The Investigation

The Third & Fourth CPRA Case 

The Third CPRA Case

The Sinatra letter was the subject of my third CPRA case. I cover the obstruction and inconceivable outcome in my book. I periodically write to Antonovich asking if he has found the Sinatra letter. His response is always the same: “If I ever come across the Sinatra letter, I will let you know.” Fat chance!

The Fourth CPRA Case

In September of 2020, I initiated an action in my first CPRA case to enforce the court’s prior order regarding one subset of records I requested: the LASD’s entire 1981 file that had been disclosed to members of the public and, in particular, author Suzanne Finstad.

In my first case, the court ruled that, because of CPRA waiver law (selective disclosure), whatever portions of the 1981 LASD file that Finstad (or any other author or member of the public) had been given access to, the same records must be produced to me. As a result, the LASD produced certain, discrete portions of its file regarding Natalie’s 1981 investigation, but not the entire file.

In March 2020, however, Finstad republished her 2001 book under a new title, Natalie Wood: The Complete Biography, and claimed that in 2000, she had been given access to the entire 1981 LASD file, what she referred to as the LASD’s “murder book.” I asked that the LASD be directed to comply with the court’s prior ruling and produce to the entire LASD file—or murder book—that Finstad said she received from the custodian of the LASD archive files.

For over a year, I had consistently maintained that the LASD waived its right to refuse disclosure of any portions of its 1981 file. At my September 27, 2016, hearing in my case, the court agreed with my waiver argument. Specifically, the court announced if a member of the public had been given access to the “whole” file, then the whole file should be produced to me. Here are excerpts from the hearing:

Court: However, 60—now we get to 6254.5, which provides that whenever a local agency discloses a public record which is otherwise exempt to any member of the public, this disclosure is waived. And that codifies the court of appeal decision in Black Panther Party versus Kehoe, K-E-H-O-E, which stated that the CPRA does not permit selective disclosure, that is, disclosure to one person, or member of the public, and not to all.

S.P.: I understand, Judge. But here’s the state of the record. The state of the record is that in 2000 and 2001 they allowed two authors to rummage through those files.

Court: Did they? I’m not aware that the authors were given the files to rummage through. I am aware that they were given documents from the file.

S.P.: No. They were given access to the file.

Court: If they [authors Finstad and Sam Kashner] were given the file to look through, the whole file is disclosable.

At the trial (using that term very loosely) of my case, I emphasized—and the court agreed—that I did not have to prove waiver by direct evidence—that waiver could be proven by circumstantial evidence.

On November 10, 2016, the court entered its earlier decision on the various issues presented, including the waiver ruling. The court wrote that “Section 6254.5 provides that ‘whenever…a local agency discloses a public record which is otherwise exempt [under the CPRA] to any member of the public, this disclosure shall constitute a waiver of the exemptions specified in Section 6254, 6254.7, or other similar provisions of law.’” That is because, “disclosure by an agency to one member of the public requires disclosure to all.”

The LASD, based exclusively on a July 15, 2016, declaration by Detective Hernandez, insisted it only provided Finstad and Kashner with “access to portions of the 1981 files” but not the entire file. On this basis, the LASD produced to me only specifically identified portions of its file.

Deputy Hernandez stated under oath:

    1. I have determined that access to portions of the 1981 files have been provided to persons, including Suzanne Finstad and Sam Kashner. These individuals were provided access to portions of the 1981 file in the years between the sheriff’s department closing of its investigation into the Natalie Wood (Wagner) death in 1981 and its reopening of its investigation.
    2. I was able to determine that the persons who were provided access to the sheriff’s department’s 1981 files were provided access to the following items: the first complaint report from the 1981 investigation by the sheriff’s department (Officer Kroll); the supplementary report from the 1981 investigation by the sheriff’s department (Officer Rasure); photographs of the Splendour without photographs of Natalie Wood (Wagner) remains; telephone messages; and investigators’ notebooks. From the 1981 file, no access to autopsy photographs, [or] photographs of Wood’s remains . . . was ever provided to anyone in the general public by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.

Even with the ambiguities in Hernandez’s sworn declaration, the identified items were all the LASD produced to me.

