Natalie Wood: Death in Dark Water

Nearly four decades after the mysterious drowning death of the Hollywood star, Los Angeles County Sheriff's investigators disclose new clues, new witnesses and a person of interest in the case to "48 Hours"

Last Updated Feb 3, 2018 11:09 PM EST

This week, "48 Hours" first reported that the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department had talked for the first time about their investigation into the drowning death of iconic actress Natalie Wood 36 years ago. They are now calling her husband, actor Robert Wagner, a person of interest.

"As we've investigated the case over the last six years, I think he's more of a person of interest now," Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department Lieutenant John Corina says of Wagner in an interview with "48 Hours" correspondent Erin Moriarty. "I mean, we know now that he was the last person to be with Natalie before she disappeared."

Wood_Wagner_tAP7902150320.jpg

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

Wood drowned off the coast of Catalina Island in California in November 1981 after she went missing from the Splendour, her family's yacht. Also aboard that night were Wagner, Captain Dennis Davern, and Wood's friend and fellow actor, Christopher Walken.

Her death was originally ruled an accident, but investigators reopened the case just over six years ago.

Rumors of foul play have long surrounded Wood's mysterious death.  At first, the three men aboard the boat -- Wagner, Walken and Davern -- told detectives that they assumed Wood, famously terrified of dark water, took off in a dinghy and went ashore. Over time, however, Wagner and Davern's accounts have shifted, a red flag to the investigators.

Investigators say Wagner has refused to speak with them since the case was reopened. Corina tells Moriarty he doesn't believe Wagner has told the whole story.

"I haven't seen him tell the details that match ... all the other witnesses in this case," Corina says of Wagner. "I think he's constantly ... he's changed the -- his story a little bit. ...and his version of events just don't add up." 

Walken has spoken with investigators.

Was it an accident or something more?

"We have not been able to prove this was a homicide. And we haven't been able to prove that this was an accident, either," says Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department Detective Ralph Hernandez. "The ultimate problem is we don't know how she ended up in the water."

THE INVESTIGATION

Natalie Wood was, in life, one of Hollywood's most alluring actresses. In death, she still reigns, but now as one of its most enduring mysteries.

Charles Osgood |CBS News reportActress Natalie Wood is dead at 43 the apparent victim of a drowning accident of Santa Catalina Island in California.

In 1981, Wood's death was quickly dismissed as an accidental drowning. But rumors and allegations of foul play, fueled in great part by the boat's captain, Dennis Davern, have never gone away.

Dennis Davern: I just didn't want my whole life to go by without having the truth come out.

So in 2011 – 30 years after Wood's death – Davern and more than 700 others signed a petition addressed to the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department outlining what they considered flaws in the original investigation.

Lt. John Corina [to reporters in 2011]: It was already determined to be an accidental drowning, but the information we received made us want to take another look at the case.

About nine months after the investigation was reopened, there was another stunning announcement. The Medical Examiner's Office changed the manner of death from accident to undetermined, triggering an avalanche of news coverage and unleashing a flood of new leads.

Lt. John Corina: …because of the press conferences we had …  we found a lot more clues, a lot more evidence, a lot more witnesses.

hernandez-corina.jpg

Det. Ralph Hernandez, left, and Lt. John Corina of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department spoke publically about the Natalie Wood Investigation for the first time to "48 Hours."

Anyone with information on the case is asked to call the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Homicide Bureau at 323-890-5500.

CBS News

For the last six years, veteran Homicide Detective Ralph Hernandez and Lieutenant. John Corina have doggedly pursued this case. 

Lt. John Corina: Six years later, we've-- followed up on all the clues, over 100, 150 clues we've followed up on. …Talked to a lotta people.

These detectives even travelled to Hawaii twice to comb the Wagner's yacht for clues. It was docked there by its new owner.

"48 Hours" showed up in Hawaii, but the detectives wouldn't talk then and have refused to speak for six years -- until now. For the first time, they are speaking publically about evidence they've uncovered and there's a lot to tell.

Erin Moriarty: Does that evidence lead you to believe … that whatever happened to Natalie Wood was not an accident?

