Robert Wagner is now a ‘person of interest’ in Natalie Wood’s 1981 death

Embed from Getty Images

Back in 2011, we learned that the investigation into Natalie Wood’s 1981 death was being reopened. I’m actually not a true-crime person, much less a celebrity-true-crime person, but even I am morbidly fascinated by the details and new evidence/testimony/statements about Wood’s death. It’s incredibly macabre, I know, but WTF happened to this poor woman? For those of you who need a recap, Natalie Wood was widely considered one of the most beautiful women in the world, a child actress who transitioned to a well-respected and award-winning adult career actress.

For all of her beauty and talent, Natalie’s private life was pretty messy and/or tragic, and it was widely believed that she had been abused by multiple men over her life and career. In 1981, she was 43 years old and she had been married to Robert Wagner for nine years. Natalie, Wagner and Natalie’s then-costar Christopher Walken were staying on a yacht off Catalina Island. Something happened on the boat – no one knows what. Wood’s body was recovered in the water the next day. There were always rumors and whispers about Wagner and whether he pushed her or threw her into the water. Did I mention that she was terrified of water? She had a fear of drowning. She couldn’t even swim. And now Wagner is being considered a “person of interest.”

Nearly 40 years after Natalie Wood died under mysterious circumstances, Los Angeles County Sheriff’s investigators say her widower Robert Wagner is a person of interest in the case.

“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 said in an upcoming interview with CBS’ 48 Hours. “I mean, we know now that he was the last person to be with Natalie before she disappeared.”

Wagner’s attorney didn’t immediately respond to PEOPLE’s request for comment. The Hollywood starlet was married to Wagner from 1972 until her death. Wood died on Nov. 29, 1981, off of Catalina Island in California. The incident happened while the 43-year-old actress was sailing with her husband on their yacht, Splendour. Christopher Walken, Wood’s then-costar in the movie Brainstorm, and the boat’s captain, Dennis Davern, were also on board.

At the time, her death was classified as an accidental drowning, but the case was reopened in 2011. Wagner has refused to speak with investigators since they began to look into the circumstances surrounding Wood’s death again.

“I haven’t seen him tell the details that match all the other witnesses in this case,” Corina said of Wagner. “I think he’s constantly changed his story a little bit. And his version of events just don’t add up.”

Detectives who spoke with 48 Hours noted that there were numerous bruises on Wood’s body that appeared to be new, according to her autopsy report.

“She looked like a victim of an assault,” said Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department Detective Ralph Hernandez. When asked if Wood’s death was a murder rather than a tragic accident, Corina said, “I think it’s suspicious enough to make us think that something happened.”

[From People]

Previously, the captain gave statements where he said he always believed that Wagner did something to Wood. Wagner also admitted that he, Walken and Wood had gotten into a massive fight that night. So… yeah, I don’t know. I don’t know why all of this wasn’t investigated at the time. I don’t know why investigators took one look at her body and were like “accidental death, case closed!” But here we are.

Embed from Getty Images

Embed from Getty Images

Photos courtesy of Getty.

You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.

74 Responses to “Robert Wagner is now a ‘person of interest’ in Natalie Wood’s 1981 death”

Comments are Closed

We close comments on older posts to fight comment spam.

  1. MissAmanda says:

    this is so bizzare. it’s a boat, with 4 people on it. how was this such a quick ‘accidental death’ thing?
    Does anyone know what Walken says about it?

    • LetItGo says:

      Walken claims he was in his cabin asleep.

      Dennis Davern, the captain has written what I think is the definitive book on this case. He blames Wagner for her death, insists Wagner was a jealous ahole, who fought with Wood physically and probably shoved her overboard – maybe meaning to shove her in the dingy, or maybe threw the dingy in after. People on nearby boats in the distance claimed they heard screams (most likely Woods crying for help while drowning or clinging to the dingy).

