LOS ANGELES (AP) — A yacht captain said Friday that he lied to investigators about Natalie Wood's mysterious death 30 years ago and blames the actress' husband, Robert Wagner, for her drowning in the ocean off Southern California.
The circumstances of her death remain one of Hollywood's enduring mysteries, and homicide detectives on Thursday unexpectedly reopened the case that had long been classified as a tragic accident.
A Los Angeles County sheriff's detective will speak to reporters Friday about the decision to take another look at the Oscar-nominated actress' nighttime death in the chilly waters on Nov. 29, 1981. Wood drowned after spending several hours drinking on Catalina Island in a yacht with Wagner, fellow actor Christopher Walken and the ship's captain, Dennis Davern.
Davern, skipper of the Splendour, told NBC's "Today" show on Friday that he made mistakes by not telling the truth about events leading to the death and had urged Los Angeles County sheriff's homicide investigators to reopen the case.
It is the latest attempt by Davern to change the official account of what happened in the hours before Wood's death.
"Was the fight between Natalie Wood and her husband Robert Wagner what ultimately led to her death?" show host David Gregory asked.
"Yes," Davern replied.
"Like I said, that's going to be up to the investigators to decide," the captain said after a long pause.
Davern said he believes Wagner intentionally kept the investigation into Wood's death low profile and didn't do everything he could have done.
Davern has said for years that the official account of Wood's disappearance was not what really happened, including in a 1992 appearance on a Geraldo Rivera special and in a 2000 Vanity Fair piece. He also worked with author and friend Marti Rulli on "Goodbye Natalie, Goodbye Splendour," a book released last year.
Wagner spokesman Alan Nierob said Friday a statement he released Thursday spoke for itself.
"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 LA County Sheriff's Dept. 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," Nierob wrote in the statement.
Davern denied he was motivated to speak out for profit.
Sheriff's spokesman Steve Whitmore said Thursday the renewed inquiry was prompted by unspecified new information about Woods' case. The Los Angeles Times reported that Los Angeles Sheriff Lee Baca said detectives want to talk to Davern and that he had "made comments worthy of exploring." The paper said the agency had also received information from an unidentified third party.
In the Vanity Fair story, Davern is quoted as saying that Wood and Wagner fought in their cabin before the actress disappeared. Coroner's officials ruled her death an accidental drowning, perhaps caused by her slipping off the boat while trying to tie down a dinghy.
She was found wearing a flannel nightgown, socks and a down jacket and Davern identified her body for authorities, according to an autopsy report. Her body had superficial bruises, according to the report, but those were considered consistent with drowning.
Her death sparked tabloid speculation that foul play was involved, but Wagner and Wood's sister have dismissed any suggestion the actress' death was anything more than an accident. Coroner's officials at the time agreed, writing that Wood was "possibly attempting to board the dinghy and had fallen into the water, striking her face."
Assistant Chief Coroner Ed Winter said the agency hadn't been asked to do any additional investigation into Wood's case.
Sheriff's officials are hoping for tips from the public that may shed new light on how Wood, who was afraid of being in the water, ended up drowning.
Wood, a three-time Oscar nominee famous for roles in "West Side Story," ''Rebel Without a Cause" and other Hollywood hits, was 43 when she died. She and Wagner were twice married, first in 1957 before divorcing six years later. They remarried in 1972.
Lana Wood wrote in a biography on her sister, "What happened is that Natalie drank too much that night."
Wagner, star of the television series "Hart to Hart," wrote in a 2008 autobiography that he blamed himself for his wife's death.
He recounted the night of Wood's disappearance, during which the couple and Walken drank at a restaurant and on the boat. Wood went to the master cabin during an argument between her husband and Walken. The last time Wagner saw his wife, she was fixing her hair at a bathroom vanity and she shut the door.
Wagner wrote that despite various theories about what led Wood to the water, which she feared, it was impossible to know what exactly happened.
"Nobody knows," he wrote. "There are only two possibilities; either she was trying to get away from the argument, or she was trying to tie the dinghy. But the bottom line is that nobody knows exactly what happened."
Later in the book, Wagner wrote, "Did I blame myself? If I had been there, I could have done something. But I wasn't there. I didn't see her."
He wrote that he never saw his wife after she died and has never returned to Catalina Island.
Phone and email messages to Walken's publicist were not returned Thursday. Walken and Wood were co-stars in "Brainstorm," which was the actress' final big screen role.
AP reporter Alicia Rancilio contributed to this report.