Lt. John Corina: It does. It actually … confirms my suspicions even more that -- what was originally reported isn't exactly what happened.

Natalie Wood autopsy report

Natalie Wood's autopsy report

Los Angeles Coroner's Office

They point to the numerous bruises on Wood's body that were photographed and noted in the autopsy report. It's some of those bruises and where they were located that played a big part in convincing a medical examiner to change the manner of death.

Erin Moriarty: Why are all these bruises suspicious to you?

Det. Ralph Hernandez: Because she looked like the victim of an assault.

Another red flag: the story the three men on the boat -- Captain Dennis Davern, actor Christopher Walken and Robert Wagner -- told the original investigators.

LT. John Corina: It didn't fit the smell test, you know? …it didn't make sense. 

All three men told police that they assumed Wood had left the Splendour on the yacht's dinghy, despite the late hour and stormy weather.

Lt. John Corina: That didn't even make any sense to me. …Why would Natalie Wood, this big movie star … try to go out on a dinghy in the middle of the night in her socks, in her pajamas  at midnight, in rough seas.

That story also makes no sense to Natalie's younger sister, actress and former Bond girl, Lana Wood.

Erin Moriarty: Is there any possibility … that she would get in that boat, and leave?

Lana Wood: No, no not with a gun to her head.

Natalie Wood reportedly had never operated the dinghy on her own and there was her well-documented lifelong fear of "dark water."

Natalie Wood: [From "Biography"]:  I've always been terrified, still am, of water, dark water, sea water.

Lana Wood: When I think of her in that water, in the dark, in the cold … and the one thing that she feared was water and that's where she finishes her life?

Sam Kashner | Vanity Fair contributing editor: I know it's a cliché, but she really was America's sweetheart.

Sam Kashner: America had grown up with her. She was the little doubting girl in "Miracle on 34th Street" and then, she was running with that sort of … troubled pack in "Rebel Without a Cause." And then, of course, that incredible performance in "Splendor in the Grass" … She was in "West Side Story" … and "Gypsy" … and some of these great iconic films of the early '60s. 

By the time she was 18, Wood had her first of three Academy Award nominations.

In 2008, Robert Wagner, also known as R.J., talked about Natalie on "CBS Sunday Morning."

Robert Wagner ["CBS Sunday Morning"]: She was so gifted. … She was a very, very fine actress. And people loved her. …You know they adored her.

He recalled their first date when Natalie was just 18 and R.J. was 26:

Robert Wagner ["CBS Sunday Morning"]: I started taking her out after that.  And it led -- one thing led to another, and a year later we were married.

Erin Moriarty: Was Natalie in love with R.J. when they first got married?

Lana Wood: She was madly in love with him. He was the perfect golden boy.

wood-wagner-wedding.jpg

Actress Natalie Wood and actor Robert Wagner cut their wedding cake after their wedding in Scottsdale, Ariz., on Dec. 28, 1957.

AP Photo

But the pressures of living under Hollywood's relentless scrutiny weighed heavily on the marriage, says close family friend Mart Crowley.

Mart Crowley: They were hounded by the press. They were presented as the ideal couple. Far beyond what any normal human being could live up to.

And now, these investigators say they've tracked down stunning new evidence that Wood and Wagner may have been more human than anyone knew -- allegations that Natalie fled the couple's house one night, in fear for her life.

A new witness -- a former neighbor who says he was 12 years old at the time – remembers late one night, he was awakened by somebody banging on the door. It was Natalie Wood.

Lt. John Corina: …she was so afraid of him … she ran to a neighbor's house yelling … he's gonna kill me. And looking for help and looking for safety. And so a neighbor took her in.

According to the witness, Wood stayed the night and returned home the next morning. But so far, that's the only episode of alleged violence investigators have found.

After just four years, the couple's first marriage came to a bitter end, and Wood began dating Hollywood heartthrob Warren Beatty.

Robert Wagner ["CBS Sunday Morning"]: His career was on fire.  And -- our relationship was gone. And why not?  He was in love with her.  

Wagner admitted that Wood's stardom and his own insecurities probably tore them apart.