      At the time, though they both started out in film, Wood was still considered a movie star, with classic roles under her belt, while Wagner, though very successful, was viewed as a TV star, and somewhat cheesy. Wood had her younger hot co-star Walken on board, they were talking shop. Dennis Devern thinks Wagner had a few and maybe flew off the handle at them, which is why Walken retreated to his state room.

      If people think Walken slept through that, they’re a lot less cynical than me.

      I think he has some demons surrounding this. Not that he was involved but that he kind of let Wagner control the narrative at the time…like everyone else including law enforcement.

      • Lauraeparis says:

        Actually, Robert Wagner always was considered the more successful star having done both movies and TV. Natalie’s career had been waning by the time she started filming Brainstorm with Christopher Walken (he was 5 years younger). She had taken time off to raise her daughters and was successfully doing TV shows including the remake of From Here to Eternity on TV in 1979. I used to feel sorry for her and always thought she was secretly very sad. When she died what surprised me was that it was an accidental death and not a suicide. Now with the world being so topsy-turvy crazy it wouldn’t shock me Wagner is guilty it would just make me sadder.

      • holly hobby says:

        Natalie was also a producer. If I recall, she and Wagner produced Hart to Hart.

      • Carrie1 says:

        I remember this pretty well. I’ve been a fan of hers forever. He always gave creepy controlling vibes and stories over their lives supported that…. he boasted about it.

        Christopher Walken only got weird after her death, after that trip. And he has never publicly told anyone anything about that night. He won’t even discuss it. He doesn’t extrapolate, answer any questions or entertain a wiff of curiosity. I’ve always thought RW had a hand in Natalie’s death and CW knew. CW became so weird after that….and has stayed that way.

        ETA: CDN link says different about Walken. I don’t believe that site but if true…wow.

    • DesertReal says:

      I’ve long suspected Number Two.

    • I’ve only read where he has referred to them as a “good family”. Nothing more.

  2. HelloSunshine says:

    The police saw the evidence and closed the case with a shrug because Wagner was a man. And in Hollywood. So double whammy I guess

    • Goats on the Roof says:

      It didn’t help matters that one of the witnesses (the boat captain) lied to police during the initial investigation. I’m glad he finally came clean several years ago, but maybe the investigation would’ve been given the attention it deserved if he had been honest from the beginning.

      • Taxi says:

        This! Davern kept his mouth shut for many years, except to say “she must have fallen overboard.” If he’d said initially what his make-a-buck book now says, the investigation would have proceeded differently. Walken has never varied from his “asleep in his cabin” story (maybe passed out drunk?) & Davern waited decades to change his story.
        Wood’s sister Lana has always blamed RJ & been suspicious of the official story.

    • Milla says:

      And he was popular.

      I was a kid when I first watched movie about her and it was so sad. It’s still sad and disturbing. She was so young.

    • holly hobby says:

      He was also very famous at the time. Plus if you read his autobiography. He can turn on the charm too.

      • ms says:

        Unfortunately, CDAN lost ANY credibility they had (especially on the subject of Natalie Woods) quite a few years ago. That, and how they repeatedly “reveal” multiple people for the same blinds. Ha ha.

  3. minx says:

    Interesting!

  4. Athyrmose says:

    And it’s only taken 37 years. smh

  5. Nancy says:

    I love Natalie Wood. I’ve been told by elders I resemble her. I have a daughter named Natasha, Natalie’s birth name. My love affair began as a kid when I saw Splendor In The Grass. Every few years Robert Wagner is again called a person of interest. When I saw his name trending, I thought he may have passed away. The story always was he and Christopher Walken were drunk and fighting. Sigh. She was afraid of water and died in the cold ocean in November. No happy ending to this story no matter what may or may not be revealed.

    • Goats on the Roof says:

      I think her birth name was Natalia, actually. Natasha was a family nickname and later her daughter’s given name as well.

