The Investigation

The Second CPRA Case

Another providential association came about when I told Jan Morris, my trusty volunteer assistant (see photo of Jan with Doug Bombard in the Photo Gallery subsection), I needed a good research assistant in Los Angeles. Jan was invaluable in locating and communicating with many witnesses, but occasionally you must have boots on the ground in a location to get the results you want. So, it was a lucky day for me when Jan found Kevin Brechner, a kind and gentle soul.

Kevin’s a walking encyclopedia. His IQ must be off the charts. With a Bachelor of Science degree with honors in psychology and a minor in radio/TV/film from Washington State University, he understands people and the film industry. He has vast experience in motion pictures, television and the theater combined with a background that includes fine arts, archaeology and music. In the true sense of the word, he is a renaissance man. But best of all, over the years, he has become a true friend.

His first assignment concerned Dr. Noguchi. In my research, I had read about Dr. Noguchi’s trials and tribulations with Los Angeles County and certain Hollywood celebrities before and after Natalie’s death. In essence, if you have not read my book, Dr. Noguchi was fired as Los Angeles County’s chief medical examiner-coroner in 1982 and he sued for reinstatement.

With a little legal research, I discovered that the case of Thomas T. Noguchi, M.D. v. Civil Service Commission of the County of Los Angeles was appealed to the Second District Court of Appeal in 1984 and decided in December 1986. Dr. Noguchi sought judicial review of the Civil Service Commission’s actions denying his administrative appeal of the Board of Supervisors’ 1982 disciplinary action against him.

Michael Antonovich was first elected as a county supervisor in 1980 and represented the Fifth District until 2016. The Fifth District, which covers a northern portion of Los Angeles County, currently has a population of 2 million people. His job duties included overseeing the coroner’s office.

In 1981, before term limits, turnover on the board was rare—very rare—as long as the supervisors didn’t displease powerful people who gave money to their campaigns. By November 1981, Antonovich, the politically ambitious former California state assemblyman who had unsuccessfully run for lieutenant governor in 1978, had his eyes fixed on a United States Senate race that was to take place in November 1986.

Dr. Noguchi had been chief medical examiner-coroner since 1967. And he served as a deputy medical examiner-coroner for six years before his appointment. With 21 years of employment with Los Angeles County’s coroner’s office, you would think that Dr. Noguchi was secure in his job. But on March 12, 1982, less than four months after Natalie’s death, the Board of Supervisors suspended him without pay for 30 days on five grounds.

First, the operations of the coroner’s office were found to be seriously deficient. Second, Dr. Noguchi had failed to inform the Board of Supervisors of the problems in the coroner’s office. Third, Dr. Noguchi’s involvement in outside activities had deprived the coroner’s office of leadership. Fourth, Dr. Noguchi had inappropriately delegated authority for medical functions to a professionally unqualified manager, and finally, Dr. Noguchi demonstrated poor judgment in public statements regarding celebrity deaths. The fifth reason, in my opinion, was the tail that wagged the dog.

Meanwhile, about the time the board made its decision to suspend Dr. Noguchi, the grand jury for Los Angeles County began conducting an independent audit of Dr. Noguchi’s office. The Los Angeles County District Attorney asked the grand jury to investigate whether Dr. Noguchi had committed a criminal offense while in office. No indictments were returned against Dr. Noguchi, but as a result of the grand jury’s report, the Board of Supervisors informed Dr. Noguchi on April 16, 1982, of its intent to demote him from chief medical examiner-coroner to a position of “Physician Specialist, M.D,” effective April 28, 1982.

In other words, Dr. Noguchi went from the top of the department to the bottom. The reasons given for the demotion were the same as the suspension, but a sixth reason was added.

The supervisors felt Dr. Noguchi had misused the power of his office after a request was made to gain access to coroner’s department records for a scientific study. Apparently, a foundation Dr. Noguchi was deeply involved with profited financially before the request was granted. In other words, a quid pro quo in which a drug company representative was granted access to official records after the company paid money to the foundation.