Robert Wagner ["CBS Sunday Morning"]: It was basically my inadequacy that didn't -- that didn't make it work. …It made me feel very sad, and very broken hearted.  And -- I felt, you know, I had failed in the relationship. …And I never thought that I'd ever get it back again. 

Mart Crowley: Both of them were besotted with each other. …After they got divorced ,they went on to other partners and had children, but those marriages didn't work out and eventually they found each other again and got back together and got married a second time.

Erin Moriarty: How did you find out she was going back with R.J.?

Lana Wood: A dinner party … family only. R.J. was there in the living room. … And … she announced that, you know, "R.J. and I are going to be remarried."… "Wow." And all she did was she looked down, and she said, "Sometimes, it's better to be with the devil you know than the devil you don't."

Wagner sees it differently.

Robert Wagner ["CBS Sunday Morning"]: We felt that we had found something that was so precious to us, and it was, that-- we did everything in the world we could to protect it.

They remarried, had a daughter named Courtney and were together for nine years … until that final fatal voyage to Catalina Island.

TENSION ABOARD THE SPLENDOUR

On a miserable cold and rainy Friday in November 1981, the Splendour departed Marina del Rey with Natalie Wood, Robert Wagner, Captain Dennis Davern and one of Hollywood's hottest young actors, Christopher Walken.

Sam Kashner:  As soon as Chris Walken walked up the gangplank to the Splendour in his peacoat with the collar turned up, Robert Wagner took an instant dislike to him… Chris was fresh off winning the Academy Award for "The Deer Hunter."

Walken was now shooting a film with Wood and there were rumors of an affair.

Dennis Davern: You could see a little bit of jealousy from Robert Wagner … It just kept getting more tense … every minute of the day.

Lt. John Corina: He felt that … Natalie was paying way more attention to Christopher Walken than she was paying attention to him.

splendour.jpg

The Splendour

Dennis Davern

When the Splendour docked at Catalina Island, Wood, Wagner and Walken went ashore to the town of Avalon and began drinking heavily. "48 Hours" spoke to Dennis Davern in 2011.

Dennis Davern: The jealousy was under the surface until there was so much drinking that it started to come out and it was obvious.

Once back on the Splendour, Davern says the tension escalated.  And now, for the first time, investigators say they have a new witness corroborating Davern's account. That Friday, someone on a nearby boat claims to have been close enough to see and hear a fight between the couple.

Det. Ralph Hernandez: Natalie, to this witness, appeared to be the aggressor in the argument, appeared to be intoxicated. Robert Wagner appeared to try and walk away from -- from the argument.  At the point that he's walking away, she actually fell down to one knee.

Davern says the couple was fighting over whether to move the Splendour to the other side of Catalina Island.

Lt. John Corina: He wanted to move the boat at night. …But she didn't want him drivin' the boat at night. It's kinda dangerous to do that, especially when it's so rough out there and rainy.

Dennis Davern: Natalie said she wasn't gonna stand for this and would I take her to shore. 

Wood had Davern take her on the dinghy to Avalon, where she desperately tried to get off the island.

Mart Crowley: She did indeed call me on Friday night. She said, "Can you come and get me?" (laughs) And I said, "What?"

Lt. John Corina: She couldn't get a boat or a flight outta there because of the weather and the time of night so she had to spend the night there.

Unwilling to return to the Splendour that night, Wood got two hotel rooms -- one for her, one for Davern --  and then reportedly spent the night crying on Davern's shoulder.

Sam Kashner: She poured her heart out to him about how she was feeling … And according to Dennis, about some of the difficulties in … their marriage … that it was becoming increasingly harder for her to deal with his professional jealousy. 

Erin Moriarty: And what did Dennis tell you about that night?

Lana Wood: That she was furious …that she was talking about leaving him.

Erin Moriarty: Leaving him, not just leaving for the weekend?

Lana Wood: No, leaving him, divorcing, leaving.

Lt. John Corina: He felt that if she had le -- gone back to the mainland that night, she was so angry, she woulda divorced Wagner … the next day.

The next morning, Saturday, Wood had a change of heart. 

