of 2012, they changed their minds at last:
AUTOPSY SUPPLEMENTAL #81-15167 ‒ WAGNER, NATALIE / A.K.A. WOOD, NATALIE: “The right forearm showed a 4 inch x 1 inch diffuse bruising on the lateral aspect and few bruises on back of hand. The left wrist showed a slight deformity in the lateral condyle of the ulna and there was also a superficial fresh bruise in this area 1/2 inch in diameter. There were multiple small 1/2 to 1 inch fresh bruises in the left anterior lateral thigh. There was a two inch recent bruise to the left knee. There were recent bruises to the right upper leg in the area and right ankle. The anterior neck showed a small scratch. There was also superficial abrasion in left forehead, left brow and left upper cheek area with an upward direction. There was white froth in the nasal oral area. There were recent bruises to the back of the left thigh. A few day old bruises were on the back of the right thigh and knee, but there were fresh bruises and scratches to the posterior leg…There are conflicting statements as to when the decedent went missing from the boat and whether there were verbal arguments between the decedent and her husband…This Examiner is unable to exclude non-accidental mechanism causing these injuries.” — Dr. Lakshmanan Sathyavagiswaran, Chief Medical Examiner and Coroner for the county of Los Angeles, California - 6/15/12
Semi-perfect crimes, reevaluated
Drowning is a fast and efficient way to end a life, but not usually the weapon of choice for murderers. Possibly because they’d have to get wet themselves to do it right.
Nonetheless, there are some people who adamantly believe a gang of serial killers has been roaming the United States and selecting college age males for death by drowning. Luring an unsuspecting victim to the waterfront, preferably one who’s publicly intoxicated, and then drowning them when nobody’s looking is “the perfect crime” such theorists claim. Water washes away all the evidence.
They’ve even dubbed these mysterious marauders of young men "The Smiley Face Killers" since this alleged band of evildoers has also been rumored to leave gloating graffiti at their crime scenes.
Ominous phrases, song lyrics, initials, and of course smiley faces, sometimes with horns drawn on them, these allegedly are the markings Smiley boldly leaves behind on nearby trees and walls and boulders and docks, after they’ve drowned someone…but not always.
To be sure, ever since 1997 when 21-year-old Patrick McNeill vanished from New York City and his badly decomposed corpse was found in the East River several weeks later, there have been hundreds of documented incidences of similar disappearances and drownings in America’s northland. Moreover, just as diehard believers in the Smiley Face murder theory are claiming, there is by now a well established victimology of young men meeting such a tragic end.
Police are never able to solve this vexing syndrome, even if they try, which they usually don’t, so conspiracists think they can.
Every compelling conspiracy theory that goes viral will invariably have its naysayers and critics though, and chief among those who periodically strive to debunk the Smiley Face one is the FBI, the Center for Homicide Research, a handful of expert criminologists and university professors, and swarms of local, outraged law enforcement agencies that feel self-conscious about clusters of young men drowning in their jurisdictions and don’t want a lot of attention drawn to the situation.
It isn’t, after all, an especially appealing feature of any municipality to have youths jumping in droves into icy rivers, lakes, ponds, and streams and perishing, but all of these authorities state, in no uncertain terms, that water recreational deaths really aren’t that rare in the scheme of things.
More males drown while swimming and boating than females do anyway.
Serial killers do not drown their victims, they also add, so therefore these young men are simply drinking too much and, just as poor, drunken Natalie Wood did decades ago, they’re somehow staggering into water and accidentally drowning.
It’s a flimsy argument at best, and since it never fixes the problem opponents always cry foul in response to it. They counter with the obvious: that these guys aren’t going swimming or boating in the wintertime, that most are barely over the legal limit for operating a motor vehicle, that only certain types of men are disappearing and drowning, and that Natalie Wood’s death was hardly an accident.
Totally valid objections, each and every one of those. Except it’s true that intentional drowning does not fit the motif of serial killers, for the very simple reason that it’s much too speedy and bloodless a death to satisfy their perverse yearnings. These are deeply twisted creatures, and they seek power and pleasure exclusively through sexual assault, torture, brutal murder, and dismemberment. None of which is typically evidenced on the bodies of drowned men.
As well, even the most “organized” brand of psychopathic killer is, by virtue of profound mental disorder, incapable of teaming with others, let alone his own ilk, so the notion of a group of them somehow evading capture for more than 15 years, while fleetingly amusing to envision, is also rather specious.
