Sunday 11 December 2016

Police re-examine death of star as captain says 'I lied'

Drunken row which ended in Natalie's death 30 years ago

Nick Allen and Neil Tweedie in Los Angeles

Published 19/11/2011 | 05:00

Natalie Wood with
her husband Robert
Wagner in 1980; in 'West
Side Story' (1961)
Natalie Wood with her husband Robert Wagner in 1980; in 'West Side Story' (1961)
Natalie Wood in 1959

IT could have been the prelude to a thriller: the Hollywood couple arguing drunkenly in a remote island restaurant, watched on by their male guest, a handsome younger actor, the subject of the husband's jealousy.

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The return to the luxury yacht moored out to sea in the sub-tropical darkness, then more arguing between man and wife. A thud, then silence, and a body overboard. No call for help to the rescue services, though, until it was too late.

This is how the actress Natalie Wood died, according to Dennis Davern, skipper of the yacht she owned with her actor husband, Robert Wagner.

The third man in that restaurant, who was asleep on that boat when Ms Wood disappeared into the Pacific Ocean, was Christopher Walken. Central casting could not have done better.

Ms Wood's body was found floating in the water a mile away from the yacht 'Splendour' on the morning of November 29, 1981 -- clothed in a nightgown, socks and a down jacket.

Jealousy

There were two dozen bruises on her body, which were consistent with having slipped while trying to tie up a loose dinghy, or trying to board the dinghy to leave the boat. The 13ft dinghy was later found beached on the island.

At the time of her death the Hollywood rumour mill was awash with speculation that Mr Wagner was consumed with jealousy about his beautiful wife's liking for Mr Walken.

Yesterday, almost 30 years to the day, Mr Davern reopened that mystery, claiming that Mr Wagner was "responsible" for his wife's death. The allegation came as Los Angeles police reopened the investigation into how Ms Wood, star of 'West Side Story' and Oscar nominee, met her end on that night in 1981. That inquiry might yet overturn a verdict of accidental death.

Asked in a television interview if he believed Mr Wagner, star of 'Hart to Hart' and a host of films, was "responsible" for Ms Wood's death, he replied: "Yes, I would say so. Yes."

Asked if he meant "foul play," or that Mr Wagner had not wanted to look very hard when his wife went missing, he replied: "I think it was a matter of 'we're not going to look too hard, we're not going to turn on the searchlight, we're not going to notify anybody right now'. We didn't take any steps to see if we could locate her."

Last night LA county sheriff's department said Mr Wagner was not a suspect in the case, but the reopening of the case can bring no comfort to the 81-year-old actor.

Mr Davern, who has published a book on the affair, an enduring source of Hollywood gossip, also alleged that Mr Wagner had wanted the subsequent investigation to remain "low profile". In deference to his employer he himself had not told investigators the full truth of what occurred that night.

"I made mistakes by not telling the honest truth in a police report," he said.

The decision to reopen the case was made following the submission of a statement by Mr Davern to police. It was given to them by the author Marti Rulli, with whom the skipper co-operated on a 2009 book, 'Goodbye Natalie, Goodbye Splendour'.

In the statement Mr Davern says there was a "tense atmosphere on the boat" and that Mr Wagner clearly did not want Mr Walken along. Ms Wood was angry at her husband's behaviour and threatened to go home. An argument broke out, a wine bottle was broken and Mr Walken went to his room. Ms Wood went to her room and Mr Wagner followed. There was another "terrible" argument. Mr Davern claimed he knocked on the door but was told to go away. Objects could be heard hitting the ceiling and and walls. He saw the couple on the quarterdeck, arguing loudly.

It was later that Mr Wagner told him his wife was missing. According to Mr Davern the actor did not want to radio for help immediately because he was concerned about his public image. The skipper said Ms Wood would not have taken the dinghy out on her own because she was scared of deep water.

Two years ago Mr Wagner confirmed in his book 'Pieces of My Heart', that he and Mr Walken had argued on the boat, and Ms Wood got up and went to her room. (©Daily Telegraph, London)

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