Marti Rulli said Friday, Nov. 19, she felt a sense of relief after years of effort to convince authorities to reopen an investigation into the 1981 death of actress Natalie Wood.
The New Jersey freelance writer more than 20 years ago joined forces with Dennis Davern, who was captain of the yacht Wood and husband Robert Wagner were sailing on the night she died in the waters off Santa Catalina Island.
She has spent those years researching, investigating and writing about what happened that night. Rulli and Davern published a book two years ago about Wood and the case called Goodbye Natalie, Goodbye Splendour, the later a reference to the name of the yacht.
Davern is a New Jersey native who served in the U.S. Navy until his discharge in 1971, according to his author bio. He got a job at a marina in California after the Navy, where he became a boat captain for Wagner and Wood. After Wood's death, he was a member of the Screen Actors Guild and worked mostly as an extra when he did work in Hollywood. In 1987, Davern moved to Florida where he has operated a marina and boat maintenance business.
For months, if not years, Marti Rulli and Dennis Davern -- but especially Rulli -- have been lobbying the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department to reopen the case. She has put together long files, with an attached affidavit from Davern, listing reasons why they should rip the lid off the 30-year-old case (the file she sent the Sheriff's department can be read here).
This week, she got what she wanted.
"I'm relieved that the case was reopened," she told The Hollywood Reporter on Friday, "and that professionals are going to investigate the case because it has never really been investigated."
She and Davern contend the 1981 investigation barely skimmed the surface of what happened; and Davern now says Wagner told him not to talk about all he knew. Davern said he lied about the case when he spoke to authorities 30 years ago.
In making the rounds of the media this week, from the Today Show to CNN, Davern alone and with Rulli, have told their story. Davern has accused Wagner, who was Wood's husband, of being responsible for her death, but has refused to give his reasons for the accusation on the air. He said he and Rulli have told police).
In return, many media have accused Davern and Rulli of being out to exploit the case on the 30th anniversary of her death. This just happens to be the exact weekend -- Thanksgiving -- that Wood died.
As a result of the publicity, CBS has moved up to this weekend a 48 Hours Mystery report on the Wood case that it will broadcast that is in part based on a 2000 Vanity Fair article.
Davern and Rulli have denied they are trying to sell books or pump up their own profile. Their publicist called The Hollywood Reporter on Friday to shout that anyone accusing his clients of being out for publicity, or trying to exploit Wood's death for profit, are wrong. Publicist Rick Kramer said the book came out two years ago, and the soft cover version and e book came out long ago as well. He said they are only responding to media requests in making statements to anyone with a microphone or word processor who asks.
In a brief interview with THR, in between TV interviews, Rulli said she welcomed the statement Friday from Wagner, released through his publicist, that he welcomes an inquiry and will cooperate fully with the authorities. "If he does welcome it maybe he will be willing to fill in the holes and the differences between his story to the police (in 1981) and his story in his book 20 yrs later. Maybe its time for him to answer some questions."
When asked if she was troubled that the L.A. Sheriff said Wagner was not a suspect, Rulli said that was not a surprise to her. "There are no suspects yet in their eyes," said Rulli. "They just re-opened this case and they have months ahead of them scheduling witnesses, talking to witnesses, going through the evidence and the case files from 30 years ago. So no one is a suspect at this point. Hopefully, when they finish this investigation, Natalie will have had the investigation she deserves."
Marilyn Wayne, the only witness to hear Natalie’s cries for help—a vital witness ignored by authorities—has offered to publicly submit to a polygraph test to validate her account. Lead detective Rasure has always belittled Wayne for her adamant claim that Wood was in the water just minutes after 11 P.M. Wayne’s account is consistent with Davern’s account, yet these two crucial witnesses, both willing to undergo professional polygraph testing, continue to be discounted and their motives questioned.
