Yacht’s skipper ‘lied over death of Natalie Wood’

Robert Wagner and actress Natalie Wood.
Robert Wagner and actress Natalie Wood.
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A YACHT captain claims he lied to investigators about Hollywood actress Natalie Wood’s mysterious death 30 years ago and blames her husband, Robert Wagner, for her drowning in the sea off southern California.

The circumstances of her death remain one of Hollywood’s enduring mysteries and continue to create intrigue, with homicide detectives unexpectedly reopening the case that had long been classified as a tragic accident.

The Oscar-nominated actress drowned on November 29 1981 after spending several hours drinking on Catalina Island and the yacht Splendour with Wagner, fellow actor Christopher Walken and the ship’s captain, Dennis Davern.

Mr Davern told NBC TV’s Today show 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.

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

“Yes,” Mr Davern replied.

“How so?”

“Like I said, that’s going to be up to the investigators to decide,” the captain said.

Mr 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, the captain said that was the duty of investigators.

Wagner spokesman Alan Nierob said in a statement: “Although no one in the Wagner family has heard from the LA County Sheriff’s department about this matter, they fully support the efforts of the LA County Sheriff’s Dept and trust they will evaluate whether any new information relating to the death of Natalie Wood Wagner is valid, and that it comes from a credible source or sources other than those simply trying to profit from the 30 year anniversary of her tragic death.”

Sheriff’s spokesman Steve Whitmore said the renewed inquiry was prompted by unspecified new information about Wood’s case.

The Los Angeles Times said Mr Davern was interviewed for a book project and his comments from a 2000 article in Vanity Fair were being featured in a new print edition and a 48 Hours Mystery episode that focus on Hollywood scandals.

In the magazine, 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.

Wood’s death sparked tabloid speculation that foul play was involved, but Wagner and Wood’s sister have dismissed any suggestion the actress’s death was anything more than an accident.

Coroner’s officials at the time agreed, saying that Wood was “possibly attempting to board the dinghy and had fallen into the water, striking her face”.

It is not the first time Davern has contradicted statements he and others made to investigators after Wood’s death, and the magazine notes that he has told his story through tabloids and has been shopping for a book deal for years.

Wood, a three-time Oscar nominee famous for roles in West Side Story, Rebel Without a Cause and other Hollywood hits, was 43 when she died. She and Wagner, star of the TV series Hart to Hart, 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 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 mirror and she shut the door.

Wagner 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.”