Dennis Davern: She decided, "Well hey, let's-- let's go back to the boat and let's -- let's see if we can smooth everything over here and I'll make a nice breakfast."

Davern says things did get better, at first. Natalie even agreed to let Wagner move the yacht to the other, far more desolate side of the island.

But by that evening things were once again tense, says Davern, when he and Wagner joined Walken and Wood – who had already gone ashore and were drinking at the bar.     

Dennis Davern: When R.J. and I walked into the restaurant, and he saw Natalie and Christopher sitting at the bar laughing and having a wonderful time, he started to really, really heat up. 

Lt. John Corina: According to other people who were there-- at the—bar—at the restaurant … they described him as irritated, he was tense. And according to Davern, Natalie and Walken were kind of ignoring him. They didn't really acknowledge him the whole time and they were just kinda havin' a good time by themselves, partying and drinking.

Witnesses say all four were so drunk that when they left, the restaurant manager alerted the harbormaster.    

Lt. John Corina: He calls the harbormaster and says, "Hey, you know, Robert Wagner, Natalie Wood are comin' your way. They're really intoxicated. Make sure they get … back to their boat OK."

They got back safely, but things were about to turn ugly.

Lana Wood: Everything that I've heard from Dennis … Natalie's temper was surfacing. R.J.'s certainly was. …It got out of hand in the worst way possible.

FINAL HOURS

For 36 years, the sea has kept her secrets about the night Natalie Wood died -- secrets these investigators believe can be uncovered.  But with all the shifting stories, witnesses with failing memories or long dead, Detective Hernandez knows time is running out.

Erin Moriarty: Why does a case that is now really more than 36 years old matter?

Det. Ralph Hernandez: Because somebody died. And no matter what, ultimately, that's our job -- to find the truth.

davern-hawaii.jpg

Dennis Davern, left, with investigators in Hawaii

CBS News

Hernandez and his partner, Kevin Lowe, now retired, brought their key witness, Dennis Davern, all the way to Hawaii where the boat was docked. And there Davern reenacted his version of events. They spent a full day photographing, measuring and researching.

Det. Ralph Hernandez: We wanted to take Dennis Davern there just to see what-- you know, kinda jog his memory and see what details and, again, get his perspective.

Davern is a crucial but problematic witness. After initially telling police one thing, he changed his story, sold it to tabloid magazines and collaborated on a tell-all book. But Davern claims he was motivated by his conscience, not greed.

Dennis Davern: I really don't just want money. What I really want is to give Natalie a voice.

Erin Moriarty: You find him credible?

Lt. John Corina: I find his story and -- his version of events when he talked to us -- everything fit. …Makes more sense of what happened and is corroborated by other people.

SATURDAY, NOV. 28, 1981 | AROUND 10:30 P.M.

Davern told investigators that problems between Robert Wagner and his wife, building for two days, exploded when they returned to the Splendour after dinner. Wood, by then in her flannel nightgown and warm socks, joined Walken, Davern and Wagner in the salon – the living area of the boat.

Dennis Davern: Natalie puts on the kettle to have a cup of tea. I light a couple candles. I opened a bottle of wine. Natalie and Christopher continued to giggle … just having fun.  And then Robert Wagner, out of the clear blue, picked up the bottle of wine and smashed it.

Lt. John Corina: It breaks and goes everywhere. And he yells at Walken, "What are you tryin' to do, f--- my wife?" and … everything just kinda stops.

Dennis Davern: Natalie, she said, "I cannot take this" and she went into her room.  

According to Davern, Walken also went to his room.

Dennis Davern: Then R.J. went into … Natalie and R.J.'s room … started arguing, yelling … things being thrown about.

At that point, Davern also leaves and goes up to the bridge at the top of the boat, says Corina.

Lt. John Corina: He hears them arguing. The arguing's gettin' louder. …And he hears a lot of -- thumping. …He says it sounds to him like there's … a physical fight goin' on inside there, to the point where he's so concerned, he – he -- walks back down and he knocks on the door.