The three survivors aboard Splendour—Robert Wagner, Christopher Walken, and Dennis Davern—lied to authorities when briefly questioned on the morning of November 29,
1981. Davern, however, witnessed the circumstances leading to Wood’s disappearing
from the yacht and has since passed a certified polygraph test indicating that Robert
Wagner was with Natalie Wood, arguing on the back deck of the yacht with her
when she went missing. Wagner, decades later, admitted there was an argument during
which he angrily smashed a wine bottle less than an hour before Natalie “went missing.”
The now unrefuted arguing and violence that took place conflicts with Wagner’s and
Walken’s initial accounts of “a pleasant weekend” aboard Splendour. Wagner, Walken,
and Davern were not further interrogated. Nor were they physically checked for bruising
or other signs of struggle to rule out their culpability for the more than two dozen bruises
on Wood’s body.
No effort was made to determine how Wood received dozens of wounds, scratches, and bruises or to determine how and why she left the yacht in her nightgown. Chief Coroner
Thomas Noguchi was fired for wanting to dig deeper into the case. The case was closed
quickly and prematurely to avoid media attention. Although Wood’s bruises are consistent with classic domestic physical abuse, only theories and speculation were offered to explain them.
The dinghy was tied securely behind the stern, not on the
port side, as Wagner claimed, with two lines, making it virtually impossible for it to float
away when its lines were being adjusted. Someone untied both lines, an unlikely
procedure for “securing a dinghy.” Wagner, in promoting this scenario, conveniently
omitted the fact that the dinghy’s ropes are reached from the transom—it is completely
unnecessary to step down to the swim step to adjust them. Instead, he wants people to
believe that his wife, a woman deathly afraid of water, stepped from the safety of the
transom onto the swim step to wrestle the dinghy’s ropes.
There was a drastic delay in calling for help from aboard Splendour. Wagner and/or Davern were fully aware of Natalie’s absence from approximately 11:05 P.M., yet a ship-to-shore call was not placed until 1:30 A.M., and the Coast Guard was not called until 3:30 A.M., a flagrant violation of maritime protocol. This unacceptable delay in reporting a person missing from a yacht was never officially examined.
On November 29, 1981, while Natalie Wood was missing from her family yacht, Splendour, (of which I operated and maintained as an employee of the Wagners) her husband, actor Robert Wagner, instructed me to never offer any details in reference to the circumstances surrounding Natalie Wood’s disappearance from the yacht on the night of November 28, 1981. Robert Wagner informed me he would hire an attorney who would handle my statement about Natalie Wood’s disappearance and drowning, which he did before Natalie Wood’s funeral,
Shortly after a conversation began between Natalie Wood and Christopher Walken, Robert Wagner grabbed the open wine bottle and with rage crashed it upon the coffee table and
screamed out to Christopher Walken, “Do you want to fuck my wife, is that what you want?” [...] After the bottle smashing, Christopher Walken retreated to his cabin forward and closed the cabin door. He remained there until morning. Natalie Wood was mortified and went
immediately to the master stateroom which is a full length room at the rear of yacht with doors that lead to the rear deck. Robert Wagner followed her within minutes, and then a terrible argument proceeded. I knocked on their stateroom door from the main salon to try to calm the situation. Robert Wagner answered to tell me to go away and to not interfere.
The loud arguing continued and I heard things (objects, possibly people) hitting the walls and things being thrown at the ceiling of the master stateroom, [...] Next, Robert Wagner and Natalie Wood were on the open back deck arguing loudly. It was 11:00
PM. The arguing sounded fast and furious. I looked out and saw Natalie Wood dressed in her nightgown. She was not yet wearing the red down jacket she would be found in the ocean wearing. The arguing continuing. I heard stateroom doors open again. I did not look out. I thought maybe the arguing went back inside, but then I heard voices again on the deck. The only full sentence I could completely decipher during the entire argument was “Get off my fucking boat” said by Robert Wagner. I could hear both Robert Wagner’s and Natalie Wood’s voices coming from the rear deck the entire time music played. I was terribly concerned but waited about 15 minutes before going to the deck. When I arrived on the rear open deck, only Robert Wagner was present, and he stood near the far rear wall of the yacht.
