Truth about Natalie Wood's death 'is all in the book,' says boat's captain

Dennis Davern, captain of the boat off of which Natalie Wood drowned, wrote a 2009 book about the incident which contradicts the account of Wood's husband Robert Wagner.

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    Wood once said on a news report that her biggest fear was dark seawater.
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The captain of the boat off of which actress Natalie Wood drowned is also the co-author of the book “Goodbye Natalie, Goodbye Splendour” in which he alleges that her husband Robert Wagner is responsible for her death.

“I would say so,” Dennis Davern said when asked if he thought Wagner was responsible for Wood’s death. “Yes.”

Davern, captain of the Splendour, the yacht owned by Wood and Wagner, said on Today this morning that the details he’s sharing now about the night Wood drowned are all in his book, which was published in 2009. Sheriff Lee Baca of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Office told The Los Angeles Times that the investigation is being reopened.

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Davern said he had been untruthful to police when asked originally about the details of the night on the Splendour.

“I made some terrible decisions and mistakes,” he said on "Today." “I did lie on a report several years ago.”

He said that when Wood’s disappearance came to light that night, he was urged not to draw attention to it.

“We didn't take any steps to see if we could locate her,” Davern said of Wagner on "Today." “I think it was a matter of, 'We're not going to look too hard, we're not going to turn on the searchlight, we're not going to notify anybody right now.’ ”

Davern said he has wanted to share his information before now, but that he hasn’t been able to get anyone to pay attention to his account.

“Why now is because I've been trying to tell information about this for many, many years, but there wasn't really anyone listening until now,” he said. “I've been trying to get somebody to listen for a long time and now somebody is listening and they're going to carry on with this investigation. I'm not saying anything different. All the information that I've revealed in the past, it's all in that book, and now it's just up to the investigators to do an investigation.”

Wagner’s publicist said that the actor’s family “trust[s] [the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department] will evaluate whether any new information relating to the death of Natalie Wood Wagner is valid, and that it comes from a credible source or sources other than those simply trying to profit from the 30-year anniversary of her tragic death.”

“I'm not really the investigator here, and I'm far away from even thinking about profiting over a 30-year anniversary,” Davern said on “Today.” “I've known this information for many, many years and my book has been out for two years. I'm not in it for any kind of profit, I'm in it for the justice of the whole situation.”

Davern said of his decision to lie to police that Wood’s death happened during a time in his life when he was “unable to think straight.”

“At that time my life was just totally crazy,” he said.

Davern’s account of that night in “Goodbye Natalie, Goodbye Splendour” differs from Wagner’s version in his own book “Pieces of My Heart.” Wood was on board the Splendour with Wagner, Christopher Walken, who was her co-star in the film “Brainstorm,” after having dinner at a restaurant on Catalina Island. Both accounts agree that there was an argument and Wagner broke a wine bottle on the table. 

Wagner’s version of events said that he was jealous of Walken. Wagner said in "Pieces of My Heart" that he went to his room after the argument, but Wood wasn’t there. He believed she had taken the small dinghy on board the boat back to shore, as she had done on a few occasions. After some time passed without her returning, Wagner said he and Davern looked for her on the boat, then contacted harbor patrol when he couldn’t find her.

Davern says in “Goodbye Natalie, Goodbye Splendour” that he heard the argument and that Wood left to go to her stateroom afterwards. Davern said in the book that he then heard Wagner and Wood arguing in their room and that he turned up the volume on his radio. He looked outside and saw that the two had come out onto the deck, looking like they were still arguing.

Davern says Wagner later came to him, looking upset, and said he couldn’t find his wife. Davern says he looked on the boat, but couldn’t find the actress, but saw that the dinghy was missing.

Wagner said Wood must have gone off upset, Davern said, and got them both drinks.

“Dennis wanted to do everything,” Davern’s co-author Marti Rulli said on “Today.” “Make a phone call, turn on the search light. His instincts told him something was terribly wrong, and Robert Wagner asked him not to.” 

Wood’s body was discovered the next morning by authorities in the water with the rubber dinghy nearby. Wood was dressed in a nightgown, socks, and a jacket, with bruises on her body as well as a laceration of her cheek. Authorities said her death was an accident and the coroner’s report at the time suggested she may have slipped getting on board the dinghy because of the wine she had been drinking.

Wood’s sister Lana Wood and Davern had asked the sheriff’s department to reopen the case last year. Wood told CNN in 2010 that she does not think foul play was involved, but that she thinks there’s more to the story than was originally discovered.

“My sister was not a swimmer and did not know how to swim,” Lana Wood said. “She would never go to another boat or to shore dressed in a nightgown and socks.”

Molly Driscoll is a Monitor contributor.

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