Lt. John Corina: And -- Robert Wagner opens the door and he says he has this look -- crazed look on his face and he says, "Is everything OK, boss?" And he's, like, "Go away." …he looked so angry, he says, "I was worried about my own safety, that I just -- I left. I went back up to the bridge."

Davern told investigators that his line of sight was blocked by the boat's rain shield, but he heard everything.

Dennis Davern: The fighting continued.  And then … to the back of the boat. I was concerned that something really bad was going down, because … the fighting, the arguing was so intense.

Until now, Davern has been the only person to put both Robert Wagner and Natalie Wood outside on the back of the boat arguing Saturday night before she died.

Lt. John Corina [to reporters in 2011]: We have received information, which we thought was substantial…

But after the press conference reopening the case, investigators got a huge break. Two new witnesses told detectives they not only heard the fight, one of them says she saw it.

Det. Ralph Hernandez: Saw figures on the back of the Splendour, a male and a female, whose voices they recognized as being Robert Wagner and Natalie Wood arguing in the back of the boat.

Erin Moriarty:  And how credible are these new witnesses?

Lt. John Corina: They're very credible. They have no reason to lie. And … their story matches what Dennis Davern says.

Like Davern, both witnesses say the argument stopped suddenly.

Dennis Davern: And then all of a sudden there was nothing -- complete silence.

Nothing but the sounds of a rough sea on a cold, dark November night, says Corina.

Lt. John Corina: No one saw anybody go in the water. Nobody heard a splash … Nobody heard anything.  They just heard the argument and then silence.

There was one woman, in the months following Wood's death, who said publically that she heard a woman calling for help. But Corina now thinks she was mistaken. And Davern says 10 minutes after the fight ended, he finally went back downstairs.

Lt. John Corina: Robert Wagner's now in the stateroom. And he sees Robert Wagner is crying. And he says, "Natalie's gone. She's missing."

Corina says Robert Wagner then tells Davern to go search the boat for her.

Lt. John Corina: He can't find her anywhere. …He comes back out and tells him, "I can't find her." Robert Wagner tells her (sic), "Oh, the dinghy's now missing as well."

Corina and Hernandez think it's possible that someone could have untied the dinghy while Davern searched the boat.

Dennis Davern:  I didn't untie it. Christopher didn't untie it. I don't think Natalie would have untied it.

Davern says Wagner refused to call for help.

Lt. John Corina: And Robert Wagner tells him … "Maybe she just went into town I think to -- go to a bar or something."

Dennis Davern: I said to Robert Wagner, "Maybe I should turn on the searchlight."  He said, "Don't do that."

Lt. John Corina: He says, "Well, maybe we should get on the radio and call somebody." Robert Wagner says, "No, we don't wanna call anybody. Let's just wait and see if she comes back."

According to the story Davern told investigators, Wagner then breaks out a bottle of scotch, and the two men sit drinking while more than an hour passes.

Dennis Davern: Before you know it, we're oblivious … And, it's time. We have to call somebody. She's gone.

Erin Moriarty: By Robert Wagner's own statement, he knew she was missing by around midnight, but no call—no call for help is made till 1:30?

Lt. John Corina: Right. And when he did make that call for help, it wasn't for, "Hey -- need to search the water for her." He asked people … in town to search for her in town. …When they finally convinced Robert Wagner, "Hey, you need to call the Coast Guard." And -- kinda he  -- almost reluctantly, he said, "OK, yeah, w -- I guess we better call 'em."

Erin Moriarty: And what do you make of that?

Lt. John Corina: Well, if your wife is missing and the dinghy's missing, I'm gonna go look for her. I wanna find her right away. I'm gonna be worried about her, especially in seas like that … it's dark out. She doesn't like the water.  She doesn't like to swim … There's no reason for her to get in that dinghy to go anywhere.

Dennis Davern and Natalie Wood

Years after Natalie Wood's death, Dennis Davern, the captain of Splendour, changed his story about what happened that night, sold it to tabloid magazines, and collaborated on a tell-all book. In 2011, he told "48 Hours," "I believe that Robert Wagner was with her up until the moment she went into the water."

