LA Sheriff's Reopening Investigation Into Natalie Wood's 1981 Drowning

Update: LA Sheriff says Robert Wagner is not a suspect.

Who didn't love Natalie Wood? What an icon.

The Los Angeles Sheriff's Department will hold a press conference today to announce they are re-opening the investigation into Natalie Wood's drowning death 30 years ago. The decision is reportedly based on new recollections by the skipper of the boat, Dennis Davern, on the 30th anniversary of her death.

L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca told The Times that homicide detectives want to talk to the captain based on comments he had made recounting the case on its 30th anniversary. Baca did not detail what the captain said regarding the case.....A law enforcement source added that the department had recently received a letter from an unidentified "third party" who said that the captain had "new recollections" about the case.


Via TMZ, here are the Declarations of Marti Rulli (who co-authored a book on the drowning with her friend Skipper Davern), Rescue Boat Captain Roger Smith (who brought the body ashore) and others. All seem to cast blame on Wood's husband, Robert Wagner, whom police have not re-interviewed. Wagner has released this 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,"

There's a CBS 48 Hours special planned for Nov. 19 in which the show interviewed some of the people with knowledge of events.

Then there's a recent interview of Roger Smith, who was the Supervising Rescue Boat Captain for Isthmus, Catalina Island, who brought Natalie's body ashore. Seems like Smith's version and Skipper Dennis Davern's versions of events differ. Smith says Davern did not see Natalie's body (only her face) and could not have observed bruises. (Smith says there were no bruises.)

Smith tells Canyon News, “As you know, Tommy, I did take her to the U.S.C Marine Science Center to avoid taking her through the public at Two Harbors. I was a treatment supervisor for scuba diving accidents. So I was very familiar with the facility. I laid Natalie at the entrance platform and the deputy and I took off her Down Jacket, and we had to check her out for any foul play. That is when we found out she had nothing on under her full length night gown. We looked carefully for anything unusual and did not find any bruising as suggested in Marti’s book.”

Taking a deep breath, then continuing, “I closed her eyes which was very easy to do. When I looked at her she did not look like she had been deceased that long, as I had seen before in drowning victims. We covered her up with a disposable blanket. I took off her rings and jewelry while we waited for what I thought would be Wagner for I.D. purposes. Instead the captain of the boat arrived! I pulled down the blanket from her face and he said yes that is her. I gave him her jewelry and he left. He did not see any other part of her and I always wondered why he said he did in the book? And I was also disappointed why Wagner did not come over, said Smith." (My emphasis).

The interview doesn't mention Smith's bitterness at later being demoted. From Smith's Declaration:

On April 1st, 1982, I was demoted as supervising rescue boat lieutenant with a pay-cut of $600 a month and told I had 15 days to get off the island. I was also told the demotion was due to budgetary reasons, which also threw into the works that such a demotion could not be appealed. The demotion was so airtight, nothing could be done.

Nor is his criticism of Davern's claim to have seen bruises referenced in his new Declaration.

Davern and author Marti Rulli were among those interviewed for 20/20, as was lead detective Duane Rasure, and possibly Coroner Noguchi. 20/20 then contacted the LA Sheriff's for information. Sounds like they also shared information with each other, as it was after that the Sheriff's began re-interviewing Rulli's group. Among those recently re-interviewed by the Los Angeles authorities: Marti Rulli, Skipper Davern, Marilyn Wayne (a retired stockbroker on a neighboring boat) and Lana Wood. There may be a "person of interest" in the re-opened case.

Marilyn Wayne, who was on a neighboring boat, says:

Marilyn Wayne, a retired stockbroker, who was on a yacht moored next to Splendour on that night tells Highlight Hollywood, “My partner, my son and I all heard the screams that night. They lasted from around 11:05 p.m. until 11:30 p.m, then nothing more. I yelled out to the woman’s voice many times saying, ‘tell me where you are, I will help you.’ But soon the screams subsided and went away,” said Wayne. “But not before I heard a man’s voice very angrily say, ‘oh, be quite, we’ll get you out.’” Whatever happened, that night has been cloaked in secrecy.

Rulli and Davern point to his having passed a polygraph by a certified polygrapher. They picked the polygrapher and paid him, according to Rulli.

Here's the coroner's drawing of the body, from Rulli's website, stating there were bruises. Again, Davern said he saw bruises but Rescue captain Smith says there were none and Davern didn't see her body, only her face.

It seems the 48 Hours show will present a lot of Rulli and Davern's newly detailed account, and the inconsistencies with prior accounts of someone (who is not entirely clear to me ) which are a subject of the new investigation.

I'm skeptical of anyone who has new recollections after 30 years, writing a book, commissioning their own polygraph to support their effort, and petitioning for the reopening of a criminal case. Very odd. And how fair is it to make someone defend against accusations being raised for the first time 30 years after the fact?

It does sound like police did a cursory investigation in 1981 and the parties involved were tight-lipped and not forthcoming about everything that transpired that night. But since no one is claiming, even now, they saw Natalie get in the dinghy, saw anyone put her in the dingy or cause her to go overboard, it seems like the new investigation is based on little more than finger-pointing.

