The former husband of Natalie Wood has admitted he blamed himself for the actress’s death for years after she drowned off the California coast.
In his autobiography, Robert Wagner recounted the final time he saw his wife – and how he felt he felt guilty he did nothing to save her.
‘Yes, I blamed myself,’ the actor wrote in his 2009 book, Pieces of My Heart. ‘If I’d been there, I could have done something. I wasn’t, but ultimately, a man is responsible for his loved one.
‘I would have done anything in the world to protect her. Anything. I lost a woman I loved with all my heart and I will never completely come to terms with that.’
Los Angeles police last week said ‘substantial new evidence’ led them to re-open their investigation into her death 30 years ago.
Wagner – who was on his yacht Splendour with his wife and her alleged lover, Oscar-winner Christopher Walken, on the fateful night – has always maintained Wood, 43, accidentally slipped and drowned as she drunkenly tried to tie up a dinghy against the boat.
But retired stockbroker Marilyn Wayne said she heard the star’s ‘last desperate cries for help’ – and claimed police had previously refused to listen to her evidence.
The boat’s skipper, Dennis Davern, also claimed he was ‘coerced’ by Wagner’s lawyer into saying the death was accidental. He claims that, in fact, Wagner had not allowed them to search for his wife.
A police source described Wagner as ‘a person of interest’ in the case.
But the lead detective at the heart of the original investigation has said he never suspected Wagner.
Duane Rasure, a retired detective sergeant for the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Homicide Bureau, said the actress was small, so it was believable that she drowned quickly.
‘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 told 48 Hours for the program Vanity Fair: Hollywood Scandal.
He also accused Mr Davern, the boat’s skipper, of cashing in from his part in the death. R Davern has said he blames Wagner for his wife’s death.
‘Obviously he was trying to sell a book and make money off of it. And I think that’s the whole purpose behind his– his writing this book,’ Rasure said.
‘If I have ever the slightest inkling there was a murder, something suspicious, I would have worked it,’ Rasure says. ‘I did not cover for anybody and I wouldn’t cover for anybody. I don’t care about their celebrity status. They were people.’
In his autobiography, Wagner retraces his steps before his wife’s death off the coast of California thirty years ago.
He explains how he had been on his boat, the Splendour, with Natalie – who he had married twice – and Walken when an argument broke out.
Wagner wrote: ‘Chris Walken began talking about his ‘total pursuit of a career’, which he admitted was more important to him than his personal life. He clearly thought Natalie should live like that, too.
‘I got angry. ‘Why don’t you stay out of her career?’ I said. ‘She’s got enough people telling her what to do without you.’
As the argument escalated, Natalie left for bed.
‘The last time I saw my wife she was fixing her hair in the bathroom while I was arguing with Chris,’ he said. ‘I saw her shut the door. She was going to bed.’
He described how he and Walken moved up to the deck as ‘things were threatening to get physical’ and they were calmed by the fresh sea air.
He said he waited up a little longer before going to bed – but his wife was not there.
He noticed the dinghy had gone, but he would have heard its motor fire up had she taken it. They called the coast to see if she had gone there in the dinghy.
‘I was scared and confused,’ he said. ‘The Coast Guard started the search and rescue, crisscrossing the ocean surface with helicopters. Hour after hour – nothing.’
On finding out of her death, ‘my knees gave out; everything went away from me’.
He said it was his belief that Natalie, who had drunk seven or eight glasses of wine, had heard the boat’s dinghy banging against the boat and slipped trying to retie it.
Others have suggested she was trying to get away from the argument, but nobody really knows.
He also explained in the autobiography how enraged he became when other men showed interest in his wife.
Rasure said he believed this version of events and that Wagner had not purposefully waited to contact help.
‘There was time. They were uncertain,’ he says. ‘They felt that she had gone ashore in a Zodiac, that nothing was wrong. He did call and have the people on the shore search.
‘The only person who really knows is Natalie Wood. Robert Wagner knows. I think he told me the truth.’
But Wood’s sister, Lana, who was not on the boat, told CNN’s Piers Morgan she has spoken with Davern many times and believes her sister did not fall off the boat.
‘I don’t think she fell, I don’t know if she was pushed, I don’t know whether there was an altercation and it happened accidentally but she shouldn’t have died and that does stay with me and hurt,’ Lana Wood said.
‘I would prefer to always believe that RJ Wagner would never do anything to hurt Natalie and that he loved her dearly, which he did, and I don’t believe that whatever went on was deliberate. I’ve always cared about him. I always will care about him,’ she said.
Since the investigation re-opened last week, Wagner has remained out of the public eye, holed up in his Hollywood mansion.
His publicist released a statement saying they were leaving the matter in the hands of the LA County Sheriff’s department but appeared to blame Dennis Davern, skipper of the Splendour, for trying to profiteer from her death.
The statement said: ‘We 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.’
by Helena Bryanlith