Who Killed Natalie Wood?

For more than 30 years, the death of Natalie Wood has remained a mystery. “48 Hours” revisits the case through new interviews with detectives and Wood’s sister, Lana, as well as archival interviews with Wagner and Davern.


Fresh bruises on her body, listed on the coroner’s report, suggested she may have been assaulted. But no one ever faced charges. Keep reading the article below to learn more Who Killed Natalie Wood.

One of Hollywood’s most notorious mysteries continues to generate intrigue, 30 years after the actress’ nighttime drowning in the chilly waters off Southern California. Homicide detectives unexpectedly reopened the case this week and named Wood’s husband at the time, 87-year-old Robert Wagner, as a person of interest.

On the night of Nov. 29, 1981, Wagner was sailing their yacht Splendour with recent Oscar-winner Christopher Walken and the ship’s captain, Dennis Davern. They had invited many guests to join them on the boat, but most people canceled due to the predicted bad weather. Wagner and Wood had been having a rough patch lately, with rumors that she was jealous of Walken’s close friendship with fellow Hart to Hart star Stefanie Powers.

The couple had been drinking heavily, and at least one source reports that they got into a verbal fight at a hotel restaurant earlier in the evening before heading out to the boat. According to a book by writer R.J. Finstad, the argument was over a misunderstanding between the pair about an earlier disagreement over a bottle of wine. After the argument, the group headed back to the boat and sat in the cockpit. It’s unclear what happened next, but shortly afterward, the dinghy disappeared.

According to some statements, it was Wagner who discovered the dinghy was missing and called the coast guard. Others say he delayed calling for help and refused to turn on searchlights. Davern later claimed that Wagner dropped the dinghy in order to make it look like she had simply gone ashore.

There’s also the question of why so many bruises were found on Wood’s body and arms. An expert in forensic medicine says the injuries could have been sustained at the time of her death or sometime before.

A retired prosecutor and former Arkansas assistant U.S. attorney who has been following the case closely believes that authorities have overlooked key evidence. He wrote a 2021 book entitled Brainstorm: An Investigation of the Mysterious Death of Film Star Natalie Wood and has been petitioning for the case to be reopened. He claims that the case was originally closed based on misinformation and corrupt motives.

Christopher Walken

For decades, the mysterious death of Natalie Wood has haunted not just her family and friends but also the people who knew her. The actress, whose career was blighted by drug and alcohol problems, died at age 43 when she fell overboard from her yacht on a Thanksgiving boating trip off the coast of California’s Catalina Island. Her husband, Robert Wagner, was the last person to see her alive, and he has always denied any wrongdoing.

However, a new book argues that there was more to the story than the official police report and that Christopher Walken might have been involved in her murder. The author, who is not a journalist, says that evidence such as a manipulated official report, crime scene photos including never-before-seen images and initial statements by Wagner, Walken and the captain of their yacht, Dennis Davern, point to the possibility that her death was more than an accident.

Walken has spoken only rarely about the death of his costar and close friend, but in those few public remarks he has made it clear that he believes Wagner was guilty. He was a co-star in MGM’s Brainstorm, the sci-fi movie directed by Douglas Trumbull, and was scheduled to star with Wood for another five days on the film before her death.

In a 2020 HBO documentary, the manager of the mainland restaurant where the couple and their Brainstorm cast and crew ate on the night of Wood’s disappearance testified that the group was too intoxicated to go back to the yacht. He said that after they left, Wagner and Walken got into an argument. Then, when Wagner went to her cabin to join her, he saw the dinghy was missing.

It’s unclear whether he reported it, but the fact that the dinghy is still unaccounted for indicates that something unusual happened on that fateful evening. And the suspicion that Wagner may have had a role in her death is bolstered by the fact that he was seen trying to secure the dinghy just prior to its disappearance. A retired prosecutor named Sam Peronni has even filed a petition to reopen the case and call for a coroner’s inquest jury.

Captain Dennis Davern

On November 29, 1981, Natalie Wood died at the age of 43 after drowning in the waters off the southern California island of Catalina. She had been on a yacht with her husband Robert Wagner and her friend Christopher Walken that night. For years, investigators ruled it a tragic accident, but now the captain of the boat from which she disappeared says he has evidence to prove the official account is a lie.

Captain Dennis Davern was on the yacht with the two stars and had heard them arguing before she went missing. Earlier this year, he spoke about the incident on NBC’s Today show. He said that he lied to investigators in the initial investigation, and now he wants to do what he can to bring truth to the case. He believes that Wood’s husband, Robert Wagner, had something to do with her death.

Davern told NBC that he and Wagner had been drinking on the boat before the argument began. He says that he didn’t see her fall into the water, but he did hear them arguing about his girlfriend and their marriage. The argument became so heated that Wagner threw a wine bottle against a table. Bruises were later found on Wood’s body, and authorities have since reopened the case.

He also claimed that Wagner had tried to keep the investigation low-profile and manipulated the press. He said that he would be willing to testify in court to make sure that the truth comes out. Davern did not mention any specifics about what he knew, but he said that it was up to investigators to find out the truth.

Davern has spoken about his version of events before, including in a 1992 appearance on a Geraldo Rivera special and in a 2000 article for Vanity Fair. He and author Marti Rulli have written a book, “Goodbye Natalie, Goodbye Splendour,” about the night of Wood’s disappearance. He has denied that he is making these revelations for money. Wagner’s rep has not responded to requests for comment. Police are expected to hold a news conference on Friday to announce their decision to reopen the case.

Coast Guard

Natalie Wood was a star whose career had its ups and downs, but who fans adored for her performances in classic films. In real life, however, the actress’s marriage to actor Robert Wagner grew tumultuous and her final days were lonely.

The harrowing story of her accidental death off the California coast has never been fully understood, and new research into the case has led to some disturbing revelations. For one, the original investigators believed Wood fell off her yacht into a rubber dinghy that was found on the water’s surface. The dinghy had scratch marks on it that seemed to back up that theory, but the original investigation did not include nail clippings from Wood’s hand to determine if she made the scratches herself or was grabbed and tossed in the water.

A number of bruises on her body, which were not mentioned in the original autopsy report, also raise suspicions. And then there are the men who were with her on the night of her death, captain Dennis Davern, Christopher Walken and Wagner. The three men had told the original investigators they assumed Wood left the Splendour on her own in the dinghy. But that theory doesn’t make sense to Lana, Wood’s younger sister.

She says Wood would not have left her boat undressed in a flannel nightgown and red down jacket at midnight in rough seas. She also points out that it didn’t fit with her sister’s personality.

Another major problem is that it was four hours before anyone called the Coast Guard to report that Wood had disappeared. That seems incredibly long given the circumstances, and it’s one of many troubling details in this new book by Marti Rulli.

Approaching the case like a criminal probe, and with credible evidence, Rulli offers readers a hard-hitting account of what happened that November on Catalina Island. She covers the backgrounds of Wood and Wagner, their stormy relationship and sets the scene for what was to come that Thanksgiving weekend of 1981. Readers will then discover the most recent developments in the case, including a newly uncovered letter from a witness who claims he heard Wood scream for help and ran to her neighbor’s house in fear of Wagner killing her.