After Hernandez gave his declaration, he was questioned by me under oath in a second deposition on November 8, 2016. Hernandez conceded in his deposition testimony that he was only able to testify as to what Finstad received because he was simply recalling a conversation that he had with her, a conversation that he could not remember “exactly”:

S.P.: Relating to paragraph 6, how do you know exactly what Suzanne Finstad and Sam Kashner were given access to in the 1981 files for Natalie Wood Wagner?

Hernandez: Because I asked Suzanne Finstad and she told me that she had been given this access and she told me that Sam Kashner had also been given access to portions of the file.

S.P.: So the answer to that question is you talked to Suzanne Finstad and she told you that she and Sam Kashner had been given access?

Hernandez: Correct.

S.P.: Now, my next question is: How do you know exactly what documents that Ms. Finstad and Mr. Kashner had access to as stated in paragraph 7 of your declaration?

Hernandez: I can only go off of what Ms. Finstad told me.

S.P.: Well, why don’t you just tell us what Ms. Finstad told you?

Hernandez: Well, she said that she was given access to the first report; Rasure’s supplemental report; the notebooks; and the photos of the Splendour.

S.P.: You have testified that she also said that Sam Kashner was given access to these files, to this file, the 1981 file?

Hernandez: Correct.

S.P.: Now, how do you know what Sam Kashner saw in this file?

Hernandez: Well, I don’t know and I don’t recall—I don’t recall what Suzanne told me exactly. It has been a while and it has been a while since I filled this out. I believe it is based on my conversation with her, but I don’t know for a fact because I never spoke to Sam Kashner about this.

S.P.: Did you mean to state under oath in paragraph 7 of that declaration that the items referred to in that paragraph are the only things that Suzanne Finstad was given access to?

Hernandez: They are the only things that she said she was given access to.

S.P.: Now, let’s talk about this word “access.” Tell me what you mean by “access” in your declaration. You said that you determined that persons, including Suzanne Finstad and Sam Kashner, were given access and that you determined what they were given access to, and you have told us how you determined what Suzanne Finstad was given access to. So now I want to know, what is your definition of “access”?

Hernandez: From what Finstad told me, they were allowed to look at the reports and look at all of this stuff. So, to me, that is access.

S.P.: OK. So what you are telling me is that when you executed this declaration and said “access,” you did so because Suzanne Finstad said that she was allowed to look at things; right?

Hernandez: Correct.

S.P.: In the file?

Hernandez: Look at things from the file.

Importantly, Deputy Hernandez acknowledged in his deposition that the LASD had no way of knowing exactly what it had given to Finstad beyond Hernandez’s apparent recollection of her statements to him.

S.P.: Are there any documents in the file that support any of this?

Hernandez: No.

Thus, the LASD’s entire position regarding what it was to produce in response to my CPRA request and the court’s waiver ruling was based only on what Hernandez recalled, a hearsay conversation that he could not remember “exactly.” And his statements were not based on any records maintained by the LASD or any firsthand knowledge of anyone in the department.

The court ultimately concluded there was “no credible evidence as to what precisely” Finstad and Kashner had been given access to beyond what Hernandez testified to.

I now had written clarification directly from Finstad regarding what records she received from the LASD. Her republished book includes 36 new pages detailing exactly what the LASD gave to her (and to her mother) in November 2000, before the original book Natasha was published in June 2001.

Finstad explained in her book that Detective Louis Danoff of the LASD provided to her (and her mother) “access” to the entire “murder book” which consisted of one or two “boxes” of records. What is contained in the murder book? Finstad wrote it contained “the ffilg of all thg gvidgncg in a homicide investigation, including a summary of the case, all interviews, investigative reports, field and lab reports, photographs, and printouts.”

Upon reading Finstad’s new book pages, I knew the LASD had not fully complied with the court’s ruling. But previous experience with Finstad’s representations about what witnesses said taught me that I needed verification. So, I communicated in writing with former Detective Louis Danoff.

Danoff told me he had worked for the LASD from 1966 through 2007. He “was part of a two-man team that set up the first Homicide Library to house all case files generated by the LASD Homicide Bureau.” According to Danoff, “this system was operational and served the Bureau through 2002, when a new automated library system was activated.”

The library Danoff set up in 1981 contained the department’s murder books. Danoff said the LASD “Homicide Bureau handled all death investigations: Murder, Suicides, Suspicious Circumstance, Work Place and Accidental Deaths.” Thus, the parlance “murder book” notwithstanding, not every murder book dealt with an actual murder.

