Official Says Wagner Not a Suspect in Reopened ’81 Wood Death Investigation

By: From the AP
By: From the AP

LOS ANGELES (AP) -- Investigators reopened the case of Natalie Wood's 1981 drowning after receiving new information they deemed credible enough to warrant another look at one of Hollywood's most enduring mysteries.

A detective said Friday, however, that the three-time Oscar nominee's husband, actor Robert Wagner, was not a suspect.

Los Angeles Sheriff's Lt. John Corina said nothing has yet changed the official view that Wood's death in the chilly waters off Southern California's Santa Catalina Island was anything but an accident.

"Right now, her death is an accidental drowning," Corina said.

Corina said Friday that two detectives would delve into the case and interview witnesses, including some who have come forward since the announcement a day earlier that the actress' death is being reviewed again.

Corina declined to say whether all the new information came from Dennis Davern, who was a captain of the yacht that Wagner, Wood and actor Christopher Walken were sharing on Thanksgiving weekend in 1981. Davern said on national television Friday that he lied to investigators about events on the yacht Splendour when he was interviewed after Wood's death.

Davern accused Wagner of having a fight with Wood before she went missing and delaying the search for her after she went missing from the boat.

On Nov. 29, 1981, Wood drowned after spending several hours drinking in a yacht with Wagner, fellow actor Christopher Walken and Davern. Davern told NBC's "Today" show on Friday that he made mistakes by not telling the truth about events leading to the death and had urged Los Angeles County sheriff's homicide investigators to reopen the case.

It is Davern's latest attempt to change the official account of what happened.

"Was the fight between Natalie Wood and her husband Robert Wagner what ultimately led to her death?" show host David Gregory asked.

"Yes," Davern replied.

"How so?"

"Like I said, that's going to be up to the investigators to decide," the captain said after a long pause.

Davern said he believes Wagner had intentionally kept the investigation into Wood's death low profile and didn't do everything he could have done. When Gregory pressed Davern for supporting details, he said that was the duty of investigators.

Davern has said for years that the official account of Wood's disappearance was not what really happened, including in a 1992 appearance on a Geraldo Rivera special and in a 2000 Vanity Fair piece. He also worked with author and friend Marti Rulli on "Goodbye Natalie, Goodbye Splendour," a book released last year.

Corina said he was not concerned about a 2010 book Davern co-authored on Wood's disappearance, or that the 30-year anniversary of the actress' death.

Wagner spokesman Alan Nierob said Friday a statement he released Thursday spoke for itself. It said that Wagner's family supports investigators' efforts and trusted that they would evaluate the new information and determine whether it came from "a credible source or sources other than those simply trying to profit from the 30-year anniversary of her tragic death."

Davern denied he was motivated to speak out for profit.

Sheriff's spokesman Steve Whitmore said Thursday the renewed inquiry was prompted by unspecified new information about the case. The Los Angeles Times reported that Los Angeles Sheriff Lee Baca said detectives want to talk to Davern and that he had "made comments worthy of exploring." The paper said the agency had also received information from an unidentified third party.

In the Vanity Fair story, Davern is quoted as saying that Wood and Wagner fought in their cabin before the actress disappeared. Coroner's officials ruled her death an accidental drowning, perhaps caused by her slipping off the boat while trying to tie down a dinghy.

She was found wearing a flannel nightgown, socks and a red down jacket and Davern identified her body for authorities, according to an autopsy report. Her body had superficial bruises, according to the report, but those were considered consistent with drowning.

Her death sparked tabloid speculation that foul play was involved, but Wagner and Wood's sister have dismissed any suggestion the actress' death was anything more than an accident. Coroner's officials at the time agreed, writing that Wood was "possibly attempting to board the dinghy and had fallen into the water, striking her face."

Assistant Chief Coroner Ed Winter said the agency hadn't been asked to do any additional investigation into Wood's case.

Sheriff's officials are also hoping for tips from the public that may shed new light on how Wood, who was afraid of being in the water, ended up drowning.

Wood received Academy Award nominations for "Rebel Without a Cause," "Splendor in the Grass" and "Love with the Proper Stranger." She was 43 when she died. She and Wagner were twice married, first in 1957 before divorcing six years later. They remarried in 1972.

Lana Wood wrote in a biography on her sister, "What happened is that Natalie drank too much that night."

Wagner, star of the television series "Hart to Hart," wrote in a 2008 autobiography that he blamed himself for his wife's death.

He recounted the night of Wood's disappearance, during which the couple and Walken drank at a restaurant and on the boat. Wood went to the master cabin during an argument between her husband and Walken. The last time Wagner saw his wife, she was fixing her hair at a bathroom vanity and she shut the door.

Wagner wrote that despite various theories about what led Wood to the water, which she feared, it was impossible to know what exactly happened.

"Nobody knows," he wrote. "There are only two possibilities; either she was trying to get away from the argument, or she was trying to tie the dinghy. But the bottom line is that nobody knows exactly what happened."

Later in the book, Wagner wrote, "Did I blame myself? If I had been there, I could have done something. But I wasn't there. I didn't see her." He wrote that he never saw his wife after she died and has never returned to Catalina Island.


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