After studying the transactions, my experience as a white-collar crime prosecutor convinced me that Dr. Noguchi technically solicited and received a bribe in return for his official action. Or worse, he committed extortion by using his authority to extract the drug company payments. But after understanding the facts, I understood why Dr. Noguchi was not indicted. It was clearly the DA’s assessment that a jury would not convict Dr. Noguchi because the money did not go into his pocket. It benefited a charity, which was probably the scheme’s righteous justification in Dr. Noguchi’s mind.

But I couldn’t help but notice the irony in all of this. Law enforcement didn’t charge Dr. Noguchi, which they had probable cause to do. Instead, the high-profile matter was handled by the DA—the way Natalie’s death should have been—with investigators bringing evidence to the DA for presentation to the grand jury. It’s certainly not an unusual approach in prominent state cases in which a DA wants the appearance of fairness.


I did some more legal research while Kevin attempted to find the Court of Appeal’s file. A record like that would ordinarily include letters, hearing testimony transcripts, pleadings, exhibits and, perhaps, sworn depositions. The Court of Appeal opinion said the record was in “20 volumes” containing “3,500 pages.” But those numbers didn’t scare me. To look for answers, I often had to dig through mountains of records—many times in vain.

Unfortunately, the Noguchi case was too old for the Court of Appeal to have retained any of the files. However, the court clerk suggested going directly to the County Board of Supervisors, the Civil Service Commission or the County Attorney. Kevin decided to try the Board of Supervisors first.

With the help of two county Board of Supervisors’ staff members, Kevin retrieved in excess of 1,000 pages of records from the California State Archives. I combed through every page, hunting for clues to help me understand what else was happening in Dr. Noguchi’s professional life before Natalie died as well as corroboration for the assertions in his book. What I found presented an illuminating picture of the events that led to Dr. Noguchi’s demotion and subsequent departure from the coroner’s office.

For seven years in the ’90s, I was a member of the Arkansas State Crime Lab Board. Serving at the pleasure of the governor, I became the board’s chairman during my final term. We weren’t compensated. I served only for the privilege of helping make a vital part of the criminal justice system run better. And I was the first, and perhaps the only, criminal defense attorney appointed to the board. Historically, the board had been loaded with prosecutors and doctors.

On the board, I witnessed firsthand the struggles of our state laboratory trying to keep up with corpses and evidence in need of autopsy and analysis. Our lab was managed by our medical examiner, and he worked tirelessly to stay on top of things. The facilities were inadequate and there was a shortage of manpower. The staff earned its pay, no question about it, and I suspected the Los Angeles County Department of Medical Examiner-Coroner was no different.

However, in 1981, Dr. Noguchi fashioned himself a celebrity. An insider. A political untouchable with flair and drama. Someone who enjoyed the limelight and the attention. A pathologist who cherished his reputation and cultivated it by performing autopsies on high-profile public figures followed by sensational news conferences. But he was also a chief coroner in absentia who was oblivious to the mismanagement of the department.

To Dr. Noguchi, his station in life seemed nearly perfect until Natalie Wood’s case. That is when he crossed il padrone of Hollywood—Frank Sinatra—as I recounted in my book.


The Los Angeles County Civil Service Commission archive records and known facts opened my eyes to Dr. Noguchi’s management and medical style and the effort to bring him to his knees.

In 1981, the coroner’s department had six divisions. The first was the executive office division, responsible for overall management and administration. The investigations division was second, providing operational support for all technical, professional and medical activities. Third was the forensic medicine division, responsible for conducting autopsies, medical examinations and producing death certificates.

The forensic laboratories division was fourth, and the public services division, which provided clerical assistance and interacted with the public and next-of-kin, was fifth. The final division was the inquest division, which was responsible for conducting and reporting all formal coroner’s inquests.