Serial killings versus serial killers
Whether one is a police detective, a medical examiner, a professional private eye or a citizen sleuth, the sharpest tool anyone has for dissection and analysis will always be Occam’s Razor, a tried and true principle which posits that the simplest hypothesis is most likely to be the correct one. Or, as Einstein so eloquently summed up in decades past, “Everything should be kept as simple as possible, but no simpler.”
This is the only sensible approach to investigating because, otherwise, with every assumption that is made about a thing another possibility for error is introduced into the equation, increasing the probability that a theory is wrong…
The theorizing of the public and police concerning missing/drowned men are at extreme odds with each other, producing a stalemate. These two entrenched beliefs will always be irreconcilable because one is constructed on a plethora of odd assumptions and the other is overly simplistic.
Sadly, this has left the reasonable and important question as to why so many young males are now ending up dead in the water unanswered. But, while the drownings are most likely not due to a serial killing gang being at large in the region, their frequency shows they are by no means accidental, either.
In fact, stripped of all rhetoric and assorted red herrings, the evidentiary facts that have thus far accumulated in The Case Of the Drowning Men reveal the vast majority of victims were last seen being accosted by bouncers and/or cops only minutes before vanishing. A sharp razor is hardly necessary then to peel away such a thinly veiled mystery and see that their subsequent deaths are, instead, due to a pattern of excessive force. Inglorious and shameful as that truly is.
It’s no secret that cops and bouncers are valued for their skilled aggressiveness, and that far too often such aggression erupts into acts of brutality. To address this chronic problem, technology for subduing people in “nonlethal” ways was invented, and over the past two decades such handheld devices have become so popular and affordable that even average citizens can purchase them now without too much difficulty or even background checks.
Unfortunately though, just like mercilessly pummeling a young man until he’s rendered unconscious, employing a nonlethal weapon against him, such as a stun-gun or taser, can also lead to sudden death or a deathlike coma, especially if used improperly or to excess. Technically, this could be deemed an accidental consequence, yes, but it’s clearly not one directly caused by inebriation.
When in the process of ejecting a young man from a bar and/or arresting him in this manner he does inadvertently die from being roughed up or repeatedly stunned, it’s only then and there that a nearby river, lake, stream or pond presents itself as the ideal solution to the gruesomely unexpected.
The motive for such devious thinking is obvious: while disposal and cover up is an unpleasant business, it’s better than facing community backlash and legal ramifications that result from a wrongful death.
Wrongful death and devious thinking
As with Natalie Wood's perilous tumble of convenience, pushing the dead or mortally injured over the railing of a ship positioned miles away from land, or else standing at the shoreline and heaving them on the count of three into a body of freshwater, is a crime after the fact. A desperate, kneejerk attempt by the felonious to hide and disguise the original offense.
And, like Wood, somebody fairly intoxicated, who’s only been knocked unconscious or is comatose, could still “naturally” drown once fully submerged, displaying all the usual drowning symptoms when the bodies resurface again: saturated lungs, foam at the mouth, high levels of magnesium and chloride distributed unevenly in the left and right chambers of the heart, volumes of watery fluid in the stomach and diluted blood.
For that matter, anyone who’s ever studied police forensics 101 knows that even a stone-cold cadaver can manage to draw some water into its air passages, if it soaks long enough.
When and if assault victims ditched in this underhanded manner are ever recovered, any telltale contusions and lacerations that may still be visible can easily be explained away as well—many bouncers are actually off-duty cops moonlighting as security for pubs and clubs, and every police department enjoys a cozy relationship with the local coroner’s office.
That means it doesn’t take a pre-planned, sophisticated plot to pull off an accidental drowning whenever one becomes necessary, nor to accomplish the misdeed time and time again without getting caught. A few confidential phone calls is all it would require.
This scheme will make manufactured drowning deaths seem to qualify as perfect crimes per se, but the success of the heartless ruse is dependant entirely on halfhearted investigations.
Fame and infamy
Thanks to Hollywood, the very machine that made Natalie Wood and her embroiled former husband Robert Wagner superstars, serial killers too have become celebrities. As a result, the public today is unabashedly enamored with such malevolent personalities, reimagining them as principled and omnipotent slayers, instead of the out-of-control sadists and psychos that they really are.
The present-day enthrallment with such monsters, promoted by blockbuster films like Silence of Lambs and Hannibal that grossly misrepresent these antisocial predators, has also led to widespread fallacies about them, too. Particularly as it relates to their prevalence.
In reality, serial killers are but a tiny fraction of the criminal population, and tortuous death at the hands of such deranged strangers only accounts for slightly less than one percent of all the murders committed annually. Whereas, in approximately 85 percent of all other homicides committed within this same time span, the victims were acquainted with their attackers. Many even related to them, either by blood or through marriage.
