Actor Robert Wagner faces new pressure over the 1981 boating death of his actress wife Natalie Wood, following allegations that he sat up drinking whisky with the boat’s captain for over an hour after she went missing— before calling the Coast Guard for help.
Wood was sailing with her husband and the actor Christopher Walken in November 1981 when she disappeared without explanation from Wagner’s boat, the Splendor. She was later found dead in the water off California’s Catalina Island, wearing a red jacket and night dress.
A CBS 48 Hours documentary screened this weekend cited police claims that two new witnesses have come forward to vouch that they saw or heard Wood and Wagner having an argument on the night of her death.
The documentary also aired longstanding claims that Wagner was so angry at Wood flirting with Walken that he smashed a bottle of wine and said: “What are you trying to do, f*** my wife?”
Wagner’s defenders have always maintained that Wood took the boat’s tender with the intention of heading back to shore, but either slipped or fell overboard.
The CBS 48 Hours special claimed that Wagner—who it was revealed this week is now considered a “person of interest” although not a suspect in the reopened investigation—and Wood had a blazing row on the boat before she disappeared, citing two new, unnamed witnesses.
The account tallies with allegations by the boat’s captain, Dennis Davern, who has long claimed the couple were having a ferocious argument the night of her death.
Davern, who has changed his story, sold it to the tabloids, and collaborated on a sensational book on the mystery, told 48 Hours: “I believe that Robert Wagner was with her up until the moment she went into the water.”
Wood’s death was ruled an accidental drowning, however, when the case was reopened in 2011.
One of the investigating officers, Lt. John Corina, was asked by CBS’s Erin Moriarty, “Does that evidence lead you to believe that whatever happened to Natalie Wood was not an accident?”
“Well, it does,” he replied. “It actually confirms my suspicions even more that [what was] originally reported isn’t exactly what happened.”
Lt. Corina and his partner, Det. Ralph Hernandez, also claimed to have testimony from two new witnesses, both of whom say they heard a fight, and one of whom, according to Hernandez, says they, “Saw figures on the back of the Splendor, a male and a female, whose voices they recognized as being Robert Wagner and Natalie Wood arguing in the back of the boat.”
The documentary also alleges that all four of the boat’s occupants were so drunk at a restaurant on-shore on the evening of Wood’s death, that the restaurant manager told the harbor master: “They’re really intoxicated. Make sure they get back to their boat OK.”
Wagner gave his account of the tragedy in an interview in 2008: “I got into an argument with Chris [Walken], which I really started because he was saying what a wonderful actress she is. And he said, ‘I think she should really spend more time on her career. And, you know, that would be nice.’ And I got a little bit angry about that. I said, ‘What are you getting involved with her and her career for?’ One thing led to another. And I got very upset with him. We got into a—not a physical altercation, but an altercation that took us out on the deck. And I was angry at him.
“We came back down below. I looked below. I saw Natalie was doing something with her hair. She was going to go to bed. And she shut the door. And Chris and I were still talking. We weren’t particularly arguing then, you know. And sat up for a while. And when I went down below, she wasn’t there.
“I looked around for her and I couldn’t—I didn’t know where she was. I went back above. Dennis, a kid I had working for me on the boat, and Chris, and I, you know, we never heard anything. The dingy was gone. We never heard it start. We never heard anything at all.”
However, in the new documentary, Davern says that Wagner was slow to call for help after Wood was discovered missing. He says the actor brought out a bottle of scotch and sat up drinking for more than an hour until he went for assistance.
The Daily Mirror reports that Wood's daughter Natasha Gregson Wagner, who was 11 when Natalie died, said in 1997: “I think there was a thorough investigation and I am completely satisfied.
“All I know is that nobody loved my mum more than my stepdad, so if he had heard anything he would have given his life for her. And that’s a fact.”