As the 60-foot yacht Splendor set out for Catalina, a rocky island off the coast of southern California, Robert Wagner, Natalie Wood, Christopher Walken, and the ship’s captain were celebrating. The mood was high and the champagne was flowing as they toasted the successful completion of a new film starring Walken and Wood.
After departing the yacht and taking a skiff to shore, the 3 actors ate dinner at the Harbor Reef Restaurant on Catalina Island. There, witnesses and restaurant staff reported that all 3 Hollywood heavies were intoxicated. At 10:15 PM, they piloted the skiff back to the yacht anchored offshore.
What happened after that remains a mystery.
Natalie Wood was reported missing at 1:30 AM on November 29, 1981.
At 8:00 AM, her body was found floating in the water a mile from the yacht. Her blood alcohol level was nearly twice the legal limit and she had painkillers in her system. The coroner determined that she had died of a combination of drowning and hypothermia. Undigested food in her stomach, and eyewitness reports that dinner was consumed at 9:00 PM, supported the coroner’s opinion that she died at approximately midnight, 90 minutes prior to being reported missing.
The death of Natalie Wood, a child star in the Christmas classic Miracle on 34th Street, who went on to earn 3 Oscar nominations, completely stunned Hollywood. It soon made headlines around the globe, putting the events of that weekend under heavy scrutiny. Originally, detectives on the case agreed with the coroner that this was an accident. However, investigators renewed their inquiry in 2011 after the captain of the yacht claimed he had originally lied to police.
Dennis Davern, who has maintained that he had nothing to do with Natalie Wood’s death, says he feels personally responsible for what happened to her that night. LA County Sheriff’s detectives reopened their investigation after the skipper made the following claims:
- Wood and Wagner had been fighting the night she died.
- After Wood went to bed, he heard the fight turn physical inside her cabin.
- Another fight had broken out between Wagner and Walken.
- Wagner waited several hours after Wood’s disappearance to call for help.
- Davern believes that Wagner was to blame for Wood’s death.
A revised coroner’s report, published in January 2013, added 10 pages to the original report. It revealed that bruises found on the actress’s face, wrists, knees, and ankles occurred before she went into the water, not after, as the original report had stated. The new report also questioned several findings from the original 1981 autopsy and came very close to categorizing Natalie Wood’s death as a homicide.
Investigators interviewed over 100 people, but Robert Wagner refused, giving no reason for his silence. Wagner, now 83, has admitted he had a fight with his wife that night, but has testified that when he went to bed she was not in her cabin. Wagner claims Wood, who could not swim, must have fallen in the water and drowned. He is not considered a suspect by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Office, and neither Wagner nor Walken has ever been charged in connection with the case.
Natalie Wood’s death was ruled “accidental” at the time of the tragedy, but in 2013, the LA Coroner changed his ruling to “undetermined.” The Chief LA Coroner’s office has officially stated that it simply does not have enough evidence to rule otherwise. The 2013 report concludes, “Since there are unanswered questions and limited additional evidence available for evaluation, it is opined by this Medical Examiner that the manner of death should be left as undetermined.”
- Carroll R. Natalie Wood’s drowning death reclassified by Los Angeles coroner. Guardian website. January 14, 2013.
- McCartney A. Natalie Wood death reopened: Robert Wagner refuses interview in new inquiry. Huffington Post website. January 17, 2013.
- Zennie M, McCormack D. Did Hollywood star Natalie Wood walk in on husband Robert Wagner and Christopher Walken having sex on the night she drowned? Daily Mail website. April 3, 2013.