Likewise, despite the idea of a serial drowning gang being a premise worthy of the big screen, most if not all missing-found-drowned males were in fact last observed involved in disputes or physical altercations. So it’s fair to conclude they were already dead or on the brink of dying when their bodies were surreptitiously placed in water. The drowning events, therefore, were not the real cause or manner of their deaths, but rather the violence that preceded them.
Fists, firearms or whatever, these kind of regular run-of-the-mill “crimes of passion,” whether spontaneous or hastily premeditated, in clear view or covered up, are usually isolated acts of extreme aggression, occurring primarily in the victims’ residences and, not infrequently, in public gathering places like bars and discotheques.
Admittedly, the odd serial slaying now and then by a coldblooded psychotic may be more luridly fascinating for some, but the truth is it’s plain old passion, manifested in the form of a sudden blind and murderous rage, that is the source of nearly all homicides worldwide. Almost every single murder takes place in the heat of the moment, during some sort of impromptu confrontation between two or more average citizens which rapidly gets out of hand.
An angry friend or relative, a jilted, cheated lover, a bouncer annoyed with a boisterous patron, a cop on the beat resorting to excessive force or lethal tasering, a husband feeling cuckolded and hell-bent on revenge…forget about serial killers, these are society’s homicidal maniacs. Normal people experiencing heightened emotions that set the stage for runaway violence which can, and often does, result in unintended deaths.
Universally, any indirect murder of this nature is classified as manslaughter, but, regardless that an assault turning deadly may indeed have been unanticipated, if the killing wasn’t done in self-defense it can still carry a pretty hefty prison sentence.
Especially when the perpetrator endeavors to conceal his crime by secretly disposing of the victim…
Accidentally on purpose
Apart from the possibility that someone may have been bribed or even threatened back in 1981, it’s not impossible that it was solely due to the fame of the people present on the night Natalie Wood drowned which served to influence the erroneous ruling that her death was purely an accident.
The testimonies of Wood’s illustrious and equally drunken companions on that evening, Robert Wagner and Christopher Walken, were always in glaring contradiction, so who knows if LA County’s former coroner wasn’t a bit star-struck in deliberately choosing to disregard other qualifying factors, too. Namely, the couple’s protracted squabbling on deck and below, the inordinate delay by Wagner in reporting his spouse missing, the ugly remarks he made about her to first responders, and indications of assault on her body when it was finally recovered a short distance from his yacht.
The hired skipper of The Splendour at the time has since also described a long and vicious argument Wagner had with Wood in their cabin and on deck prior to her falling overboard, as well as an elaborate cover-up of the same by the actor and his representatives in the days, weeks and months following her death.
Considering the actress had multiple, days-old bruising when she disappeared and drowned, the captain’s tale of a final and fatal altercation between the unhappy twosome is therefore a credible story. One that challenges the iconic leading man’s historical version of exactly how his 43-year-old, water-phobic wife entered the Pacific Ocean, and which, in light of the new inquest into the actual circumstances of her drowning and injuries, also explains why Robert Wagner is steadfastly refusing to cooperate with investigators.
Some fans and sympathizers speculate that Wagner, now in his 80s, has clammed up only on the good advice of his lawyers. He’s a major celebrity, a veritable household name, they argue, and his silence is not an admission of guilt but rather to protect his career, his family and his legacy.
True or false motivations, only those conducting the fact-finding mission at this stage in the renewed inquest will be able one day to tell us. However, be he a famous man or just an infamous rogue in hiding, Wagner’s stonewalling should be viewed no differently than any other prime suspect attempting to dodge a worrisome police probe, or, when made to answer under oath, outright lying or taking the Fifth to avoid self-incrimination. Acting belligerent or being uncooperative speaks for itself.
In his own brief but comparatively ordinary existence, 22-year-old Joshua Aaron Swalls, who somehow disappeared and “accidentally drowned” while visiting Indianapolis in November 2012, had probably never even heard of the late, great Natalie Wood. Nor does it seem very likely that he’d ever watched any of her once-groundbreaking movies either. His was a different era, one which came to an end for him much too soon.
Distanced by decades and thousands of miles, not to mention celebrity status, Joshua Swalls’s accident and Natalie Wood’s are obviously two distinctly unique events that happened to two distinctly unique individuals. Viewing their drowning deaths in terms of basic forensics, these are the other notable differences between them:
1. With a blood/alcohol concentration of 0.14, Natalie Wood was somewhat intoxicated when she drowned, and Joshua Swalls was not.
