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Natalie Wood’s undetermined & unacceptable death

by Sheryl McCollum, Contributor

Beautiful, talented and Hollywood royalty: Natalie and Lana Wood were many things but most importantly they were sisters.  Like many younger sisters Lana admired and wanted to be like her big sister Natalie.  It should have been no surprise Lana wanted to follow in Natalie’s footsteps and go into show business.

I have talked with Lana Wood many times.  I have asked about her role as Plenty O’Toole in the James Bond classic, Diamonds Are Forever, and her portrayal of Sandy Webber on the soap series Peyton Place.  Lana Wood has over 20 films and more than 300 TV shows to her credit, including The Fugitive, Police Story, and Mission Impossible. However, in each phone call and in every conversation she wants to talk about Natalie.  She wants desperately to know what happened to her sister and will not rest until she knows.

As the Director of the Cold Case Investigative Research Institute (CCIRI) I offered our help to Lana.  We have questions too.  Why did Natalie and Robert Wagner (RJ) divorce and remarry?  What went wrong the first time?  If she was knocked unconscious why did she not have head trauma?   The down jacket would have helped keep her afloat why would they originally believe it weighed her down?  Would her wool socks stay on in the ocean?  Are her injuries consistent with a fall?

Does her injuries line up with her height and size next to a dingy?   Is it consistent with someone her size trying to re-enter the dingy from the water?  Does this explain the injury on her face, knees and ankles?  Does the location of her body and the location of the dingy make sense based on the currents, wind and other factors that night?  Does it appear that Natalie was floating alone not with the dingy?  Could the dingy have been released after the fact to make it look like she tried to leave in it?  Could the waiting to call for help ensure she did not survive the cold temperatures?  CCIRI is actively testing aspects of this case.  Our findings will be sent to the LASD.

Natalie Wood was the most famous film star of her time.  The first time I saw her on screen was in “Miracle on 34th Street”.  I was 5 years old and my sisters and I gathered around the TV in the family room and watch this tiny little girl speak and act almost like an adult.  There was just something about Natalie.  When she came on the screen you could not ignore her.  Then for me came “West Side Story”, “Rebel Without a Cause”, and “Splendor in the Grass”.  Natalie was Hollywood elite.

Everyone loved her.  That made her death on November 29, 1981 even more tragic.  On that fateful day Natalie Wood died.  She was aboard her yacht with her famous husband RJ, current costar Christopher Walken and the boat Captain Dennis Davern.

Lana was devastated and could not understand how or why her beloved sister drowned.  Lana started to question the story that Natalie accidently fell in the water.  Lana does not believe for one moment that Natalie went anywhere near the dark cold ocean on her own.   Lana told me that Natalie was deathly afraid of the water.  She nearly drowned as a young girl making a movie and never got over her deep fear.  So much so that she rarely got into her own swimming pool.

If RJ and Natalie were fighting why would RJ leave her and just go to bed? Why would he not look for her?  Why would he not wake Christopher Walken to see he if knew where Natalie was?  Is it because he knew where she was?  Why had RJ delayed calling for help?  Why did he not state who was missing when he did finally call the Coast Guard for help? Why did he wait 2 hours to call the restaurant looking for her? Why would he have to be convinced he needed to call the Coast Guard? It was Doug Oudin, the Harbormaster who finally convinved RJ it was time to contact the Coast Guard, and Oudin made the call at 3:30 am.

Was she conscious in the water?  Did she cry for help? Why won’t RJ take polygraph?  Why won’t RJ make a formal statement to Sheriff Detectives? When the Sheriff’s Department stated they had new evidence why did RJ not want to know what the new evidence was?  Why had RJ cut all ties with Lana?  Decades would go by without answers to how Natalie got into the water? Lana turned to RJ many times for answers and got none.  Then as time went on and RJ stopped talking to her.  He kept Natalie’s daughters from her.  Lana could not help but wonder the unthinkable: Did RJ kill her?

Then came the book “Goodbye Natalie Goodbye Splendour” (GNGS) by Marti Rulli with the former Splendour captain, Dennis Davern.  It’s the Captains account of what happened on that tragic night.   I have talked with Rulli numerous times about her book, Dennis, and this case.  She tells me she forwarded a copy of GNGS to the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department (LASD) in 2009, but never received a response, so she gathered testimonial statements from key people to accompany her own report and forensics of Natalie’s death.

Rulli believed Natalie was not conscious in the ocean. I believe Rulli’s extensive report to the Sheriff’s Office was key to the reopening this case as well as the subsequent change of the cause of death on the death certificate.  Originally the case was ruled an accident today it stands as “drowning and other undetermined factors.”