Dennis Davern and Marti Rulli

Lt. John Corina: If she wanted to go somewhere, she would ask Dennis Davern to take her somewhere, like she did the night before when she wanted to go into town.  … He did. That's his job.

Lt. John Corina: It didn't make any sense, the story Robert Wagner was telling. And it still doesn't make any sense to me, that -- to say that she would get in the dinghy by herself and just -- and take off.

Dennis Davern: She didn't even know how to start it.

Lana Wood: She wouldn't do it. In a nightgown? …She didn't get the mail in a nightgown.

After the Coast Guard was finally called about 3:30 a.m., over three hours after Natalie Wood was reportedly last seen alive, the search went into high gear. Wagner's friend, Islander Doug Bombard, jumped in his boat and joined in the hunt. At 7:44 a.m., he says he saw something red bobbing on top of the water.

Doug Bombard: It was about this far from shore where I found the body … The body was just basically hanging in that jacket. That jacket was buoying her up … she had a cotton nightgown on, and her hair was floating as you can imagine.

When authorities arrived, Bombard headed to the Splendour to break the news to his friend -- a moment Robert Wagner later recalled in the audio recording of his 2008 memoir, "Pieces of My Heart:."

Robert Wagner [audio book]: Doug pulled up and got out of his boat.  "Where is she?" I asked him.  Doug looked at me.  "She's dead, R.J..."  My knees went out; everything went away from me."

Dennis Davern: I remember people coming on the boat saying that they had found Natalie Wood floating, that she had drowned. …I just couldn't believe it.

SHIFTING STORIES

News of Natalie Wood's sudden death at the age of 43 quickly spread across the globe. Family friend Mart Crowley will never forget getting the call.

Mart Crowley: When I picked up the phone it was R.J. and he just screamed into the phone. "She's gone."

Lana Wood: I just couldn't believe it. I just couldn't … Things like that don't happen. And they don't happen to my sister, my family. And they don't happen to Natalie Wood … it's not real.

But it was all too real for Dennis Davern. Soon after the movie star was found floating face down in the waters off Blue Cavern Point, Robert Wagner and Christopher Walken left the island in a police helicopter , leaving Davern the grim task of identifying Natalie Wood's body.

 Dennis Davern: Robert Wagner asked me … if I would identify her body, 'cause he didn't want to. …It was the eeriest feeling I've ever had my life, to look at her laying there, lifeless. It was so disturbing.

Lt. John Corina [to Moriarty]: You would think he'd wanna stick around and identify his wife and make sure her body was taken care of … That would be maybe what I would do. … maybe he's different.

Corina understands that grief can do strange things to people. But that doesn't explain why, according to Davern, Wagner immediately came up with a story and told the men on the boat to stick to it.   

Dennis Davern: Wagner was very serious about having the stories being the same

Dennis Davern: It was kinda like, "Here we are, OK, Dennis, Christopher, me, this is what it is. You got it?  That's what it is. OK?  OK?" …"OK … if all the stories are the same there's really not much to investigate."

Davern says he now regrets going along with it, but Corina says he understands how it could have happened. 

Lt. John Corina: You gotta understand … Davern back then … people mischaracterize him as the captain of the boat. …He's not the captain of the boat. He's the caretaker of the boat. …Robert Wagner's the guy who pays him … that's his meal ticket. … if you look at … Robert Wagner's statement at the time, they almost parrot each other.

All three men told the original detective, Duane Rasure, that they thought Natalie had taken the dinghy ashore. The detective told "48 Hours" in 2011 that he believed them.

Det. Duane Rasure: I didn't doubt anything Robert Wagner told me. …Christopher Walken he basically told me the same story.  It was pretty well confirmed. …They assumed that she got in that Zodiac and went ashore.

There was no mention of a fight.

Det. Duane Rasure: I saw the shattered glass in disarray and I questioned Robert Wagner about that and says it … happened sometime during their travels … just due to rough seas.  I had no reason to question him any further. 

Detective Rasure, who has since died, only interviewed Wagner one more time. It was the day after Natalie's funeral at the actor's bedside with his attorney present.

