Robert Wagner has officially been named a “person of interest” in the 1981 drowning death of his wife, Natalie Wood. Wagner, best known for his starring role in the 1970s TV series Hart to Hart, has long alleged his innocence in Wood’s mysterious death. But in a new interview with CBS News’ 48 Hours, Los Angeles County sheriff’s investigators say they are eyeing “RJ” Wagner more closely after a revamped investigation into Natalie Wood’s unsolved case over the past six years.
“We know now that he was the last person to be with Natalie before she disappeared,” Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department Lieutenant John 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.”
In November 1981, Natalie Wood, her husband, friend Christopher Walken and yacht captain Dennis Davern were all aboard Wagner’s boat, Splendour, off the coast of Catalina. After a night of drinking, Wood went missing and was later found drowned. Natalie Wood’s death was originally ruled an accident. Thirty years later an investigation into the actress’ death was reopened, with investigators likening her autopsy photos to those of an assault victim. Corina also told CBS there’s enough suspicion with the ever-changing story to make investigators believe that Natalie Wood was murdered.
Robert Wagner and Christopher Walken, the main players from the November night in question, long refused to talk about it. Finally, in 1997, Christopher Walken offered his theory as to Natalie Wood may have died. Walken told Playboy he believes Wood hit her head and then fell into the water and drowned.
“Anybody there saw the logistics — of the boat, the night, where we were, that it was raining — and would know exactly what happened,” the actor said.
“What happened that night only she knows, because she was alone. She had gone to bed before us, and her room was at the back. A dinghy was bouncing against the side of the boat, and I think she went out to move it. There was a ski ramp that was partially in the water. It was slippery – I had walked on it myself. She had told me she couldn’t swim; in fact, they had to cut a swimming scene from [Brainstorm]. She was probably half asleep, and she was wearing a coat.”
While Walken has long said he believes Natalie Wood’s death was an accident, Woods’ sister, Lana, has another theory. According to the Daily Mail, Lana Wood has never strayed from her initial feeling that her sister was murdered.
“I’ve always believed Natalie was killed, nothing has come up to change my mind on that,” Lana Wood said.
“It’s easier for me to believe RJ has nothing to do with it, because the other possibility is heart-breaking, heart-wrenching, horrendous, horrific, that this man that she had known and was married to twice, might be responsible, it’s horrendous for me to even imagine that. I would prefer to believe the other, but unfortunately, it doesn’t point that way.”
Lana Wood has long taken issue with the fact that Robert Wagner hasn’t cooperated with investigators over the years.
“He spoke to the coastguard and the sheriff when they arrived on the boat but he has refused to speak to them since then,” Wood alleged. “If he has nothing to hide why wouldn’t he speak to them now? That makes it unpleasant and suspicious.”
While he long refused to talk about Natalie’s death, Robert Wagner eventually wrote about it in his memoir, Pieces of My Heart. In an excerpt posted by the Daily Mail, Wagner detailed an argument he had with Christopher Walken, Natalie’s co-star in the movie Brainstorm, shortly before she died. Wagner was reportedly angry that Walken was trying to give his wife career advice. Natalie Wood reportedly walked away from the two men as the argument escalated and when Wagner later went to say goodnight to her, she was gone.
“The last time I saw my wife she was fixing her hair in the bathroom while I was arguing with Chris,” Robert Wagner wrote. “I saw her shut the door. She was going to bed.”
Wagner later admitted he blames himself for Natalie’s death, telling the Daily Mail the following in 2009.
“Did I blame myself? If I’d been there, I could have done something. I wasn’t, but ultimately, a man is responsible for his loved one. Yes, I blamed myself. I would have done anything in the world to protect her. Anything. I lost a woman I loved with all my heart, not once but twice, and I will never completely come to terms with that.”
In an interview with People, Natalie Wood’s daughter Natasha Gregson Wagner says she had a bad feeling when her mother left for the 1981 yachting trip. At the time, 11-year-old daughter Natasha pleaded with her mom not to go.
“I had a funny feeling,” Natasha told People. “I don’t know if it was just being a child who didn’t want her mom to leave or what it was but I didn’t want her to go.”
Natasha Gregson Wagner said after she learned of her mother’s death she remained “in a state of shock for years.”
Natalie Wood was married to Robert Wagner twice, from 1957 to 1962 and again from 1972 until her death. Sadly, some of Natalie’s favorite times with Robert were spent on their yacht. In the book, Natalie Wood: Reflections on a Legendary Life, Natalie Wood is quoted as saying how much time she spent boating with her husband—and how he once saved her from the water.
“RJ taught me about all about yachting: the radio, the mooring, the radar, fire extinguishers and life jackets,” Wood said, according to People. “One morning as we returned to Balboa from Catalina while RJ maneuvered the boat into the slip, I threw over the line — and fell right into the water with it. It was January and freezing. RJ fished me out.”
The 48 Hours episode, “Natalie Wood: Death in Dark Water,” airs Saturday, Feb. 3 at 10 p.m. ET on CBS.