Dr. Noguchi had apparently failed to fulfill his fundamental managerial responsibilities. Buttressed by an abundance of testimony at the Civil Service Commission hearing, Dr. Noguchi was found to be “seriously deficient” in his ability to lead the department and to exercise discretion and control over its operations. In other words, he failed to make sure that what was happening in the coroner’s department was what he intended.

All in all, when it came to management, it was determined at the commission hearing that Dr. Noguchi failed to provide overall administrative direction and leadership because he was unavailable most of the time. One damning factor was that Dr. Noguchi rarely attended management meetings or weekly forensic science seminars conducted by and for the department’s medical and scientific staff. He apparently thought he was above all of that.

But the thing that jumped out at me was that the lack of coordination and direction in the department was first identified five years earlier in a 1976 review by the Los Angeles County Chief Administrative Officer. An auditor studied Dr. Noguchi’s office intensively, concluding that the flamboyant coroner was “running the department on the side” as he concentrated on various personal and professional interests. Just about the time the review took place, the TV series Quincy, M.E. aired on NBC, and the famous forensic pathologist began to take his celebrity on the road.

In 1978, Dr. Noguchi played himself in the mondo horror film Faces of Death. Now he really was the star pathologist for the city of stars. On the outside, things had never looked better for the medical examiner-coroner’s department that year. But on the inside, the department was moving slowly toward chaos.

I knew these conditions and Dr. Noguchi’s lack of management skills couldn’t have occurred overnight. The evidence in Dr. Noguchi’s case suggested the problems had been going on for many years.

As a former prosecutor and state crime lab board member, I witnessed firsthand how poor evidence handling conditions can create serious problems for law enforcement agencies. So, I can state without reservation that the conditions in the Los Angeles County Department of Medical Examiner-Coroner in 1981 created considerable tension and resentment in law enforcement agencies—particularly the LASD. The depth of that resentment was brought home for me by the number of sheriff’s department witnesses who testified against Dr. Noguchi at his hearing. There were four past and present officials in all, including Barry A. J. Fisher, director of the sheriff’s crime laboratory, whose book about crime scene investigation was relied upon in my investigation.

In 1981, with 7,800 personnel, the LASD was the largest sheriff’s department in the nation. Its demands were enormous and, as you know if you read my book, it was run by a powerful politician. There had to have been communications between the LASD and the coroner’s office about the problems. Yet, as late as September 1981, correspondence from Dr. Noguchi characterized his department as “one of the most effective and professional coroner’s offices in the United States.”

The pot began to boil over with the November 16, 1981, death of William Holden, a beloved and respected movie star and wildlife conservationist. Dr. Noguchi gives his version of what unfolded in Coroner’s Case No. 81-14582 of his memoir, Coroner.

William Franklin Beedle Jr., also known as William Holden, was described by Dr. Noguchi in glowing terms in Coroner. Holden’s place in Hollywood stardom was second to done. It was not only Holden’s acting career that made the death tragic, it was that Holden was genuinely admired by his peers.

Holden was also the on-again, off-again boyfriend of Stefanie Powers, the beautiful costar of the hit television series Hart to Hart with Robert Wagner. In 1981, Holden was 63 and Powers was 39. They had been a couple for nine years, at least.

After reading Powers’ memoir, One from the Hart, it was obvious that she loved Holden dearly, but was unable to live with him because of his alcoholism. In one instance near Lucca, Italy, he was driving his Ferrari on a superhighway while intoxicated and had an accident that resulted in a fatality. Holden was charged by the authorities with manslaughter, found guilty, but only received a suspended sentence after agreeing to pay an $80,000 out-of-court settlement (about $560,000 today). You could feel the hand of a fixer at work. Furthermore, until his conviction, Holden’s homicide charge received minor attention in the California press.

Holden had been dead at least four days, according to Dr. Noguchi, when he was found on the bedroom floor of his beautiful Malibu apartment with a 2-1/2-inch gash in his forehead. At autopsy it was determined that the object that produced the gash penetrated Holden’s skull. When Dr. Noguchi got the toxicology report showing Holden had a blood alcohol level of 0.22 percent, he said he had his answer to Holden’s death.