Det. Duane Rasure: When I interviewed Robert Wagner, there was no indication of any jealousy, no problems. there was no sign of foul play in my mind.

Coroner Thomas Noguchi agreed, saying, "It is a tragic accidental drowning."

Two weeks after the actress's death, the case was officially closed. But Davern says his nightmare was just beginning.

Dennis Davern: I felt like I was … a prisoner.

Davern says Wagner insisted he move into his guest house in Beverly Hills.

Dennis Davern: I was to stay indoors at all times, not communicate with anybody.

Eventually, Davern left California for the East Coast, but was never able to escape the past.

Dennis Davern: I think he was in a way hunted down by his own conscience … He really seemed like a hunted man.

In the early 1990s, Lana Wood says a tormented, seemingly inebriated Dennis Davern started calling her.

Erin Moriarty: What, specifically, did he tell you?

Lana Wood: He said, "It wasn't an accident." And he said, "It was ugly."

Lana Wood says she didn't want to believe it at first.

Lana Wood: I didn't wanna think that. But there are so many things that are just facts.

She has since become one of R.J. Wagner's harshest critics, going so far as to publically accuse him of foul play.

Erin Moriarty: Do you think she was pushed in the water?

Lana Wood: Yes.

Erin Moriarty: Do you believe it was her husband R.J. Wagner?

Lana Wood: Absolutely. Yes.

Like Davern, Lana Wood -- who has a long, bitter history with Wagner -- has been accused of exploiting Natalie's death for money and attention … something she denies.

Lana Wood: It's just time for the truth … It's time to stop the lies and the deception and the finger-pointing. It's just not right.

Erin Moriarty: Do you think Robert Wagner has ever told the truth of exactly what happened?

Lt. John Corina: I haven't seen it. I haven't seen him tell the details … that match … all the other witnesses in this case. I think he's constantly … changed … his story a little bit. And … his version of events just don't add up.

Robert Wagner has never conceded that he and Wood had a fight on the boat  that night.  But in his memoir, he did come clean about smashing that wine bottle -- the one he originally told the police broke in rough seas. Again, Wagner reading from his book:

Robert Wagner [audio book]: Walken and I got into an argument. …At one point, I picked up a wine bottle, slammed it on the table and broke it into pieces. Natalie was already below decks at that point.

In Wagner's version of the story, he didn't smash that bottle in a jealous rage as Davern claims, but in an argument with Walken over Wood's career. In fact, he says she wasn't even in the room.

Robert Wagner [2008, "CBS Sunday Morning" ]: I looked below. I saw Natalie was doing something with her hair. She was gonna go to bed. And she shut the door.  And Chris and I were still talking.

Robert Wagner [2008, "CBS Sunday Morning"]: When I went down below, she wasn't there. The dinghy was gone … and I looked around for her, and I couldn't -- I didn't know where she was…

Originally, Wagner told the detective he thought Natalie had taken the dinghy and gone ashore. But that – like so many other details -- has changed to what is now called the   "the banging dinghy theory." 

Robert Wagner [audio book]: Natalie was in the master cabin and heard the dinghy banging against the side. She got up to retie it. She slipped on the swim step on the stern … and was either stunned or knocked unconscious and rolled in the water. The loose dinghy floated away. My theory fits the few facts we have.

Dennis Davern: That story is 100-percent false.

Dennis Davern: The dinghy really wasn't banging because … it was tied off with two lines, securely to the boat.

Lt. John Corina: The reality is … what does the evidence show? …she wouldn't go back and -- that's not her. That's not her job. … she would never go worry about the dinghy. She's gonna tell Dennis Davern, "Hey, can you go tie that dinghy down? It's making noise." That's his job.

Six years of investigation, four new key witnesses. Two determined investigators with a lot of questions for Robert Wagner.

Lt. John Corina: As we've investigated the case over the last six years, I think he's more of a person of interest now. I mean, we-- we know now that he was the last person-- to be with Natalie before she disappeared.

PERSON OF INTEREST

For the first time in the more than 36 years since Natalie Wood drowned off Catalina Island, investigators are calling her husband a person of interest -- but they stop short of calling him a suspect.  