Danoff explained further in an email:

The “Murder Book” was originally called a “Blue Book” due to the blue cover that is used to contain the information. In the late 70’s, 80’s and 90’s the LA County

Homicide rate exploded, and we started to call any investigation that was booked for presentation a “Murder Book”, out of convenience. Yes, you are right, there are a lot of investigations that are not “murders”, but if we book it, it is still called a murder book, or “Shooting Book” for Officer Involved incidents, even if they do not involve a gun.

As a result of these procedures, the LASD had accumulated the records regarding Natalie’s death investigation into a murder book.

Consistent with Finstad’s written explanation of what is contained in a murder book, Danoff described a murder book for me as containing the following items:

    • “REPORTS: By the handling Investigators who detail the steps taken in the investigation to support a filing of charges.”
    • “ATTACHMENTS: All supporting reports related to the investigation, maps, drawings [,] Search Warrants, Transcripts, ”
    • “SUSPECT [I]NFORMATION: Personal information, photo, criminal history, booking slip, Filing information and Arrest Warrant if issued.”
    • “VICTIM INFORMATION: “Personal information, ”
    • “CORONER’S REPORT: The packet of reports and drawings provided by the person handling the autopsy.”
    • “There is a lot of other information collected during an investigation that is pertinent to the prosecution and Discoverable by the Defense during a These include, but are not limited to: The investigator note books, crime scene photos, autopsy photos, subjects developed during the investigation but eliminated, clues called in and work to a negative conclusion, etc.”

“These items are housed in a manila folder, boxes, or file cabinets, depending on the scope of the investigation.”

Detective Hernandez’s sworn testimony is consistent with Finstad’s and Danoff’s independent descriptions of what all is contained in a murder book.

Before my “trial” in 2016, the court reviewed Natalie’s entire 1981 file in camera (in the judge’s chambers with only Detective Hernandez present), and the judge knows it contains photographs of Natalie – either at the scene and/or autopsy. Finstad wrote that Vidal Herrera took photographs of Natalie’s body for the coroner and that after 2011, the autopsy photographs were reviewed by Hernandez, who allegedly related to her that Natalie’s “head wounds” were “troubling.”

Beyond Finstad’s new passages about receiving access to the entire 1981 file in November 2000, other portions of her book identify specific records she said she received from the LASD that had not been provided to me. First, Finstad wrote on page 462 that the LASD provided her “vintage pink ‘While You Were Out’ telephone note pad” messages, including one from Marilyn Wayne. Second, Finstad wrote on pages 481 and 554 that she was given a copy of a statement from Vidal Herrera to the LASD. Finally, Finstad wrote she was provided with “handwritten notes” made by a witness in 1981. Since Finstad identified specific records that were selectively disclosed to her from the LASD’s “murder book” that I did not receive, I believed it violated the court’s 2016 order. I wanted the judge to enforce his order or reopen the case so we could get to the truth. But consistent with Judge Chalfant’s approach to my case, he seemed indifferent to the apparent violation of his order by the LASD and the fact that the truth had evaded his courtroom.

He eventually ruled without authority that he did not have jurisdiction to reopen the case or to enforce the order he entered in 2016. He said the only way I could present the issue to him was by making a new request and filing suit if the sheriff refused to produce the records. And Chalfant ruled we did not produce enough evidence to prove that Finstad saw the entire file by questioning Finstad’s veracity and assuming former Detective Danoff told the truth.

So, I sent the sheriff another CPRA request. Of course, the sheriff’s office ignored it, which resulted in my filing a second lawsuit against the sheriff.

We took the depositions of Danoff and Finstad. Danoff stated flatly under oath that he had not given Finstad anything, including Natalie’s 1981 file. In fact, he said he had never met her. Then, in a bizarre approach to her deposition, Finstad, based on a misguided First Amendment privilege unavailable to her under California law, refused to answer dozens of questions that could have bolstered her book representations and credibility with the judge. But she stood by her book representations that she was given access to the entire 1981 file by Danoff.

As of the launching of this website, the sheriff, through his private county-paid lawyers, admitted on June 10, 2021, that his office improperly refused to disclose one set of records I requested. But the case was continued with a possible trial date in late 2021 or early 2022, nearly seven years after my first CPRA a request.

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.