LOS ANGELES (CBS) — The lifeguard who recovered Natalie Wood’s body from the waters off Catalina Island 30 years ago say he believes she could have been saved.
Former Los Angeles County supervising rescue boat Cpt. Roger Smith tells the Los Angeles Times he learned Wood was missing four hours after her disappearance.
Smith says Wood was likely alive for hours after she entered the water.
“She probably cried for help for hours,” he told the LA Times. “I’ve always believed she could have been saved. Her fingers were still pliable when she was pulled from the water, suggesting she had not been dead for hours.”
The “Splendor in the Grass” and “Rebel Without a Cause” star drowned on Nov. 29, 1981.
At the time, the Los Angeles County Coroner’s office and sheriff’s department ruled her death an accident.
Homicide detectives announced last week that they are reopening their investigation because of new recollections from the ship’s captain, Dennie Davern, who released a book last year.
The book, which suggests foul play led to Wood’s death, provides salacious details about drug and alcohol use and bitter arguments onboard the boat.
“I just didn’t want my whole life to go by without having the truth come out,” Davern said in a recent “48 Hours” interview.
Davern also appeared on the “Today Show” Friday and said he believes Wagner intentionally kept the investigation into Wood’s death low-profile and didn’t do enough.
“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.
Wood was with her husband, Robert Wagner, and friend Christopher Walken the night before she died.
The trio ate dinner on Catalina Island before having drinks on the couple’s 60-foot yacht, Splendour.
All three had a fight about how much one’s personal life should be sacrificed for a career. After the fight calmed down, Wagner went to bed and said Wood wasn’t in their room.
He told investigators he searched for her, but wasn’t able to find her.
Wood’s body turned up the next morning, a mile from the yacht. A dinghy was found beached nearby.
“Natalie would never, in a million years, take that dinghy out by herself,” Davern told “48 Hours”.
Davern tells Vanity Fair that he felt like a prisoner in Wagner’s home, which was protected by an alarm system, in the days following Wood’s death. He says the men would “cry on each other’s shoulders, with a glass of scotch in one hand and an arm around each other.”
“He used to give me checks,” Davern said. “A thousand, two thousand. My friends said it was hush money and that R.J. wouldn’t want anything to do with me after Splendour was gone. I used to tell him that R.J. wasn’t like that, that he was a real friend to me.”
In 2008, Wagner said he wasn’t happy with the investigation into his wife’s death.
“There was a lot of conjecture about what happened that night because we really didn’t know what happened,” he said.
Wagner issued a statement about the new investigation on behalf of his family.
“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.”
Los Angeles County Sheriff’s detectives say Wagner is not a suspect in Wood’s death.
Wood’s sister, Lana, asked for the case to be reopened last March.
“I need to know how she felt. I know it’s not going to be easy and I know it’s going to hurt, but I need to,” she told KCAL9’s Stacey Butler.
“I’m tired of not really knowing. I’m tired of the way the so-called investigation went at the time. I don’t think ‘I’m sorry for your loss, Mr. Wagner’ is an investigation,” she added.
Anyone with information about Wood’s death is encouraged to contact the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department at (323)890-5641.