Almost 31 years since its occurrence on the night of November 28-29, 1981, the tragic, untimely death of Academy Award-nominated actress Natalie Wood remains a mystery. Was her death accidental, as was originally determined by Los Angeles County Coroner Thomas Noguchi following a brief investigation? Or, was her death due to foul play – possibly, at the hands of her husband Robert Wagner?
The occurrences of that night are fairly well documented. Wood died from drowning and hypothermia during the course of a Thanksgiving weekend boating trip to Catalina Island – 22 miles southwest of Los Angeles. Along with Wood aboard their yacht The Splendour were her husband Robert Wagner, actor Christopher Walken with whom she was co-starring in the science fiction film Brainstorm, and the boat’s one-man crew Captain Dennis Davern.
Reports at the time indicated that the evening began at about 4:00 PM as Wood, Wagner, and Walken dined at the Harbor Reef Restaurant on the island. Waitresses and patrons at the restaurant reported that the trio drank several bottles of champagne. During the meal, Natalie was observed openly flirting with Walken, precipitating a profane and rowdy disagreement at their table.
Drunk and disorderly, the three were seen boarding a small dinghy and motoring back to The Splendour where, according to reports at the time, the party continued. At some point during the evening, Natalie changed into a flannel nightgown, a pair of knee-high socks, and a thick down jacket and boarded one of The Splendour’s dinghies.
According to the original testimony of Captain Davern, he noticed that the dinghy in question was gone as he began the process of shutting down the boat at about 12:20 AM. He indicated that it was not unusual for Natalie to take out the dinghy and observe the stars at night. When some time elapsed, he became concerned and informed Wagner of her absence. According to Davern, Wagner immediately set out on another dinghy to search for Natalie. Shortly after 1:00 AM, Wagner returned and notified the harbor patrol to search for her. At approximately 3:30 AM, the Coast Guard was added to the search and rescue team. At 8:00 AM, helicopter observers spotted her body floating face down several hundred yards from the boat with the dinghy another couple hundred yards from her body.
Upon examination of her body preserved following its recovery in a hyperbaric chamber, Coroner Noguchi noted extensive bruising of the legs and arms. Sheriff’s department personnel present during her body’s recovery indicated an absence of rigor and foam around the mouth. Based on the evidence, Noguchi theorized that Wood got in the dinghy and likely slipped on the wet swim platform while untying it from the boat and fell into the cold water of the harbor. Attempting to climb up the the sides of the rubber dinghy, she was unable to do so because of the weight of the now soaked down jacket. As she struggled to get into the dinghy, she noticed it slowly drifting out into the harbor. She eventually succumbed to the freezing water temperatures and any cries for help were muffled by loud music emanating from the boats of other revelers.
In the more than 30 years since the tragic events of that night, rumors have swirled concerning the circumstances of her death, new information has come to light, and at least one significant witness has changed his story. In November of 2011, two weeks before the anniversary of Wood’s death, the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department reopened the investigation with detectives interviewing a number of witnesses to the events of the evening in question and traveling to Hawaii to inspect the yacht that Wood and the others were aboard.
Additionally, reports have come from other sources shedding new light on Natalie’s death. Robin Butillo, an Interior Designer, indicated in an interview with The National Enquirer that her roommate was privy to a “sex secret” between Wood and Christopher Walken. In the hours following the revelation of her death, a distraught Walken called Butillo’s roommate and confessed that he was having an affair with Wood.
In a sworn statement to the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department, former Coast Guard Supervising Rescue Boat Captain Roger Smith, who was on duty and pulled Wood’s body from the water in 1981 indicated that he hopes the reopened investigation will provide answers to the critical question as to why there was a time lapse before lifeguards were called. He stated that “based on the condition of her body when we pulled her from the water, I believe she survived for sometime in the water and was blown out to sea. She probably cried for help for hours.” Smith added “I’ve always believed she could have been saved. Her fingers were still pliable when she was pulled from the water, suggesting she had not been dead for hours.”
But, perhaps the most explosive of the recent revelations comes from statements of Captain Davern recanting his testimony of almost 31 years ago. The captain told TMZ that Robert Wagner shouted “Do you want to f*** my wife” at Christopher Walken, who was sitting next to Wood on the couch, a short time before her disappearance.
Davern said that Wagner and Wood got into a heated argument after their return to the boat from the island and that Wagner refused to look for her. These new revelations are in sharp contrast to statements made to the police immediately after Wood’s body was recovered. On a recent appearance on The Today Show referring to Robert Wagner’s demeanor the night of Natalie’s death, Davern said, “It was a matter of ‘We’re not going to look too hard, we’re not going to turn on the search light, we’re not going to notify anybody right at the moment.’” Davern added, “I made some terrible decisions and mistakes. I did lie on a report years ago. I made mistakes by not telling the honest truth in a police report.” When Davern was asked if Wagner was “responsible” for Wood’s death, Davern said, “Yes I would say so.”
And, according to ABC News, Davern’s has recently passed a polygraph examination. Examiner Howard Temple performed the examination and adjudged the results as “truthful.” “Davern made the statement that he stayed at the Wagner home … [was] told not to talk … [that] Wagner paid for his therapy, and Davern could not leave the estate without bodyguards,” Temple said.
Perhaps equally telling is a statement in the official coroner’s report that states that a private investigator who located the dinghy that Natalie had used indicates that the key was in the ignition and in the “off” position, the gear was in neutral, and the oars tied down. Apparently, the dinghy was simply drifting and not used that night.
Does this mean, as Captain Davern asserts, that Robert Wagner is responsible for Natalie Wood’s death – whether accidental, murder, or manslaughter? Perhaps not. But, the Los Angeles Coroner’s office has decided to change Natalie Wood’s official cause of death from “accidental drowning” to “undetermined.”