Holden’s death was an accident, but the worst part was he hadn’t died instantly. He fell on the floor and bled to death. Dr. Noguchi concluded the autopsy with the reasonable opinion that alcohol played a role in preventing Holden from “responding properly to an emergency.”

However, because he just couldn’t help himself in high-profile death cases, Dr. Noguchi held his self-imposed obligatory news conference and told the world that the internationally famous movie star was drunk when he fell and struck his head on a table and bled to death on his bedroom floor.

In Coroner, here’s what Dr. Noguchi said happened after the news conference:

The newspaper story which began a professional crisis for me ran on Wednesday, November 18, 1981, in the Los Angeles Times under the headlines “HOLDEN DIED FROM BLOOD LOSS. Actor Cut Head in Drunken Fall, Coroner Reports.”

The story described my re-creation of the accident, but it was the two words “drunken fall” which started Hollywood talking. Friends of Holden resented it, and they were inflamed even more when the Times published a follow-up story on the case which emphasized Holden’s alcohol problem: “MANNER OF HOLDEN’S DEATH TROUBLES FRIENDS, FANS.” The subhead read: “Rich and Famous, Yet Alone and Intoxicated.”

A backlash was perhaps inevitable, and letters charging both me and the Times with invasion of Holden’s privacy started to arrive at the newspaper, commencing with one from no less a personage than Daryl F. Gates, the Chief of Police. The two Times news stories had focused “sharply on a theme that characterized the deceased as a drunken recluse,” he [Gates] wrote. “Bill Holden can no longer defend himself. Without doubt the character assassination is still terribly worrying for his friends and family. In my view what the Times did is snooping at its worst.”

Another Times reader, Theodore Taylor, aimed his wrath directly at me: “The indignity of [Holden’s] death was…exploited down to the last gory detail by Coroner Thomas Noguchi, who seems to run for his forensic personal publicity kit if the celebrity has passed on in other than a hospital bed.”

Hollywood was upset. The chief of the LAPD was openly critical of the way Holden’s death was reported and Dr. Noguchi’s public was turning against him. But most importantly, the egotistical “coroner to the stars” was reading every word people were saying about him in the newspaper. And it wasn’t pretty.


Thirteen days after Holden’s death, Natalie’s body was found floating in the ocean off Catalina Island and the press and public wanted answers. In Coroner, Dr. Noguchi wrote: “The controversy grew even more heated when those in Hollywood who believed Wagner flew to his defense—and I became the main target.”

He wrapped up his description of the public scrutiny by saying:

Thus the controversy surrounding the circumstances of Natalie Wood’s death now grew to include controversy about me. Some Hollywood stars, still fretting over the William Holden report, struck hard at me, as well as the Times for printing the remarks of the “stage-struck” coroner. Frank Sinatra [emphasis added] sent a letter to the Board of Supervisors which said, in effect, that coroners should be seen and not heard. And the Screen Actors Guild [emphasis added] dispatched its own wire lambasting me for invasion of privacy.

In his 2008 autobiography with Scott Eyman called Pieces of My Heart: A Life, Robert Wagner also expressed his feelings about Dr. Noguchi, and had this to say about Sinatra and the world-famous forensic pathologist:

Noguchi was a camera-hog who felt that he had to stoke the publicity fire in order to maintain the level of attention he’d gotten used to. Noguchi particularly enraged Frank Sinatra, who knew the truth and, in any case, would never have allowed anybody who harmed Natalie to survive [emphasis added].

Wagner’s remark about Noguchi convinced me that he communicated with Sinatra before Sinatra wrote to Antonovich and the other supervisors. Knowing Wagner’s “truth,” Sinatra wasn’t about to let Natalie’s image, and his friend R.J., become embroiled in a homicide investigation. To send a message, Dr. Noguchi needed to be “clipped,” in a figurative sort of way.


