Crime & Justice

Natalie Wood's case reopened; skipper says he lied about her death

American actress Natalie Wood (1938-1981), her children Natasha (C), Courtney (R), and her husband U.S. actor Robert Wagner arrive at London airport July 4, 1976
American actress Natalie Wood (1938-1981), her children Natasha (C), Courtney (R), and her husband U.S. actor Robert Wagner arrive at London airport July 4, 1976
Staff/AFP/Getty Images

The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department has reopened the 30-year-old case of actress Natalie Wood's death, after a yacht skipper admitted lying to investigators about the incident. Dennis Davern blames Wood's then-husband Robert Wagner for the actress' drowning in the ocean off Southern California.

Davern was the captain of the Splendour, a boat that held Wood, her husband Robert Wagner and fellow actor Christopher Walken.

"Recently, we have received information which we felt was substantial, enough to make us take another look at this case," L.A. County Sheriff's Department Lieutenant John Corina said at a Friday morning news conference.

"We're always open to receiving additional information about older cases, as well as current cases," Corina said.

Corina said that Wagner was not a suspect, but said that the Department wouldn't be addressing specifics of the information they have.

Two sheriff's homicide investigators have been assigned to the case, Corina said.

When asked about whether these new revelations were spurred by the ship's captain looking for publicity for his new book on the 30th anniversary, Corina said that the anniversary "may have jarred some other people's memories."

Corina refused comment on questions about who the Sheriff's Department has interviewed so far and said he didn't know whether or not Wood's body would be exhumed.

Davern tells NBC's "Today" show that he made mistakes by not telling the truth about events leading to the 1981 Thanksgiving weekend death of the actress.

Although the official account of what led up to Wood's death is unclear, Wagner claims that he and Wood got into an argument and she climbed into the dinghy and headed away from the yacht.

At the time of Wood's death, the drowning was investigated by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and the Los Angeles County Coroner’s Office. The coroner ruled that the death was an accident and that Wood had slipped, hit her head and drowned while trying to board the smaller boat.

Wood's blood alcohol content was high and Wagner admitted they did a significant amount of drinking on the boat. Wagner also said that he and Walken had gotten into an argument regarding Wood's career.

Davern says he urged Los Angeles County sheriff's homicide investigators to reopen the case. Davern said on national television that he suggested looking for Wood by turning on a searchlight or calling a restaurant on the island, but that Wagner repeatedly said no to these suggestions until a few hours later.

Suzanne Finstad, author of "Natasha: The Biography of Natalie Wood," said on "AirTalk" Friday that a "disturbing amount of time" elapsed between the time Wood went missing and when her husband began to look for her.

Finstad also said that Wood had a long-established fear of dark water and described her as a "weak swimmer at best," so for Wood to have voluntarily left the yacht on a dinghy seems implausible.

Davern says he believes Wagner had intentionally kept the investigation into her death low-profile and believes Wagner is responsible for Wood's death.

Alex Ben Block, senior editor at the Hollywood Reporter, said on AirTalk that the only crime he's seen committed so far is the fact that Davern admitted he lied.

"Theres a smell of publicity to this whole thing," Block said. Even if something did happen to Wood, the incident was 30 years ago and new revelations are based entirely on circumstantial evidence, Block said, so it's hard to believe that this would lead to an arrest or conviction.

Davern has long claimed that the official account of Wood’s death was untrue, speaking on the subject in a 1992 Geraldo Rivera special and a 2000 Vanity Fair piece. His last media appearance had been a lengthy CNN interview in 2010, following the publication of his “tell-all” book “Goodbye Natalie, Goodbye Splendour.”

He and Wood’s sister, Lana Wood, officially petitioned the Sheriff’s Office to re-open the case last year. Authorities initially did not respond.

“Why now is because I've been trying to tell information about this for many, many years, but there wasn't really anyone listening until now,” Wagner said on the "Today" show Friday. “I've been trying to get somebody to listen for a long time and now somebody is listening and they're going to carry on with this investigation. I'm not saying anything different. All the information that I've revealed in the past, it's all in that book, and now it's just up to the investigators to do an investigation.”

KPCC's Mike Roe, Hayley Fox and the Associated Press contributed to this story