Dennis Davern was the captain of the boat the night that Natalie Wood died, a celebrity death shrouded in decades of mystery. His account about what he saw and heard that night is instrumental in the case.
The interest in Wood’s death has grown anew with a new CBS program about it and with the declaration by an investigator that Wood’s husband, Robert Wagner, is a “person of interest” in her untimely death. Natalie Wood: Death in Dark Water, which features rare interviews with investigators, aired on Saturday, February 3 at 10 p.m. ET/PT on CBS.
As the Mercury News recounted it, Natalie Wood “had gone missing in the middle of the night from Splendour, her and Wagner’s yacht. Her body, clad in a flannel nightgown and red down jacket, was found the next morning floating in the ocean about a mile away.”
The actor Christopher Walken was also on the boat that night. The date was November 27, 1981, and Wood and Wagner had reconciled after marrying and divorcing and remarrying.
Here’s what you need to know:
1. Davern, Who Now Lives Part of the Time in Florida, Allegedly Heard a ‘Huge Fight’ on the Boat
First Coast News tried to track down Davern in St. Augustine, Florida, where he now lives part of the year, but he was out of the country. Instead, the news outlet talked to Marti Rulli, who wrote a book with Davern about what he says happened that night.
“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 on February 2. “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.”
According to Rulli, “Dennis wanted to call for help. He wanted to turn on the searchlight and Robert Wagner said ‘no.'” She alleged to First Coast News, “Robert Wagner was with Natalie the last minute of her life, and Dennis believes he had something to do with it.” You can see a photo of Davern here.
Over the years, Davern has sold information to tabloids, 48 Hours reported, but Davern said he was motivated by his conscience not money.
“The fighting continued, and then to the back of the boat. I was concerned something really bad was going down because the fighting was so intense,” he told 48 Hours. New witnesses have now given information about an argument on the back of the boat – and that it stopped suddenly – that matches Davern’s account, the TV show says. Davern alleges that Robert Wagner didn’t want to call for help and then started drinking a bottle of Scotch while more than an hour passed.
Investigators told 48 Hours that Wagner, when he did call, wanted people to look for Natalie in town, not the water. Davern said a later story that Wagner gave, that Natalie Wood heard a dinghy banging against the yacht and went to investigate that, was false. Wagner moved Davern into his guest house shortly after the death and it was left to Davern to identify the body, 48 Hours reported.
2. Davern Told the Media He Lied During the Initial Investigation, Reports Say
Dennis Davern’s account of what happened that night has not been consistent throughout the years. In 2011, Davern changed his story and told authorities that he had heard a fight that night. As a result, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department reopened its investigation into Natalie Wood’s death.
Davern told NBC News “that he lied during the initial investigation and that a fight between Wood and Wagner had led to her death,” The Mercury News reported.
According to The Sun, “At the time of her death, Wagner, Walken and Davern told investigators Wood ‘took off in a dinghy and went ashore.’”
That account grew more colorful later on. According to Daily Mail, investigators reopened the case when Davern told them he heard Wagner should “Do you want to f*** my wife” at Walker before smashing a wine bottle.
In 2011, Dennis Davern told People Magazine: “The only thing I know is what happened on the boat that night, I really can’t say that I would think that [Wagner] is responsible.”
3. There Was Suspicious Evidence on the Boat That Night
The Sun recounts some of the concerning evidence at the scene: “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.”
Bruises were found on Natalie’s body, and authorities now consider her death to be suspicious, according to CNN. Authorities now say they have new witness accounts that shed additional light on the death.
“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,” CNN reported. Those two witnesses add credibility to Davern’s account, authorities say.
As we’ve investigated the case over the last six years, I think [Wagner] is more of a person of interest now,” Lt John Corina of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s office said to CBS News.
4. Davern Operated a Marina & Boat Maintenance Business After the Tragedy
According to the book that Davern co-authored on Wood’s death, Goodbye Natalie, Goodbye Spendour, Dennis Davern “was the boat captain for Robert Wagner and Natalie Wood and was on the yacht Splendour on the night of Wood’s death. He currently owns and operates a marina and boat maintenance business.”
Davern’s book is for sale on Amazon.com.
The book’s blurb on Amazon says “Goodbye Natalie, Goodbye Splendour is the long‑awaited, detailed account of events that led to the mysterious death of Hollywood legend Natalie Wood off the coast of Catalina Island on November 28, 1981. It is a story told by a haunted witness to that fateful evening: Dennis Davern, the young captain of Splendour, the yacht belonging to Wood and husband Robert Wagner. Davern initially backed up Wagner’s version of that evening’s events through a signed statement prepared by attorneys. But Davern’s guilt over failing Natalie tormented him.”
The book describes Dennis Davern as a “trusted family friend” of Wood and Wagner. It also says that Davern “passed a polygraph” over his account that Wagner was last seen with Natalie.
5. Dennis Davern Is a Navy Man Who Was born in New Jersey & Worked as a Hollywood Extra
Dennis Davern grew up in New Jersey. “Dennis Davern, born and raised in New Jersey, was honorably discharged from the U.S. Navy in 1971,” the Davern/Rulli book reads. “A marina job took him to California where he became a boat captain for Robert Wagner and Natalie Wood.”
He worked as an extra in Hollywood. “From 1982 to 1984 he was a member of the Screen Actors Guild and employed as a general extra actor in Hollywood. Since 1987, he has owned and operated a successful marina and boat maintenance business in Florida,” the book says.
When Davern gave one interview, Fox News described him vividly, writing, “He has a crinkly, sun-scarred face out of which sprouts an uneven beard of brown and gray. He wore glasses on the ‘Today’ show interview and donned an olive-colored cargo shirt with two unbuttoned breast pockets.”