I was, and still am, keenly interested in the full content of the Sinatra letter. But what I really wanted to know was the exact date Sinatra mailed or caused its delivery. I knew it had to have been sometime between November 30 and December 2, 1981, because another supervisor showed it to the press before Antonovich pasted the trophy on his office wall.


According to my research, here is a brief timeline of Antonovich’s actions on behalf of the Board of Supervisors:

December 29, 1981—After a motion by Supervisor Antonovich, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors agreed to conduct a review of all operations of the coroner’s office because “the Los Angeles Times has raised numerous issues regarding the operation of the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner-Coroner.”

The board also voted to form a panel of homicide detectives from the sheriff’s department and Los Angeles Police Department, representatives from the crime lab and outside experts to study the forensic medicine division of the coroner’s office.

January 19, 1982—After a motion by Supervisor Antonovich, the Board of Supervisors voted to restrain Dr. Noguchi’s comments on public figure deaths and autopsies. The unanimously adopted motion read:

In the aftermath of recent media descriptions of causes of death by the Chief Medical Examiner-Coroner, my office received many letters and telephone calls from constituents who expressed concern about such comments. The thrust of this concern was that the Coroner had gone beyond the scope of his purpose in the substance of his remarks regarding the circumstances surrounding these deaths. I share the same sentiment.

While the death of a public figure is newsworthy, such a tragedy must be treated with dignity and respect for the deceased and for the family and friends who have suffered great personal loss. We must not forget their grief. Death is not an occasion for editorializing or sensationalism.

I, THEREFORE, MOVE that the Board of Supervisors instruct the Chief Medical Examiner-Coroner that the policy, when describing the cause of death, will be one confined to the facts, the determination of the physiological cause of death, and that such disclosures will be treated with dignity and respect and without sensationalism or editorializing.

Less than two months after the sensational news conference on Natalie’s death, the celebrity coroner was officially muzzled in his public comments “describing the cause of death.” And Antonovich got his sound bite by telling the press that Dr. Noguchi routinely turned the aftermath of many deaths into a “circus” to “grab the headlines.” However, Dr. Noguchi’s celebrity news conferences had not seemed to bother Antonovich, or the rest of the board, until Sinatra expressed his displeasure with Dr. Noguchi’s press conference on Natalie’s death.

But Dr. Noguchi almost got the message this time. His first test after the board’s order to confine comment on public figure deaths “to the facts” was the March 5, 1982, death of comedian and actor John Belushi from a heroin and cocaine overdose. Dr. Noguchi waited six days after Belushi’s death to issue a three-sentence statement and refused to return reporters’ telephone calls. However, on March 11, 1982, Dr. Noguchi appeared on radio talk show host Michael Jackson’s [no relation to the singer] program, and when asked about the board’s order, described the resolution as a “gag order and somebody putting a zipper on my mouth.” Understandably, the comment didn’t set well with the board.

And Noguchi’s handling of the matter also didn’t sit well with Belushi’s manager or family. Bernie Brillstein, Belushi’s manager, in his scathing book Where Did I Go Right? You’re No One In Hollywood Unless Someone Wants You Dead, told another sad story about the famous coroner’s press conferences.

After describing how Belushi’s body was flown back east for his funeral, Brillstein described what happened after the service:

I caught a plane to New York and went to the Regency Hotel. On the TV news I watched myself in the funeral procession. The next night we had another wake in my hotel suite. Everyone showed up.

About midway through, the phone rang. It was Thomas Noguchi, the Los Angeles coroner. He said, “We found that Belushi died from a speedball”—an injected mixture of cocaine and heroin. Then he said, “You have half an hour to notify the family before we release the results.” I hung up and turned around, and before I knew it Noguchi was on TV, walking out to a press conference, saying it was a speedball. Some half hour. What a prick. What a bad scene. None of us could believe it.