I have spoken with Law Enforcement about the now re-opened case.  November 2011, Lt. Corina of the LASD announced in a news conference that the Natalie Wood death case was being reopened.  The detectives were open, professional and determined to see this investigation to its conclusion.  The detectives have visited Lana Wood. They visited Rulli and they asked Davern for a polygraph with their own professional department polygraphist.

For the second time, Davern passed the lengthy polygraph test with his account of Natalie’s death. Dennis told the detectives on the night Natalie died, RJ and Natalie started arguing in the main salon of the boat. RJ seethed with jealousy over Natalie’s co-star, actor Christopher Walken, who was present on the yacht. Wagner picked up a wine bottle and smashed it on the coffee table and accused Walken of wanting to sleep with his wife. Walken then went to his forward cabin while Natalie went to her master stateroom at the rear of the 60-foot yacht. Wagner followed Natalie and loud arguing started that led to a physical fight that broke-out to the rear deck.

Minutes later, Natalie was missing from the boat.

I visited with Dennis Davern the Yacht Captain in his home.  He was welcoming, soft spoken and kind.  He was open about his tenure aboard the Splendour.  He loved Natalie.  He regarded her as one of his dearest friends.  He respected and cared for RJ too.  He started as their employee but was made to feel more like a family member.  He took care of the Yacht and every detail for trips.  He did all the shopping, stocking and maintenance.

Natalie never once took the dingy alone – ever!  Dennis was there to take her and provide security for her while she shopped or ate lunch or dinner.  Dennis stated several times that Natalie was too afraid of the water to go out alone on the dingy.  Dennis told me that after Natalie went missing he searched the Yacht for her.  He went to her stateroom and saw it was in disarray.  He said it looked like a terrible fight occurred.

He told RJ they needed to call for help and that RJ refused.  He said RJ poured them both a drink.  Dennis said that they never woke up Christopher.  We talked at his small kitchen table for a few hours.  I believed him.  I’m not the only one that belives his account of what happened that night.  The detectives not only believed Davern, they took him to Hawaii where the Splendour was moored and still in virtual “Natalie Wood condition” thirty years after Natalie’s death, and Dennis recreated Natalie’s death scene for them. It was the first time Davern had been aboard the yacht since removing the boat’s inventory in 1982.  After the new case announcement, many witnesses came forward and two new key witnesses corroborated Dennis’s account.

I spoke with Detective Hernandez with the LA Sheriff’s Office.  Detectives Kevin Lowe and Ralph Hernandez would like to talk with Robert Wagner.  Wagner is the last person to see his wife alive, and still publicly claims no one knows what happened to Natalie. Even the detectives wonder why he doesn’t want to learn what they have uncovered.

By July  2012, just six months into Natalie’s new investigation, oversights found in the original autopsy were corrected and Natalie’s cause of death no longer included the words “accidental drowning.” The death certificate was officially changed to “undetermined”.  An announcement and report of the autopsy review were publicly released in January 2013.

Dennis took 2 polygraphs.  Her husband never did.  Lana is talking.  Marti is talking.  Christopher is talking.  Dennis is talking. Law Enforcement is talking.  The only one not talking is her husband.  Recently Lana confronted RJ in public about why he would not corporate.  He again dismisses her and refuses to talk.

Natalie Wood’s death in the cold, dark water off Catalina Island sent shockwaves throughout the world, particularly in Hollywood, where she was genuinely admired and beloved. In the aftermath, her career and her suspicious death are consistently discussed in numerous forums, magazines, and tabloids as her death is perpetually questioned. It’s “the mystery” needing answers.

The tireless fight from Lana is nothing short of her life’s work now.  Lana knew her longer and in many ways knew her best.  She loved her beyond measure as only a sibling and lifelong best friend can. Lana’s work coupled with Rulli’s report and book, the LASD re-opening and death certificate changes, the Cold Case Investigative Research Institute research and testing, and Dennis’s willingness to come forward Natalie is getting the investigation she always deserved.  And in Hollywood fashion the ending just may be shocking!

[Feature Photo: AP/Steve Wood]

With over 25 years of experience and education, Sheryl is a CSI for a metro Atlanta Police Department as well as the Director of the Cold Case Investigative Research Institute, which is a collaboration between numerous colleges and universities around the country. This collaboration brings together researchers, practitioners, students and the criminal justice community to develop new capabilities and work collectively to advance research, training and techniques in solving cold cases. The objectives of CCIRI are to provide the means, resources and guidance for Criminal Justice students and to determine the solvability of actual unsolved crimes.