Det. Ralph Hernandez: We have not been able to prove that this was a homicide. And we haven't been able to prove that this was an accident either.

Det. Ralph Hernandez: The ultimate problem is we don't know how she ended up in the water.

The statutes of limitations have run out on all crimes except one: murder. And to prove murder, there has to be evidence that someone intentionally put Natalie in the water; falling in by accident wouldn't count.

Det. Ralph Hernandez:  If … people knew that Natalie Wood was in the water and they didn't save her. They could've saved her. And they didn't save her. Would that be enough to bring charges in this case?

No. That's not. …believe it or not there is no duty to act.

Robert Wagner and Natalie Wood in 1980.

Actor Robert Wagner and Natalie Wood on board the Queen Elizabeth II in April 1972, after a hectic storm at sea.

AP Photo/Steve Wood

Robert Wagner: [2008, "CBS Sunday Morning"]: Believe me, believe me, if she had called out or she had made any-- noises, or if we'd a heard anything, we were three of us there.  We would have done something.  Nobody heard anything.

But investigators remain troubled by the evidence they do have: the witnesses who talk about a fight on the back of the boat, and the number and locations of fresh bruises on Natalie's body.

Det. Ralph Hernandez: I think I've been a cop long enough to see … those appear to be assaultive in nature.

Could the bruises have instead come from a drunken fall? Perhaps. But investigators think the circumstantial evidence -- the fight, the alcohol, the jealousy -- may suggest another scenario

Det. John Corina: Someone can get so enraged, they can't control their anger. Like a crime of passion, it just happens. And they didn't mean for it to happen. …And then later on, they're sorry about it. But it's too late.

brainstorm-walken-wood.jpg

Christopher Walken and Natalie Wood in her final film, "Brainstorm."

Everett Collection

For his part, Christopher Walken has remained largely silent through the years. He was asked about the case during an Oct. 12, 2012, appearance on "CBS This Morning."  

Gayle King | "CBS This Morning" co-host: I have to ask you about Natalie Wood. They just reopened the case. What's your recollection from that night?

Chris Walken: I stopped talking about that 30 years ago, and there's so much information, books and internet … Anything you want to know, just go look.

He did, however, interview with the new investigation.

Lt. John Corina: I'm not gonna go into what Christopher Walken said. … what he told us was in confidence, at least for now.

Investigators did tell "48 Hours" that Walken is not a person of interest.

Despite several attempts to re-interview Robert Wagner, including a trip to Aspen where Wagner lives with his wife, actress Jill St. John, the investigators say the actor has refused to speak with them.   

Lt. John Corina: Robert Wagner, of course, we wanna talk to him and get his side of the story and try to clarify things. He's, you know, refused -- time and time again to talk to us.

One part of Robert Wagner's story has never changed. He continues to insist Natalie Wood's death was an accident. But there is a part of him that blames himself.

Robert Wagner [2008, "CBS Sunday Morning"]: When you're in love, you're responsible for the other one.  She's responsible for me and I was responsible for her. And, you know, this accident that occurred -- I wasn't there.  I wasn't there for her.  And that's always within me.

Robert Wagner will turn 88 next week.  Natalie would have turned 80 this coming July … a sad milestone for those who loved her.

Dennis Davern: It really does pain me, to this day, to know that she is gone when she really had a whole life in front of her.

Lana Wood: I was 35 when Natalie died, and I am now 71. …Before my life is over, I would like to put Natalie's to rest by knowing the truth.

By speaking out, Lt. Corina and Det. Hernandez are hoping new witnesses will come forward -- either someone who saw something, heard something or was told something.  Someone who will help answer the question once and for all: how did Natalie Wood end up in the water.

Like any cold case, they intend to work it until it's solved.  

Det. Ralph Hernandez:  We're not ever gonna close it until we get to the truth.

"48 Hours"' requests to interview Robert Wagner and Christopher Walken were declined by their representatives.

The Splendour is currently up for sale.   

HAVE INFORMATION?

Anyone with information is asked to call the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Homicide Bureau at 323-890-5500.  

  • Erin Moriarty

    Correspondent, "48 Hours"