Natalie Wood Investigation: What the People Involved Are Saying

Natalie Wood Portrait Cash McCall- P 2011
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Natalie Wood Portrait Cash McCall- P 2011

THR rounds up the comments by individuals who have weighed in on the investigation, from boat captain Dennis Davern to lifeguard Roger Smith.

As the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department’s newly reopened investigation into the drowning death of actress Natalie Wood enters its second week, several notable figures have come forward to either offer new information or more loudly voice long-held views.

Wood died while boating off the coast of Southern California's Catalina Island during Thanksgiving weekend on Nov. 29, 1981. The 43-year-old Wood was joined by husband Robert Wagner and Brainstorm co-star Christopher Walken aboard the 60-foot Splendour (neither actor is considered a suspect).

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In some corners, skepticism has grown over whether investigators will be able to determine if Wood did not die in an accidental drowning. “The reason they call these things cold cases is because they don’t get solved that often,” says Robert Wittman, a former senior investigator for the FBI. “It usually doesn’t happen.”

The motives of some key players in the investigation have also been questioned: Splendour captain Dennis Davern, who authored with Marti Rulli a book on Wood’s death, has been accused of opportunism. “Everybody should sit back and let the professionals investigators do their job and let them evaluable what they discovered,” Wittman says.

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Here’s a roundup of the individuals who have weighed in on the ongoing investigation:

Dennis Davern

Role: Splendour captain

Comments: Perhaps the most high-profile figure to discuss the incident, the Splendour captain and his Goodbye Natalie, Goodbye Splendour co-author, Marti Rulli, lobbied the sheriff's department to reopen the case, putting together files -- including a sworn declaration from Davern -- listing reasons why it should reinvestigate Wood’s death. In the declaration, Davern detailed the couple’s allegedly fierce argument over Wood’s apparent closeness to Walken just before she went missing, and noted that he gave his passengers Quaaludes. Polygraph expert Howard Temple said on ABC’s Good Morning America on Nov. 23 that Davern has passed a lie detector test. Davern said on NBC’s Today on Nov. 18 that he initially lied to investigators about the actress’ mysterious death, adding: "I made mistakes by not telling the honest truth in a police report.” Davern has said he believes that Wagner was responsible for Wood’s death. Rulli told THR on Nov. 19: "I'm relieved that the case was reopened and that professionals are going to investigate the case because it has never really been investigated."

Roger Smith

Role: Lifeguard captain

Comments: The former county supervising rescue boat captain told the Los Angeles Times on Nov. 22 that he believed Wood might have been saved if rescuers had begun their search for her sooner. “Based on the condition of her body when we pulled her from the water, I believe she survived for sometime in the water and was blown out to sea. She probably cried for help for hours," he said. Radar reported Nov. 21 that in a sworn statement given to investigators, Smith said that when he questioned Wagner about why the authorities weren’t called sooner, the actor said: “We thought she was off on another boat screwing around because that's the kind of woman she is.”

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Lana Wood

Role: Wood’s younger sister

Comments: Appearing on Today on Nov. 21, the late actress’ younger sister has said that Davern contacted her frequently through the years to discuss the incident. "Little bits and pieces had always filtered over to me. There were so many things that were always bothering me," she said. Lana Wood has backed the reopening of the case; she said that she believes Davern’s theory that Wagner was involved in her sister’s death. "I've never known him to lie. He certainly never has to me."

Marilyn Wayne

Role: “Ear witness”

Comments: The retired stockbroker who was on another vessel 90 feet from the Splendour the night Wood died has provided investigators with a sworn declaration stating she heard a woman screaming for help from the water and a man's slurred voice saying, "Hold on, we're coming to get you." In her statement she also claimed to have received a threatening note only days after Wood's death that read: “If you value your life, keep quiet about what you know.”

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Duane Rasure

Role: Original investigator

Comments: The retired sergeant of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Homicide Bureau told CBS’ 48 Hours on Nov. 19 that while conducting his 1981 investigation, he "never really got suspicious of a murder,” adding, “If I have ever the slightest inkling there was a murder, something suspicious, I would have worked it.” The detective has also accused Davern of opportunism. Rasure has said that he was and remains indifferent to the key players’ celebrity. “I don't care about their celebrity status. They were people.”