      • Nancy says:

        GOTF: Yep, it was Natalia. I chose Natasha for my oldest girl. Lot’s of N’s in my family, but not me!! My gram was Nancy. @LetItGo: I can’t not cry when watching WSS. She was so tiny and pretty and my idol as a teen even though I wasn’t of her era, I watched those late night movies. The chemistry between her and Warren Beatty in Splendor was amazing, that’s even what she named the doomed yacht she was on at the end. I hate this story.

    • LetItGo says:

      My favorite was her ‘Maria,’ in ‘West Side Story.’ no matter how many times I’ve seen that, I can’t resist watching it when it pops up on TV. It’s hard to believe she had such a tragic end.

    • pwal says:

      Damn… Natalie and Warren Beatty in that movie… so pretty.

  6. incognito says:

    About fricken time. Everyone knows he did it. You take someone on a boat who was afraid of water. I hope he finally gets is comuppance. I don’t know why this matters to me, I was 6 when this happened. But it has always bothered me. BTW she was alcoholic and he was having an affair with Stephanie Powers when they were working on Hart to Hart.

  7. Ankhel says:

    Sounds like there might be something to it (her body wouldn’t bruise in the sea after death). But, unless someone confesses, nothing will come of this.

  8. Merritt says:

    The captain has changed his story over the years. Maybe Wagner killed Natalie or maybe the captain killed her.

    • Deedee says:

      If the captain killed her, then he is totally stupid to make statements to get the whole investigation re-opened. The one who told the story that doesn’t match up with any other witness accounts is Wagner.

      • Merritt says:

        Possibly. But the captain changing his story over the years is suspicious to me. It is not like it is unheard of for guilty people to love the attention and want to look helpful. Again, like I said, it could have been Wagner. But I also don’t trust the captain.

  9. Lizzie says:

    a resounding duh.

  10. KiddV says:

    I’ve always thought Wagner killed her. As charming as he appears on screen, it’s rumored he has quite the temper. I hope they can get to the bottom of this, Natalie deserves it. I doubt anything will happen to Robert though.

  11. Onerous says:

    This whole thing is so nuts. The boat she “fell” off is not very big – maybe 50′? It’s hardly like a, “Oh, we didn’t know where she went” sort of boat. I’ve always been so disturbed by Wagner’s stories.

  12. Tiffany says:

    How the hell has Christopher Walken avoid being questioned in any capacity about this for 40 years.

    • pwal says:

      Apparently, he didn’t have to do d!ck! Walken was still a relative unknown, or rather, he wasn’t a name yet. Natalie was in have at 40s, so her career was on the wane ( naturally) and Wagner was doing Hart to Hart, which was popular. Natalie, on the short-term was an acceptable loss. It became clear that Wagner wasn’t going to get big enough to completely eclipse Natalie’s legacy, so here we are.

      The investigators just wanted to close the book on this whole thing. Big mistake!

      • Pancake Bacon says:

        Walken was an Oscar winner by 1979, for The Deer Hunter. He was hardly a relative unknown!

    • Deedee says:

      He always has said that he went to bed and slept through whatever happened.

  13. pwal says:

    You have to wonder if this is all coming about because of the me too movement, specifically when Corey Feldman spoke about the Santa Barbara Police Dept. handling of his molestation disclosure. Interrogation tapes missing… oops, here they are.

    I bet you a lot of CA law enforcement/police departments are being side-eyed big time and it’s completely understandable.

  14. 5thHouse says:

    About time.

  15. crazydaisy says:

    Time’s Up on Robert Wagner. You can run but you cannot hide.

    • Nancy says:

      I just read that he is 87 years old now. He can’t run or hide. So many theories, but if he killed her, the mother of his children, he had to live with it all of these years. They had a tumultuous relationship and were married young, divorced and remarried. All kinds of emotions between these two, he killed the love of his life in a drunken, jealous rage I’m theorizing. Like I said above, she was my idol as a child….I thought she was so beautiful and all the handsome men wooed her. Such a tragic end to such a legendary beauty and my favorite all time actress.

