Captain: Wagner responsible for Wood death

Actress Natalie Wood and her husband, actor Robert Wagner, enter a reception celebrating the first issue of Look Magazine in Beverly Hills, California on Wednesday, Feb. 15, 1979.
AP Photo/Huynh

A yacht captain said that he lied to investigators about the mysterious death 30 years ago of actress Natalie Wood, whose body was found in the waters off Southern California, and blames the actress' husband, Robert Wagner, for her drowning.

The circumstances of her death had long been classified as a tragic accident.

But on Thursday homicide detectives unexpectedly re-opened the case. A Los Angeles County sheriff's detective will speak to reporters Friday about the decision to take another look at the Oscar-nominated actress' death on Nov. 29, 1981.

In a special to air Saturday on CBS at 10 p.m. ET/PT, "48 Hours Presents Vanity Fair: Hollywood Scandal," Dennis Davern, the captain of the Wagner's boat, the Splendour, said, "I believe that Robert Wagner was with her up until the moment she went into the water."

Wood drowned after spending several hours drinking on Catalina Island and a yacht with Wagner, fellow actor Christopher Walken (with whom Wood was co-starring in the film "Brainstorm") and the ship's captain, Dennis Davern.

The Los Angeles Times quoted Sheriff Lee Baca as saying recent comments by the captain, Davern, who was interviewed for a book project and whose comments from a 2000 article by Vanity Fair are being featured on a new print edition and a "48 Hours Mystery" episode focusing on Hollywood scandals.

The coroner's autopsy indicated Wood had died by accident, attempting to board a rubber dingy off the Splendor, when she fell and drowned.

"That story is 100 percent false," Davern said in a preview of the "48 Hours" special. "Natalie would never, in a million years, take that dingy out by herself. She would have gotten me."

It is not the first time Davern has contradicted statements he and others made to investigators after Woods' death. The magazine notes that he has told his story through tabloids, and has been shopping for a book deal for years.

Boat captain: Natalie Wood death story bogus

On NBC's "Today" show Friday Davern said that he made mistakes by not telling the truth about events leading to the Thanksgiving weekend death and had urged Los Angeles County sheriff's homicide investigators to reopen the case.

"Was the fight between Natalie Wood and her husband Robert Wagner what ultimately led to her death?" show host David Gregory asked.

"Yes," Davern replied.

"How so?"

"Like I said, that's going to be up to the investigators to decide," the captain said.

Davern said he believes Wagner had intentionally kept the investigation into Wood's death low profile and didn't do everything he could have done. When Gregory pressed Davern for supporting details, the captain said that was the duty of investigators.

Appearing on the Vanity Fair special, L.A. Country Sheriff's Detective Duane Rasure - who was the original investigator on the case - questioned Davern's comments about Wagner: "That's like saying Robert Wagner pushed her overboard. That's a murder investigation. But I don't believe him."

Also interviewed on the Vanity Fair special are Marti Rulli, a longtime friend of Davern's who has spent 30 years investigating Wood's death; Roger Smith, the paramedic who took Wood's body to shore; Marilyn Wayne, who was on a nearby boat that night; and Mart Crowley, a close personal friend of Wood and Wagner, who also questions Davern's assertion. "To infer that he stood by ... and didn't dive in to save her is just absurd ... to anyone that knows anything about their relationship."

In the magazine, Davern is quoted as saying that Wood and Wagner fought in their cabin before the actress disappeared. Coroner's officials ruled her death an accidental drowning, perhaps caused by her slipping off the boat while trying to tie down a dinghy.

Wood's death sparked tabloid speculation that foul play was involved, but Wagner and Wood's sister have dismissed any suggestion the actress' death was anything more than an accident. Coroner's officials at the time agreed, writing that Wood was "possibly attempting to board the dinghy and had fallen into the water, striking her face."

Sheriff's officials are hoping for tips from the public may shed new light on how Wood - who was afraid of being in the water - ended up drowning.