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In an email exchange last week with widely respected attorney Sam Perroni, I discovered he's spent years researching details for a book about actress Natalie Wood's mysterious 1981 death while the family yacht was anchored off California's Catalina Island.

All he needs now is a publisher with backbone enough to step on some big, yet relevant, toes.

While numerous documentaries, articles and books have circulated for years about the talented beauty's death, Perroni's fascination with the events leading to her demise prompted his desire to uncovering relevant facts.

The attorney has his own version of events to relate, backed by confirmed facts as he remains open to a book publisher with the courage and ability to share his findings with the world. Below is how Perroni explained an overview.

Natalie was born the daughter of Russian immigrants, as Natalia Nikolaevna Zakharenko on July 20, 1938, in San Francisco. At age 4 Wood landed a bit part in the film Happy Land. At 8 she appeared in the iconic Christmas favorite Miracle on 34th Street. She went on to leading roles in blockbuster films such as West Side Story and Rebel Without a Cause, earning three Oscar nominations by the time she was 25 years old.

The story of her unresolved death began on an otherwise uneventful Thanksgiving weekend in 1981.

Natalie was boating with her movie-star husband, Robert Wagner Jr., on Santa Catalina Island in the couple's stately, 60-foot yacht, Splendour. Joining them was Academy Award-winning actor Walken, Natalie's costar in the film Brainstorm, which was on a production break. The yacht was captained by Dennis Davern.

Considered a playground for the elite, Catalina Island was a popular spot to escape the stresses of life and enjoy the laid-back ambience of island living. The interesting shops and friendly people in Avalon, the island's largest town, added to the pleasure of spending time there. On Friday afternoon, Nov. 27, Davern anchored Splendour near the Casino ballroom, Avalon's landmark structure.

Built in 1929 as a nightclub, it became a popular destination where people enjoyed its big band-era ballroom.

After a Friday evening in Avalon where Natalie and Wagner quarreled, Natalie and the boat captain left the yacht to stay at the Pavilion Lodge with the captain acting as her bodyguard, while her husband and Walken remained on the yacht. At Natalie's suggestion, she and the captain stayed in the same room. The next day, she returned to the yacht and planned for dinner that night at the only restaurant and bar on that part of the island, Doug's Harbor Reef.

While Wagner and Davern were napping, Natalie and Walken made their way to the restaurant early Saturday afternoon. With drinks in hand, they talked at the end of the bar until joined by Wagner and Davern around 4 p.m. Sipping scotch, daiquiri cocktails and wine, the foursome stayed in the bar until around 7 p.m., when they were seated in the dining room.

From outward appearances Saturday evening began pleasantly enough. They sang, listened to songs by an accordion player, enjoyed their meals and drank wine, cocktails and champagne until about 10 p.m.

To some watching in the restaurant, the celebrities appeared to be having a good time. Others said the mood at the table seemed to change during the evening over perceived tensions between Natalie and Wagner. When the group departed, employees and customers observed them to be intoxicated as they made their way to their dinghy and return to Splendour. They reportedly reached the yacht between 10 and 10:45 p.m.

The cove experienced unseasonably low temperatures in the high 40s with rain and drizzle during that day and night. Heavy clouds shielded the stars. The dark ocean, with a water temperature in the high 50s around midnight, was beset by small whitecaps lapping against the boats.

However, by 2:30 the weather had cleared and stars became visible for the rest of the chilly morning.

It was 7:44 a.m. on that Sunday, Nov. 29. Locals, lifeguards, the Coast Guard and the Catalina Island sheriff's office had been searching for Wood and the yacht's 13-foot inflatable dinghy, Valiant, since around 1 a.m. when Wagner alerted authorities she was missing.

What happened between in the hours between 10 p.m. and 1 a.m. spawned what would become a nearly 40-year mystery. Perroni said his exhaustively researched book has sought to answer that question.

As Doug Bombard, a restaurateur and fixture at the Isthmus, steered his boat that morning toward what he believed was a red "bubble" floating about 100 yards off Blue Cavern Point, his "heart sunk," Perroni said. He motored closer to discover the bubble was a red down jacket, the same type and color Natalie had been wearing hours earlier at his restaurant. The jacket had ballooned and contained enough air so it looked "kind of like a life preserver" for the 43-year-old petite film star.

Bombard said her feet and legs were hanging beneath her, almost in a standing position, as if she was suspended. Her arms were spread out, and her face was in the water with her dark hair floating around her. He turned her over and saw her eyes were open. He knew she was gone.

The dinghy had been found two hours earlier by two of Bombard's employees lapping against the rocks at Blue Cavern Point, close to the location of Natalie's body. They described its condition to a sheriff's deputy, who wrote: "The key was in the ignition, which was in the off position. The gear was in neutral and the oars tied down. It appeared as if the boat had not even been used."

Natalie's body and the dinghy had drifted over a mile from Splendour's mooring site before being discovered.

Aided by two searchers, Bombard hoisted Natalie over the side of their patrol boat and gently placed her face up on the deck. Her body was clad in only the red long-sleeved down jacket, a cotton nightshirt, wool socks and some jewelry--a gold ring on her right hand, a gold chain bracelet on her right wrist, two gold rings and one silver ring on her left hand. She was taken to Catalina Island's University of Southern California hyperbaric chamber until a team from the Los Angeles County Coroner's Office could arrive.

News of Natalie's death stunned the world. Media representatives worldwide clamored for answers as to how and why this could happen to a film star like her. Rumors and speculation quickly became passed along as fact.

Natalie's fear of deep, dark water was well-known. So it didn't make sense that she'd left the yacht in the dinghy alone in the middle of such a dreary starless night. The public pressed to know what really happened to her. And for nearly 40 years, conflicting stories were all they heard.

Until now, that is, Perroni said, adding that he has carefully investigated that night for four years and is ready to reveal his own findings. In doing so, he said he takes on no lesser authorities than the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Office, the LA County Coroner's Office in 1981, Walken (who claims he was asleep when it happened), Davern and Wagner, which is why a publisher for his work requires backbone.

Perroni said Wood's younger sister, Lana Wood, and Davern have been especially outspoken about Wood's death. Davern even co-wrote a book about that night, claiming that he had not told the authorities the truth. He later indicated he thought Wagner was responsible for Wood's death. There were also reports of other boaters hearing a woman cry out for help late at night.

In November 2011, the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Office announced it would be reopening the investigation into Wood's death after receiving new information. While no specific details were released, authorities indicated Wagner was not an official suspect. In June 2012, the mystery was further prolonged when the official cause of Wood's death was changed from an "accident"--as originally noted by L.A. County Coroner Thomas Noguchi--to "undetermined" on her death certificate.

No one has ever been charged in her death.

Count me among those anxious to read the details Perroni has discovered, if some wise and supportive publisher will only get behind and support his years of time and effort in a quest for the truth.

Now go out into the world and treat everyone you meet exactly like you want them to treat you.

Mike Masterson is a longtime Arkansas journalist, was editor of three Arkansas dailies and headed the master's journalism program at Ohio State University. Email him at

Editorial on 06/06/2020

Print Headline: MASTERSON ONLINE: The truth on Wood death


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