  16. Sherry says:

    I’ve always thought there was a drunken argument and in a fit of rage, he threw her overboard.

  17. lisa says:

    her friend roddy mcdowell once said he thought the truth was someplace between accident and murder

    when her daughter was promoting her book a couple of years ago, she said how after the death they left the country for a long time. i hadn’t known that before. it just makes me wonder what he was expecting to happen.

  18. Ally says:

    I gather that their daughter doesn’t blame him for her death, beyond carelessness, and there is no way they can prove anything beyond a reasonable doubt at this late stage. If there was foul play, the other two men on the boat are equal suspects. There is no point in dredging this up besides a cheap high-profile attempt at looking busy.

    • Goats on the Roof says:

      Someone may have been murdered. Surely that’s reason enough to “dredg[e] this up.”

      • Nancy says:

        I agree Goats. There is no Statute of Limitations on murder. Some of these #metoo incidents happened thirty and forty years ago. My word, are we suggesting since he may have killed her in 1981, to just let it go. No. Don’t let him go to his grave as an innocent man if he let his wife, who was terrified of water, drown in the ocean. Screw him.

    • aang says:

      I agree Ally. No way to prove anything at this point. Even at the time if there were no witnesses willing to come forward and say they saw a crime how could it be proven that she didn’t get drunk or high and fall overboard? It would all be conjecture. Let her rest in peace.

    • Ankhel says:

      In order to get a conviction at this late stage, the police would need someone who were on the boat to either confess, or admit to witnessing her murder. There isn’t going to be any startling new physical evidence now. I’d say chances of someone talking after so long are next to nil. Frankly, we don’t know for sure if this was murder. It may have been something like that sad story with Whitney Houston’s daughter. Her BF was abusive, but ultimately it seems she drowned accidentally.

  19. Christin says:

    Parts of the story that don’t seem to have changed involve alcohol (all three were seen drinking onshore that evening), an argument that extended into the couple’s cabin, and then she was gone.

    The length of time it took to get a serious effort underway to find/help her is puzzling. When did they realize she was missing and call authorities for help?

    Side note — They were married to each other twice. That’s why there are earlier photos of them together in the article.

    • Luca76 says:

      Weren’t there also qualudes involved? Which basically incapacitated people to the point where they can’t function.

      • Ankhel says:

        I’ve often been aboard boats not much smaller than this yacht. You need to have a clear head on your shoulders not to fall in. If you aren’t used to boats, like Natalie, have been drinking, it’s night time and very dark… Accident waiting to happen. I did misstep and fell in once, but I can swim. If you can’t, you probably try to scream and just swallow water. The whole thing could’ve been quick and almost silent, poor woman.

  20. Penelope says:

    Reading a lot about this case over the years it’s pretty clear (at least to me) that RW is responsible for her death (whether accidentally or not) but I bet nothing comes of this.

  21. Ruyana says:

    I have always believed Robert Wagner killed her. But at the rate they’re going he’ll die before any real judgment is made.

  22. deets says:

    This is one of the first gossip stories I went deep on.

    For major rumours, check out the old CDAN stuff on this.To make the drama more interesting a commenter callled hmmmm was posting. rumored to be RDJ (denied by him) but still seeming like someone i n entertainment.

    All unsubstantiated blinds, but a lot of interesting fun.

    For ore substantiated info, the Hairpin had some excellent old Hollywood coverage that touched on this too.

  23. Dita von Katzhausen says:

    Off topic: I was born in 81…reading that first sentence ” nearly 40 years ago” makes me feel weird feelings…

    • Alix says:

      Hell, I remember my mom opening my bedroom door and yelling, “Natalie Wood died!” as if my teenage self had a clue.

  24. Margo S. says:

    Obviously he pushed her! Or threw her. The rumor goes that him and Walken we’re having an affair and woods walked in on them. Why are you boning your side boy when your wife is on the yacht?! You are just asking to get caught!

