‘THE TRUTH WAS NEVER TOLD’
Natalie Wood’s sister welcomes probe of star’s 1981 drowning
Natalie Wood’s sister has said she does not believe the film star’s husband Robert Wagner would have “purposefully” harmed her during the events that led up to her mysterious death by drowning in the Pacific 30 years ago.
As police began a new investigation into the events of November 28, 1981, when the actress vanished overboard from the yacht on which she was sailing off the Californian coast with Wagner and actor Christopher Walken, Lana Wood said she hoped the truth would finally emerge. But she added: “I cannot ever believe that Wagner would purposefully do something to hurt her.
“I believe it was drink and people being out of control and not thinking clearly and just high emotions. In this case, it would be an accident, but the truth was never told.”
Lana Wood says she always doubted the official version that her sister drowned after falling from the yacht unnoticed when she tried to clamber into a dinghy.
The Los Angeles Sheriff ’s Department has assigned two murder detectives to investigate afresh how Wood died after a day of heavy drinking and rows involving Wagner and Walken.
The case has been reopened after Dennis Davern, the captain of the yacht Splendour, said that he had taken part in a coverup at Wagner’s request. Police pointed out that the 81-year-old former star of the longrunning television series Hart to Hart was not a suspect.
Lana Wood, 65, who is also an actress and best known for her role in the James Bond film Diamonds Are Forever, said she did not believe her sister died as a result of foul play, but nor did she believe that Wagner has told all that he knows about events that night.
She said the coroner’s conclusion that her sister slipped as she tried to secure or scramble into a dinghy late at night “made no sense,” as her sister was terrified of water.
“Natalie hated the water,” she said. “She had a great fear of it. She didn’t go into her own swimming pool at home.” Her sister’s fear of open sea was particularly acute because their mother once predicted that she would die by drowning in “dark water,” Lana Wood recalled.
The body of the star of West Side Story, who was nominated for an Oscar three times, including for her performance as a teenager opposite James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause, was found floating in her nightgown and down jacket off Santa Catalina Island after a Thanksgiving holiday boating trip. She was 43.
The coroner’s verdict that she died in an accident did little to quell speculation on one of Hollywood’s enduring mysteries, a case of celebrity life mimicking a big screen plot.
Lana Wood has campaigned for years for a new inquiry into her sister’s fate. Asked if she believed that Wagner should be punished if he knowingly left her sister in the water, she told the entertainment website tmz.com: “If that’s the case, he’s probably been punished all these years as that would be a hell of a thing to live with. I just want to know once and for all. Natalie was a wonderful person and she deserves the truth and she deserves to rest.”
The sheriff ’s department has reopened the case after dogged lobbying by Marti Rulli, a childhood friend of Davern who wrote a 2009 book with him about the case, Goodbye Natalie, Goodbye Splendour.
She submitted evidence, including sworn statements from Davern, a coast guard official and a woman on a neighbouring boat, that cast serious doubt about the official version of that evening’s events.
Davern told The Sunday Telegraph that Wood disappeared after a drunken row with Wagner that was motivated by tension over her relationship with Walken, her co-star in a new film. He said that Wagner persuaded him not to switch on the searchlight to look for her or to call the coast guard for several hours. Instead, the actor plied him with more drink.
“I think he was thinking about his image and this mixed with the confusion at the time,” Davern said. “I tried to convince myself that she really had taken the dinghy to get away.”
When the authorities were finally alerted, Davern did not tell them about the arguments and tension on the boat that evening. “I have been trying to get the true version out for a long time now,” he said. “But nobody seemed to want to listen until now. I just want justice for Natalie and for these unanswered questions to be answered. It is for the investigators to try and find those answers.”
Rulli also provided the police with testimony from a passenger on a nearby boat who heard a woman screaming for help from the water at the time Wood disappeared and from the coast guard official who found her body and believed she had been alive in the water for several hours.
“This is not new evidence that has mysteriously come to light at the time of the 30th anniversary, as some people seem to be suggesting,” she told The Sunday Telegraph. “It is old information that has never been investigated.
“It’s been a long and slow process but I am thrilled that a new generation of detectives are now willing to take a look at the evidence. I am confident that they can finally get to the bottom of what happened.”
Wagner gave his version of events in his memoirs, published in 2008, and in interviews. He said he had argument with Walken, smashing a bottle in the process, but the subject was how much of one’s personal life an actor should not sacrifice for his career — and not, as Davern said, his suspicion that his wife was having an affair.
Natalie Wood, above, as Maria in 1961’s West Side Story. She drowned in 1981 while on a yacht with Robert Wagner, far left, and Christopher Walken. New information has led investigators to reopen the case.