January 1982—The Los Angeles County grand jury contracted with an auditor to begin a top-to-bottom audit of the coroner’s office, and the DA and grand jury began investigating whether Dr. Noguchi committed any crimes while in office.

January 26, 1982—After a motion by Supervisor Kenneth Hahn, the Board of Supervisors voted to “address” the 312-body autopsy backlog in the coroner’s office.

By this time, there was no doubt that people were after Dr. Noguchi’s job and, During the previous two months, the news reporting about Dr. Noguchi had been relentless. In the following weeks, the fallout would intensify further.

March 11, 1982—The Board of Supervisors voted to send Dr. Noguchi a letter advising him of its intent to suspend him without pay for 30 days, effective March 19, 1982.

April 15, 1982—The Board of Supervisors voted to send Dr. Noguchi a second letter advising him of its intent to demote him from his position as chief medical examiner-coroner to that of “Physician Specialist, M.D.,” effective April 28, 1982.

Late 1983—Rather than suffer the humiliation of a demotion, Dr. Noguchi left the coroner’s office to become Chief of Pathology at the University of Southern California.

In summary, after Natalie’s death, it only took four months for the Board of Supervisors, spearheaded by the future Republican U.S. Senate candidate Michael Antonovich, to get Dr. Noguchi’s job. After the demotion, Dr. Noguchi fought hard to save the image he had forged over two decades, but the Civil Service Commission hearing and appeals that followed were not only fruitless, they provided fodder for the press for years and kept Dr. Noguchi’s failures at the forefront.

Seemingly down for the count, in November 1983, Dr. Noguchi countered with his book Coroner, billed by him as containing “part of the story of Natalie Wood’s last moments [that] has never been told.” A National Enquirer installment series around his memoir blared with the headline: “I Told the Truth About William Holden’s Death—And Outraged Show Biz Big Shots.” He spun the facts to convince the public and his supporters that he was a casualty of might over right. And it worked. Dr. Noguchi’s book became an instant bestseller.

However, the prerelease publicity in early November 1983 surrounding Dr. Noguchi’s memoir prompted yet another Board of Supervisors’ investigation of the embattled “Physician Specialist, M.D.” by Antonovich. According to press accounts, he wanted to know “how Noguchi found the time from his new county job…to write ‘Coroner’ and from where he gleaned his material [emphasis added].” I had the same questions.

Reading Coroner, I immediately noticed that Dr. Noguchi used autopsy file material belonging to the coroner’s office. It was file material that was deemed confidential. Natalie’s family members weren’t privy to the material he used, much less the public. And, no one authorized its use. In my way of thinking, it was a serious breach of ethics and privacy—and perhaps even illegal—for Dr. Noguchi to profit financially from those records. But a CPRA request of the Board of Supervisors’ Chief Executive Office for the results of the 1983 investigation produced nothing. I had a hunch that a serious attempt was not made to find the records, but I was out of options.

Like Lazarus, Dr. Noguchi was resurrected after his book was released and became not only a celebrity, but a celebrity victim whose only crime was to “tell it like it is.” The press loved it. After that, he took his show on the road and became a sought-after speaker and lecturer on the subject of his famous autopsies—even as he approached 90 years of age.


Four months between the recovery of Natalie’s body and Noguchi’s professional demise was long enough for Natalie to be buried and the news about her death to die down. It was long enough for the attention to be diverted from Natalie’s death to Dr. Noguchi’s mismanagement of the coroner’s office. It was long enough for Christopher Walken to hightail it back to New York. And, it was long enough for Robert Wagner to lawyer up, begin the process of probating Natalie’s estate and start seeing actress Jill St. John.

Because of space limitations and relevancy to the overall subject matter of my book, I decided to provide those who are interested with materials relating to my investigation of Natalie’s case, including the lawsuits I was forced to file in California when the authorities there attempted to block my access to important documents and materials. I hope this will give you some idea of the efforts I made to properly investigate Natalie’s death. Clicking on the icons listed below will conveniently and automatically download the pdf.