Robert Wagner appeared sweaty, flushed, anxious, nervous, and disheveled. He told me “Natalie is missing” and asked me to search the yacht. He led me through the stateroom which was a mess…it
He discussed with me the repercussions of bringing any immediate attention to the
situation and he claimed he did not want to tarnish his image. After an hour passed, Robert
Wagner began crying and repeated, “She’s gone, she’s gone, she’s gone” which I believed a
strange thing to say.
When I arrived at the Wagner home Sunday afternoon, I was immediately led by Robert Wagner’s attorney to the Wagner bedroom. I was told to say nothing regarding Natalie Wood’s death and that I was to see an attorney in the next day or two to sign a statement being prepared for me, which I did sign after barely reading it. [...] Detective Duane Rasure accepted the statement that had been prepared for me—a statement claiming that I did not know details about Natalie Wood’s disappearance from the yacht. Although I did want to reveal what I knew, I obeyed what had been asked of me.
Lana Wood (Natalie's sister):
I have also learned new, disturbing details from the Coast Guard Captain, Mr. Roger Smith, who retrieved my sister’s body from the ocean. In his expert opinion, he believes my sister lived for many hours in the ocean, and his claim that Robert Wagner said he did not call for help for Natalie Wood because he “thought she was out screwing around because that’s the kind of woman she is” is outrageous. Wagner also claimed to Roger Smith that he did not call for professional help to protect his image.
My questions include:
1) Why was my sister’s body full of bruises? A closer look into this fact might reveal appropriate answers.
Many new details have arisen since my sister’s death (by Dennis Davern who witnessed what transpired before my sister drowned, from Roger Smith, the Coast Guard Captain who retrieved Natalie’s body, and from Marilyn Wayne, a nearby boater, who claims she heard my sister calling out for help at the precise time Dennis Davern claims an argument was in full force. Marilyn Wayne, Roger Smith were never interviewed by the authorities in regards to the case, and Dennis Davern claims he was hardly questioned by detectives. These three witnesses continue to be ignored by authorities.
4) Why was Robert Wagner sent home before having his body checked or being interrogated in relation to my sister’s death?
6) While Wagner is still available for questioning, I am requesting he be asked official, detailed questions in relation to my sister’s death case that remains officially vague and closed.
A woman’s voice, crying for help from drowning awakened John and he awakened me. “Help me, someone please help me, I’m drowning” we heard repeatedly. Alarmed, I called out to my son, who also heard the cries, and looked at his new digital watch: it was just minutes after 11:00 P.M.
Then I heard a man's voice, slurred, and in aggravated tone, say something to the effect of, "Oh, hold on, we’re coming to get you,” and not long after, the cries for help subsided, but we heard the cries for up to 15 minutes. We returned to bed, terribly disturbed.
I have always wondered about the delayed call for professional help to rescue Natalie Wood, always regretting that I hadn't been called early enough as I believe there may have been a true chance of saving Natalie, as the condition of her body after being brought ashore suggested she may have floated alive for several hours. Her fingers were pliable, and her face and body not showing certain effects being deceased in an ocean for hours would normally incur.
I was NEVER interviewed by the Natalie Wood case detectives. Being the person
who had brought Natalie Wood’s body ashore, you would have thought my professional opinion
would have been documented in case reports.
I helped deputy Kroll take off her red down jacket which did not help her in cold water. We than had to examine the body to make sure there was no foul play. She had on a burgundy night gown on with nothing underneath, her arms and fingers moved very easy as I removed her rings; she showed no signs of rigor mortis. We could not tell how long she had been gone? But we did know that she did not know how to swim. She must have been hanging onto the safety line on the boat drifting out of the harbor for hours. Her eyes were still open so I closed them and covered her with a blanket.
Source, and you can read the full petition here