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  • Display: Sort:
    The Interview (5.00 / 1) (#6)
    by ScottW714 on Fri Nov 18, 2011 at 09:18:14 AM EST
    David Gregory interviewed the Captain, Dennis Davern this morning.

    The guy isn't believable at any level. I can't put my finger on it, but there is something seriously wrong with him.

    You be the judge.

    really pitiful interview (none / 0) (#8)
    by Jeralyn on Fri Nov 18, 2011 at 11:07:15 AM EST
    Agreed (none / 0) (#35)
    by gyrfalcon on Sat Nov 19, 2011 at 12:24:15 AM EST
    Is it any surprise he's got a book about it that just came out?

    He was also on (shudder) Nancy Grace tonight, and I sure did not find him credible.  (To be fair, I'm pretty strongly prejudiced.)


    and the police at the time did a "cursory" investigation?

    I'm with you (none / 0) (#10)
    by sj on Fri Nov 18, 2011 at 12:07:51 PM EST
    But I'm not that surprised.  The rich and powerful always get deference from civil service and law enforcement.  There is always a political element.  

    I don't like it either.


    Hollywood Babylon (none / 0) (#13)
    by jedimom on Fri Nov 18, 2011 at 12:50:47 PM EST
    Hollywood is REPLETE with famous being murdered/dying in 'non PC' circumstances and Hollywood LA CA cops covering it up.

    Hear of studios? Film box offfice receipts?

    Jeebus r u kidding me? Robert Wagner and Chris Walken would have been 'exposed' then? no frakin way!!

    Rock Hudson couldnt be gay, William Desmond Taylor murderer walked, it goes on and on and on out in Tinseltown.

    I think they fought she slipped they couldnt get her out, they didnt report it right swsy THAT is the cover up. IMO.

    If you are terrified of drowning you DO NOT get into a dingy in the middle of the night like that...

    ...unless you r running from something u saw that freaked u out....


    Maybe so, jmom, maybe so... (none / 0) (#17)
    by sarcastic unnamed one on Fri Nov 18, 2011 at 01:19:28 PM EST
    Really (none / 0) (#36)
    by gyrfalcon on Sat Nov 19, 2011 at 12:25:08 AM EST
    The LA Sheriff's... (5.00 / 1) (#11)
    by kdog on Fri Nov 18, 2011 at 12:41:15 PM EST
    must be hard up for some work to do.  

    Well said (none / 0) (#1)
    by gyrfalcon on Fri Nov 18, 2011 at 01:23:06 AM EST
    I was also a huge Natalie Wood fan (still am), but it kinda defies common sense to think that she was basically murdered by either Wagner or Walken, or at least I'd like to think so.

    Not only am I skeptical (none / 0) (#2)
    by shoephone on Fri Nov 18, 2011 at 02:01:10 AM EST
    of the captain's new book, but I am equally as skeptical about Marilyn Wayne's new recollections -- at least, I must presume they are "new" since we never heard a thing until now about a woman screaming for help or a man talking to that woman angrily saying "Oh, be quiet, we'll get you out." She wouldn't have divulged this information to the harbor patrol immediately after hearing about Wood's death that night?? And besides, who hears a woman screaming for help for 25 minutes and just stands there saying "tell me where you are." That's utterly ridiculous. If you hear someone screaming for help -- at midnight -- near your own boat, you call the harbor patrol right then and there. And then go looking for that person.

    I remember this incident very well. I was living and working in L.A. at the time, and it was all over the news for weeks. A real tragedy. And these "new recollections" give off a bad smell.  

    odd, most recollections dim over the years, (none / 0) (#5)
    by cpinva on Fri Nov 18, 2011 at 08:01:02 AM EST
    not come suddenly popping up out of nowhere, but who knows? myself, i smell the odor of gelt in the air.

    i fully anticipate someone announcing that they're channeling the spirit of an attendee at ford's theatre, on the night of april 14, 1865, who has had a sudden recollection of the evening's tragic events, not in the official/unofficial record. this sudden recollection will, for a small fee, be made available to historians. this will actually be taken seriously.

    Lincoln Assasination eyewitnesses (none / 0) (#7)
    by vector on Fri Nov 18, 2011 at 10:54:00 AM EST
    Funny you should make an analogy to the Lincoln assasination.  There is a book "We Saw Lincoln Shot" http://tinyurl.com/7jzn3m4 which contains the recollections of 100 eyewitnesses to the murder.  Needless to say, the further away in time from April 14, 1865, the more different (and false) is the memory of the eyewitnesses from the actual, verifiable facts.      

    interesting. (none / 0) (#26)
    by cpinva on Fri Nov 18, 2011 at 02:12:18 PM EST
    since the majority of the audience's eyes (including the lincoln's and their companion's) were directed towards the action on stage, and not on the president's box, few, if any, would have witnessed the actual assassination itself. presumably, most of these accounts would be of the "i heard a shot, looked up, and a man (later identified as john wilkes booth) leapt on to the stage, shouted something, and then hobbled off." variety. perhaps some encountered an escaping booth, as they made their way back to their seat.

    i'll have to check it out.


    always thought they had a hand in it, manslaughter (none / 0) (#12)
    by jedimom on Fri Nov 18, 2011 at 12:47:12 PM EST
    She was TERRIFIED of drowing. It never made sense, drunk or not, for her to get in a dinghy in pitch black, middle of the night in a nightgown, no panties, and a down coat.