2. Wood died in saltwater off the coast of California; Swalls in the freshwater of a small, Indiana retention pond.
3. Wood’s body was found within only hours of dying and well before rigormortis had fully set in; Swalls’s decomposing corpse wasn’t discovered until three weeks after he’d vanished.
4. Wood was a middle-aged female of petite stature; Swalls was tall, athletic and svelte, and had only just reached manhood.
Yet these two November drown victims have uncanny similarities in their cases that are impossible to ignore: Both went missing under extremely suspicious circumstances, with key witnesses to their disappearances and drownings issuing contradictory statements to investigators. Both suffered virtually identical injuries prior to dying which were inconsistent with those derived in standard drowning events. Both were clad in the type of clothing that clearly implied they had not planned on going swimming and therefore hadn’t entered the water voluntarily.
And both of their cases were speedily closed by authorities as accidental, with no signs of foul play involved in either of them.
“The deep blue sea” is, of course, very deep. But not necessarily peaceful. Still, it’s not the type of body of water where a drown victim, once fully immersed, will be dragged across jagged rocks or other underwater obstacles. An action that commonly occurs in narrower, fast-flowing rivers and creeks and which contributes to most postmortem injuries, particularly to the face and hands.
By contrast, a pond, whether manmade or natural, tends to be quite shallow. But even if spring-fed, its waters are relatively calm as well. Therefore a drown victim, upon death, will, gently sink to the pond’s silty bottom and then, when gases from putrefaction have filled their corpse to maximum capacity, lurch like a helium balloon to the surface once more.
Water and air temperature determines how quickly a cadaver does that, but in the time between these inevitable events—sinking, rotting, and ascending—those in ponds and wide open bodies of seawater will usually sustain no further injuries after death and during decomposition, unless nibbled away at by marine animals.
Bodies sunken in a river or creek naturally sustain more damages because if the currents are swift enough corpses can be tossed against submerged objects and dragged along stones in a riverbed. Once refloat finally occurs, they can then travel on the water’s surface for several miles before they’re sighted by anyone. As they’re carried along like that, they can also collide with docks, barriers and piers, become ensnared by tree limbs or other floating debris, and even get mangled by the propeller blades of a passing craft.
However, any dedicated examiner conducting a thorough evaluation of such wounds can discern the difference between the ones which occurred after a victim had expired and those inflicted while they were still alive.
Decedent Joshua Swalls was delivered to the morgue for autopsy with pronounced “contusions of the right forehead and eyebrow, bridge of nose, and right zygomatic arch in the shape of a reverse C, continuous.” He also had an “abrasion of tip of nose” and additional “abraded contusions to kneecaps bilateral, and to shins, multiple bilateral, with one underlying a tear in the left pants leg.”
All of these injuries were judged by the medical examiner to have been received before or at the time he died, not after.
Given the way both Wood and Swalls presented at autopsy then, each clothed in non-swimming apparel and plainly beaten, the only nagging question left for authorities to answer was just how these two black-and-blue people had entered the water where they drowned and who it was that had previously assaulted them, since neither an ocean nor a pond could have possibly caused all their injuries.
Ascertaining the true sequence of events which ultimately led to a victim entering a body of water and then drowning in it is part of any complete forensic analysis, and a meticulous inquiry by a coroner is demanded as a matter of law in all premature deaths.
Everyone can agree that, whether perfect people or fundamentally flawed, dying at age 22 or age 43 is much too young to be considered natural. And anytime someone dies in water when not even engaged in any water-recreational activities should additionally raise eyebrows.
In each of these troubling cases police and medical examiners could also tell that the odds of either battered victim diving into that water on their own volition were fairly slim: Joshua Swalls wasn’t drunk, wasn’t on drugs, wasn’t mentally defective, and wasn’t going to take a quick dip in frigid weather; and Natalie Wood, who frankly didn’t know how to swim because of an intense dread of water, had no history of ever being reckless with her life or suicidal.
On the other hand, she was known to be in a dragged-out domestic dispute with a spouse on a drunken tirade only moments before she “accidentally” fell into the Pacific Ocean. A man seeing red that night because he thought Wood and Walken were having an affair, and who’s last words to his doomed wife were purported to have been “get off my f—cking boat.”
It took the people who cared about her more than 30 years to achieve, but at last the dubious ruling on Natalie Wood’s manner of death has been overturned and the long overdue investigation into the likelihood of homicide fully launched. But Joshua Swalls’s drowning is every bit as questionable as hers is, and still it continues to be listed as an accident.
Will his loved ones have to wait three decades for justice, too?