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Investigators revealed Thursday that new information was behind the decision to revisit the events of Nov. 19, 1981, when the 43-year-old actress mysteriously disappeared from her yacht, Spendour, which was floating just off the coast of Southern California’s Catalina Island. She was on board with husband Robert Wagner and Brainstorm co-star Christopher Walken.
At the time, authorities ruled her death an accidental drowning, but many have questioned the events of that night, including her sister, Lana Wood, and the yacht’s captain, Dennis Davern, who more than a year ago were both calling for the department to reopen its investigation.
Here are 10 significant developments surrounding the case since the news broke.
1. Wagner announces his support of the reopened investigation. A spokesperson for the actor told The Hollywood Reporter on Thursday that the department had not reached out but the Wagner family yet, but he hopes the new information that led to the case being reopened is legit. “Although no one in the Wagner family has heard from the LA County Sheriff’s department about this matter, they fully support the efforts of the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department and trust they 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.”
2. Walken hires a lawyer. As THR first reported, Walken has retained Mathew Rosengart, a former federal prosecutor turned litigation specialist at Los Angeles’ Greenberg Traurig firm, to represent him. The actor was one of the last people to see Wood, his co-star in the film Brainstorm, before she mysteriously died in 1981. Sources tell THR that Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department investigators do not consider Walken to be a suspect in the inquiry, which was officially reopened Friday.
3. The boat’s captain at the time of Wood’s death claims he lied to investigators 20 years ago. On Friday, Davern appeared on NBC’s Today, where he said that he lied to investigators about the actress’ mysterious death 30 years ago, and then alleged that Wagner had something to do with her death. “I made some terrible decisions and mistakes,” Davern said on the show. “I did lie on a report several years ago.” As for why he waited so long to come forward: “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.”
4. Author Marti Rulli sent documents to authorities. For months, if not years, Rulli — who co-wrote Goodbye Natalie, Goodbye Splendour with Davern — also has been lobbying authorities to reopen the case. She has put together long files, with an attached affidavit from Davern, listing reasons why they should rip the lid off the 30-year-old case, and passed them along to authorities. Last week, she got what she wanted. “I’m relieved that the case was reopened,” she told THR on Friday, “and that professionals are going to investigate the case because it has never really been investigated.”
5. The case’s detective, Duane Rasure, says he never suspected Wagner in Wood’s death and thinks that Davern is lying. Speaking with CBS’ 48 Hours, the retired sergeant of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Homicide Bureau, said the during the investigation, he “never really got suspicious of a murder.” He said that if he’d had evidence that her husband Wagner had been invloved in foul play, he would have arrested him personally. “It was an accidental drowning, she just happened to be a famous movie star. She was a small lady. She drowned in short time, I’d say,” Rasure relayed. As for Davern, Rasure doesn’t believe he is telling the truth. “He’s just made himself to look good in his book,” he said (Davern published Goodbye Natalie, Goodbye Splendour in 2009). “And obviously, he’s trying to sell a book and make money off of it. And I think that’s the whole purpose behind his writing this book.”
6. Invesgators will re-examine the Splendour in Hawaii. The boat that carried the trio the night of Wood’s now resides in Hawaii, and Lt. John Corina said investigators will examine it in connection with the inquiry. He declined to discuss if there was a suspicion of foul play in the incident. When asked whether investigators would interview Wagner or Walken, Corina said he wouldn’t comment on with whom investigators would speak.
7. Wagner isn’t a suspect. While Lt. Corina refused to provide details on the inquiry into the death, which he said is still considered an accidental drowning, he added that Wagner is not a suspect. He additionally told reporters at a press conference that the department had received new, credible information that prompted further investigation.
8. The boat’s owner wasn’t surprised by the case being reopened. Ron Nelson, who now owns the Splendour, revealed that he was aware for some time that police were looking into the case. “I have known for a few weeks that there was going to be a police investigation,” says Ron Nelson in an interview with Honolulu’s KHON-TV. “But I didn’t know it was going to explode like it did overnight.” Nelson purchased the Splendour — a 60-foot yacht now used for charter cruises — in 1986. He said that police had contacted him several weeks ago, but did not reveal any details of their conversation.
9. Wood’s sister speaks out about the reopened investigation. Lana Wood appeared on Piers Morgan Tonight on Friday, during which she recounted her earlier interactions with Davern and offers her thoughts on the new investigation. “He’s been trying to say something for quite a number of years,” she said of Davern. “He used to call me quite frequently, about 10 years after Natalie passed, and tell me bits and pieces in a very agitated manner — very upset, crying — that there was more to it than he said, and how guilty he felt.”
10. The Associated Press mistakes a Walken impersonator for the actor. After an impersonator appeared on a sports-talk radio program the AP included comments mistakenly attributed to the actor in its coverage of the death investigation. The AP corrected the story about an hour later Friday and told its members not to use the incorrect information. Washington, D.C.-based ESPN 980 informed the AP that the Walken impersonator, Marc Sterne, appears weekly to discuss sports-related topics. The station said the impersonator wasn’t meant to be taken seriously.
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