    I suspect a drunken brawl, Wagner fought with her bitterly, recall this is when she is filming with Walken her final movie, Wagner was washed up at that time, pre Hart to Hart i think?

    Anyway I think she fell in and they let her drown and didnt report it panicked covered it up.

    Cops covering for movie starts in Cali in 81 would not be shocking it would be S.O.P

    I don't doubt it... (5.00 / 2) (#15)
    by kdog on Fri Nov 18, 2011 at 01:09:16 PM EST
    I think the investigation being re-opened is more evidence of the police state trumping celebrity priveledge in the 21st century...only corporate priveledge lives on in the current police state...fame alone no longer rates.

    I should think you'd be happy LASO (none / 0) (#16)
    by oculus on Fri Nov 18, 2011 at 01:12:21 PM EST
    has this to work on as opposed to collaborating w/LAPD re OWS.  

    Honestly... (none / 0) (#18)
    by kdog on Fri Nov 18, 2011 at 01:21:54 PM EST
    I'd rather see law enforcement layoffs, I hear LA and Cali have budget problems like everybody else.

    Job creation is all well and good, but there are some jobs we don't want nor need....way too many cops, for way too little crime.  Err...too little crime they are willing to investigate...a transfer to the SEC works too.


    CA state correctional officers (none / 0) (#20)
    by oculus on Fri Nov 18, 2011 at 01:29:18 PM EST
    are losing their jobs as state is required by fed. court mandate to reduce inmate count in state correctional facilities.  Dumping inmates on local detention systems, who are early releasing sign. nos. of those in local custody.  Also, new state sentencing laws reduce possibility of prison sentence as opposed to local custody.  

    please stay on topic (none / 0) (#23)
    by Jeralyn on Fri Nov 18, 2011 at 01:32:14 PM EST
    this is not about OWS or jail procedures.

    saying exactly that re: Ventura County.

    you've stated your opinon (none / 0) (#22)
    by Jeralyn on Fri Nov 18, 2011 at 01:31:23 PM EST
    a crime was committed twice now. That's enough.

    Can't stop thinking about Wagner's (none / 0) (#14)
    by oculus on Fri Nov 18, 2011 at 01:08:15 PM EST
    part in "A Kiss Before Dying."  

    I saw him at an event about a decade ago. (5.00 / 1) (#19)
    by sarcastic unnamed one on Fri Nov 18, 2011 at 01:27:40 PM EST
    Kinda shocking how quickly he had aged. The flashy, confident, coolest cat in the neighborhood was no longer. Can't imagine what he's like now.

    Well he's 81 now (5.00 / 1) (#28)
    by sj on Fri Nov 18, 2011 at 03:26:41 PM EST
    so a decade ago he was 71.  It's hard to still be the coolest cat around at 71.  

    Although Clint Eastwood clearly doesn't believe that.


    Yup. He looked feeble. Kinda distressing (none / 0) (#31)
    by sarcastic unnamed one on Fri Nov 18, 2011 at 05:08:32 PM EST

    I just read a Wagner quote on (none / 0) (#21)
    by oculus on Fri Nov 18, 2011 at 01:30:35 PM EST
    imbd re Warren Beatty/Natalie Wood.  Wagner sd. he wanted to shoot Beatty.  

    Well, I'd bet a lot of husbands back then (5.00 / 2) (#27)
    by shoephone on Fri Nov 18, 2011 at 03:04:25 PM EST
    wanted to shoot Warren Beatty!

    "Splendor in the Grass" (none / 0) (#37)
    by gyrfalcon on Sat Nov 19, 2011 at 12:27:12 AM EST
    is one of the most intensely erotic movies of all time.

    Sheriff says Wagner is (none / 0) (#25)
    by Jeralyn on Fri Nov 18, 2011 at 01:37:07 PM EST
    Always seemed a little suspicious (none / 0) (#38)
    by brodie on Sat Nov 19, 2011 at 10:04:27 AM EST
    an alleged drowning by accident to me.  I favor the reopening of this one particularly in light of the captain's interesting statements and because we have three of the witnesses on the boat still alive and capable of testifying.  Another plus is that the sister of NW favors it and apparently isn't worried about how doing so would somehow not allow her sister to "rest in peace".  For all we know Natalie might have been waiting impatiently up there for the past thirty years until we finally got around to a thorough investigation of her peculiar death.

    Meanwhile I hear Christopher Walken has hired an atty for this matter.