    I always thought it was crazy that he was never formally accused in court. But really, he probably had so many people looking out for him. Wow. I hope for her sake the truth comes out.

    Ps. Christopher walker should be tried for being an accomplice in my opinion.

    • I’m always fascinated by the fact that she went to dinner with the boat’s captain, leaving Walken and Wagner on the boat. Perhaps she threatened Wagner and he either pushed or allowed her to drown rather than own up to anything.

  25. Millenial says:

    There’s a reason the police always suspect the husband before anyone else!

  26. Kelly says:

    I love Natalie Wood and do not think this case was properly investigated originally. I really hope she gets some justice and think that at the very least, Wagner knows how she got in the water. I feel sad her daughters do not question this more and just accept his position.

  27. Jaded says:

    Every time I watch Brainstorm (which is an amazing movie and she and Walken have great chemistry in it) I get weepy at the end where “For Natalie” appears on the screen as the last credit. Like others on this thread I’m sure drugs, alcohol and an extremely jealous, aggressive husband were the fatal mix that ended her life. If Walken had been equally drunk and stoned it seems plausible that he passed out and didn’t here the kerfuffle. Her loss was terrible and I’m glad the investigation is being reopened.

  28. Sara says:

    Back then powerful rich men could get away with just about anything.

  29. holly hobby says:

    Wow she was gorgeous. I really like the old HW black and white photos. I did read RJ’s bio. What stood out was once she died, he destroyed the yacht they were staying on at the time of the accident. Literally the whole thing was dismantled. So does that mean he didn’t want the police to come back look at it?

    It’s a shame she died young.

  30. Bliss 51 says:

    It was Sunday morning when a friend called and said “oh btw, Natalie Wood died.” She was afraid of the water, didn’t swim and as a child appeared in a movie where she was to cross a small bridge. I tried looking it up and couldn’t find it, the bridge collapses, she wasn’t told and you see her barely hanging on to something before she’s able to pull herself. Her wrist was broken and it wasn’t reported to the studio and I believe it was never treated as Natalie was the breadwinner and her horrible mother didn’t want it to get to the studio. Wood was in a movie w/ Orson Welles when she was very young and in one scene is crying. The story goes her mother tore the wings off a butterfly to bring on the tears.

    Supposedly, the dinghy was banging against the boat making noise and she went down to secure it. The steps were slimy and she slipped and fell into the water. She was wearing a down jacket that weighed her down in the water, she didn’t swim and drowned. Natasha: The Biography of Natalie Wood by Suzanne Finstad is a detailed book of her life and the circumstances leading up to and surrounding her death. Y’know this investigation makes news every so many years and I didn’t know the boat had been dismantled. One detail from Finstad’s book is Wood discovered Wagner w/ another man, that is, in their first marriage.

  31. LittlefishMom says:

    Walken May have passed out if they were drinking and really didn’t hear anything. Can RW be charged after all of this time???? How old is he now???? This is so crazy.

  32. Anare says:

    I’ve been morbidly fascinated by this story since 1981! There was speculation at the time that Wood and Walken had a fling while filming Brainstorm. It seemed weird at the time that the 3 of them were on the yacht together like why would Wagner want to have his wife’s lover on the boat? They were all under the influence as I recall. I always figured Wagner was being horrible to her and she was maybe not thinking clearly and tried to get away from him by jumping into the tender to leave the yacht and she fell overboard. I always figured he refused to help her and walked away. If we are being charitable he might have walked away before she fell in or he didn’t know she fell in when he walked away. I would hate to think that he pushed her over or hit her and she fell overboard and then he walked away. Whatever happened he is living with that memory. I don’t think we will ever really know.

  33. Texasho says:

    This is not news. The husband/boyfriend ALWAYS does it! Does anyone watch TV? Btw, what are they trying to promote by putting this out there? A new TBS mini-series on the topic perhaps?