Natalie Wood’s death is the subject of enduring mystery and speculation. That went into overdrive with the CBS News program, Natalie Wood: Death in Dark Water, which airs in 2018. On May 5, 2020, HBO is airing a different take on the death, a documentary in which Wood’s daughters defend her husband Robert Wagner, saying they don’t think he had anything to do with her death.
How did Natalie Wood die? What was her official cause of death? One thing that is known for certain is that Natalie Wood drowned during a night on a yacht in 1981 with her husband, Robert Wagner, and the actor Christopher Walken. The only other person on the boat that night, captain Dennis Davern, now says he heard an argument between Wagner and Natalie right before she vanished. Wagner has maintained that Natalie died in an accidental drowning, perhaps trying to take a dinghy to shore, but he’s been labeled “a person of interest” by an investigator.
His daughters don’t believe he was at fault in anyway. Natalie’s daughter Natasha Gregson Wagner co-produced the documentary and told Wagner, according to USA Today: “It bothers me that anyone would think that you would be involved in what happened to her, because you would’ve given your life for my mom.”
The key question – and it remains unanswered – is how and why Natalie Wood ended up in the water. As a result, her cause of death has shifted over the years. According to USA Today, Natalie died on Nov. 29, 1981 in Santa Catalina Island, California. “After disappearing from a yacht under circumstances that remain murky at best, her body was found hours later, clad in a flannel nightgown, red down jacket and blue socks. The body had floated in the Pacific about a mile away from the yacht and off the island’s Blue Cavern Point,” the newspaper reports.
At first, Natalie Wood’s cause of death was officially labeled “accidental drowning.” You can read Natalie’s autopsy report here. It says Natalie had “numerous bruises to legs and arms.” However, it also said that “foul play is not suspected at this time.”
In 2011, authorities relabeled Natalie’s cause of death “drowning and other undetermined factors” in part because of bruises found on her body. The Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department reopened the death investigation that year. That happened after Davern, the captain, came forward “claiming he lied to investigators about certain details related to Wood’s death,” People Magazine reports. However, two months later, sheriff’s officials were again calling the death accidental and saying Wagner was not a suspect. However, the “drowning and other undetermined factors” classification was released a year after the investigation was reopened.
Here’s what you need to know:
Davern Has Described an Argument on the Boat
Davern claimed Wagner shouted at Walken: “Do you want to f*** my wife” before smashing a bottle of wine and then later yelled “get off my f***ing boat.”
Marti Rulli, who wrote a book with Davern about what he says happened that night, spoke to First Coast News.
“Dennis knows there was a huge fight on the back of the deck. He heard it. He turned on the music to try to drown out the sound of the fight just to protect them. He loved both of them,” Rulli told the news site. “Then, when everything went quiet, he went down to the deck immediately and Robert Wagner was right by the swim step and nervous and shaking and said ‘Natalie’s missing. Go look for her.’ And Dennis did that.”
In 2018, CNN reported that authorities now consider Wood’s death to be “suspicious” because new witnesses have come forward. “The statements from these new witnesses differ from the original version of events as related by previous witnesses, including the individuals on the boat,” the sheriff’s office said in a statement about the new developments. Specifically, according to CNN, “a witness told investigators there were yelling and crashing sounds coming from the couple’s stateroom that night and another witness said a woman and a man were arguing on the back of the boat.”
In his autobiography, Wagner wrote that what happened to Wood was “all conjecture. Nobody knows. There are only two possibilities: either she was trying to get away from the argument, or she was trying to tie the dinghy. But the bottom line is that nobody knows exactly what happened.”
According to The Sun, “People on a nearby boat had reported hearing a woman screaming on the night of the actress’ death. Investigators also reportedly found broken glass in the yacht’s saloon – which Wagner blamed on rough seas. Forensic evidence later found that there were fingernail scratches on the side of the dinghy.”
Investigator John Corina told 48 Hours “As we’ve investigated the case over the last six years, I think he’s (Wagner) more of a person of interest now. I mean, we know now that he was the last person to be with Natalie before she disappeared. She looked like a victim of an assault. I think it’s suspicious enough to make us think that something happened.” Robert Wagner is now 90.
He spoke about Natalie in the HBO documentary, saying, “No, I never have gone back to the island. I see it once in a while. You know how sometimes it’s so clear you can see it? Or when I’m taking off from LAX and they turn to the south, and you fly by the island. I look down at the Isthmus and think all of the great times we had there.”
According to the Los Angeles Times, in the documentary, he discusses that night and says he didn’t know how Natalie ended up in the water. He says they were drinking, there was an argument, and then he went to bed. It was then noticed that she and the dinghy were gone.