LOS ANGELES (CBS SF) — The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s department said there was “substantial” new information in the case of the 1981 death of San Francisco-born actress Natalie Wood, but maintained that her husband – actor Robert Wagner – was not considered a suspect at this time.
However, hours after Friday’s news conference by Sheriff’s Lt. John Corina, the celebrity news website TMZ quoted sources familiar with the investigation as saying that Wagner – while not a suspect – was clearly a person of interest and was the primary reason that homicide detectives decided to re-open the case.
Photo Gallery: The Life And Death Of Natalie Wood
The yacht captain of Wagner’s boat, the Splendour, now claims that he lied to investigators about Wood’s mysterious death 30 years ago, and blames Wagner, for her drowning on Nov. 29, 1981.
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.
In a CBS News special to air Saturday on KPIX-TV CBS 5 at 10 p.m., “48 Hours Presents Vanity Fair: Hollywood Scandal,” Dennis Davern, the yacht captain, said, “I believe that Robert Wagner was with her up until the moment she went into the water.”
Wood drowned after spending several hours drinking on Catalina Island and the yacht with Wagner, fellow actor Christopher Walken (with whom Wood was co-starring in the film “Brainstorm”) and Davern.
The Los Angeles Times newspaper on Friday quoted L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca as saying recent comments by Davern, who was interviewed for the “48 Hours Mystery” episode, prompted the re-opening of the death investigation.
The coroner’s autopsy indicated Wood had died by accident, attempting to board a rubber dingy off the Splendor, when she fell and drowned.
“That story is 100 percent false,” Davern said in a preview of the “48 Hours” special. “Natalie would never, in a million years, take that dingy out by herself. She would have gotten me.”
Lt. Corina said detectives were not concerned with the fact that Davern is reportedly trying to sell a book (“That seems inconsequential to us), but added, “Having already just the media attention we received already on this that we generated calls and people who have remembered things from back then or didn’t talk to the police and now want to tell their story, already people are coming forward and want to talk to us.”
He surmised that the 30-year anniversary of Wood’s death may have jogged some memories.
Corina did not know if Wood’s body would be exhumed, and he also would not comment on whether the information received recently conflicted with information investigators had when the ruling on Wood’s death was made. Corina said that if someone lied and inhibited the investigation 30 years ago, they might face charges.
Appearing on the “48 Hours” special, Sheriff’s Det. Duane Rasure – who was the original investigator on the case – questioned Davern’s comments about Wagner: “That’s like saying Robert Wagner pushed her overboard. That’s a murder investigation. But I don’t believe him.”
Also interviewed on the “48 Hours” special are Marti Rulli, a longtime friend of Davern’s who has spent 30 years investigating Wood’s death; Roger Smith, the paramedic who took Wood’s body to shore; Marilyn Wayne, who was on a nearby boat that night; and Mart Crowley, a close personal friend of Wood and Wagner, who also questions Davern’s assertion: “To infer that he stood by and didn’t dive in to save her is just absurd to anyone that knows anything about their relationship.”
Davern said that Wood and Wagner fought in their cabin before the actress disappeared.
Wood’s death sparked tabloid speculation that foul play was involved, but Wagner 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.”
Sheriff’s officials are 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.
“Although no one in the Wagner family has heard from the L.A. 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,” Wagner spokesman Alan Nierob wrote in a statement.
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 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 also wrote that he has never returned to Catalina Island.
Messages from reporters seeking comment from Walken’s publicist were not returned, but TMZ reported Friday that sheriff’s investigators wanted to speak with Walken about the events leading up to and following Wood’s death. TMZ’s sources added, though, that Walken was not suspect in any complicity in Wood’s drowning.
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