A team of forensic investigators and Los Angeles detectives have joined forces in a bid to learn the truth behind the mysterious death of Natalie Wood — by exhuming her body.
RadarOnline.com has learned the blockbuster development so enraged Wood's widower, Robert Wagner — labeled a "person of interest" in the case — that he hired a team of pitbull lawyers to crush the exhumation effort.
Plans to dig up the tragic West Side Story beauty — whose body was found floating off California's Catalina Island in November 1981 — were quietly hatched about 18 months ago.
Shortly afterward, homicide detectives from the L.A. County Sheriff's Department announced they had gathered more evidence against 89-year-old Wagner.
"Homicide detectives went to the Los Angeles County District Attorney for backing, asking a judge for a search warrant to exhume Natalie's body," an insider told Radar. "The detectives wanted to have another autopsy done, focusing on any trauma to Natalie's head before she drowned."
"Cops in Los Angeles don't need the district attorney's approval in obtaining a search warrant, but it's extremely influential to have their support," the insider added.
But the skittish DA's office told detectives to gather more facts because it's a "high-profile" case and exhuming Wood's corpse would generate media attention, the insider said.
Detectives then contacted Wagner's lawyers to get his permission to exhume Wood from her grave at Los Angeles' Pierce Brothers Westwood Village Memorial Park and Mortuary. Although Wagner's reps denied he's halted the exhumation, the source told Radar: "They were told a very firm 'No way!' "
Wood and her Brainstorm co-star Christopher Walken were aboard their 60-foot yacht, Splendour, on a Thanksgiving weekend cruise when — as Radar has reported — raging Wagner accused her of having an affair and smashed a bottle of wine on a table. Splendour skipper Dennis Davern witnessed Wagner brawling with Wood, 43, just before she vanished from the boat.
The death of the Rebel Without a Cause star was initially ruled an "accidental drowning." The case was reopened in 2011 and the finding was later changed to "accidental drowning and other undetermined factors."
Crucial key evidence pointing to a brutal beating was unreported in the original 1981 autopsy, even though photographs of Wood's corpse taken before and during the inquest showed her body had been battered.
"As soon as we looked at the autopsy report and photos, the bruises on her body just stood out," said homicide Det. Ralph Hernandez. "We have a lot of evidence that tends to point to a very suspicious death and would certainly indicate the possibility of foul play."
Investigative journalist Marti Rulli, co-author of the book Goodbye Natalie, Goodbye Splendour, thinks a new autopsy could uncover evidence showing the actress' head had been bashed in before she drowned.
"I believe Natalie suffered a skull injury that rendered her unconscious," Rulli declared.
In a breach of medical protocol, Wood's brain and skull were not examined in the original autopsy, Radar has learned.
But new X-ray and CAT scan technology could help identify blunt-force injuries and microscopic fractures, according to forensic expert Lawrence Kobilinsky.
"If you have a skeleton, good forensic medicine will reveal where a fracture was, and the likelihood of whether it was caused by another human being," he said.
Wagner has denied any wrongdoing but has refused to cooperate with authorities.
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