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Father Set Him Afire : Burned Boy Copes With Anger, Age

Times Staff Writer

David Rothenberg is bound for the Pipeline, an acre of concrete craters in Upland where hordes of teen-age boys flock every day to ride, “tube” and “shred” the walls on skateboards. The most famous burn victim in America and his driver are temporarily lost on a freeway cutting through the Inland Empire.

“Uh, I think we passed it,” David mutters in that aren’t-adults-dumb-sometimes tone that 11-year-olds have.

During a detour for directions at a convenience store, the sixth-grader creates a stir of double-takes as he buys a soda, a scene that, by now, he shrugs off. The only skateboard park in California, however, is another matter.

New Kid on Block

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It’s like being the new kid on the block all over again at this mecca of male bonding and competition. With his scarred arms, legs and face and special leather protective gear, he stands out from the bare-chested, sweating boys hot-dogging on the face of the cement walls.

He nevertheless tackles a couple of beginner bowls as other kids gawk and whisper, wondering what has happened to this boy. Though tentative, David holds his own and earns some appreciative gazes for, as one boy curiously remarked, “going for it.”

The gloss, after five years, has worn off the celebrity status bestowed upon the little New York boy, set afire by his father March 3, 1983, and scarred beyond recognition--the comeback kid heralded in front-page headlines, the 6-year-old who battled back from near-fatal burns and captured America’s heart with his determination to live.

After months of surgeries to graft skin on the third-degree burns that ravaged 90% of his body--first at UC Irvine Medical Center and later at the Shriners Burn Institute in Boston--David triumphantly returned home to his mother’s Brooklyn brownstone, where he was greeted by more than 1,000 people who had filled the streets waving streamers and banners.

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Back to School

He went back to grade school. He was the campus champ, the boy to befriend, even after he and his mother, Marie Rothenberg, began a new life in Fullerton with a friendlier climate and closer proximity to his plastic surgeon.

But the boy whose triumphs have inspired burn victims nationally is now on the verge of adolescence. And sometimes, he says with a sigh, just growing up is “hard.”

A new chapter in this story of a jealousy-consumed father who used his most powerful weapon to hurt the wife who divorced him has thrown an undertow of terror into their otherwise stable routines.

The man who forever changed their lives with a 2 1/2-gallon jug of kerosene and a match, Charles David Rothenberg, is scheduled to be paroled less than two years from now. He has announced in an interview with The Times that he intends to move to Whittier, 20 minutes away from them.

It doesn’t seem fair, Marie Rothenberg says, her eyes filling with tears, that impending adulthood will impose its own brand of sentencing on David while his father will be free on Dec. 11, 1989.

“Write this down,” David says. “I don’t want him getting out, because I’m afraid he’ll hurt me. . . . I never want to see him again.”

While the fire propelled the family into the public’s attention, the tragedy probably began a generation ago. Neither parent had “Father Knows Best” upbringings, and their son would not either.

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Marie Siderowicz grew up in Pennsylvania with eight brothers and sisters. Their mother was an alcoholic. The parents divorced. The mother abused her children, so they were taken from her and given to their father. They had a stepmother who “invented the word wicked ,” Marie said. Of her family life, she said, “It was hard.”

Rothenberg claims to have been born to a prostitute who deposited him at an orphanage in the Bronx, where she periodically visited him. This was more painful than not having a mother at all, he said, because it left no question for the other children and himself that he was unwanted.

He said he left the children’s home at the age of 15 and lived briefly in Massachusetts with an uncle, working as a soda jerk at his drug store.

Uncle’s Comments

That uncle, Saul Rothenberg, now lives in Los Angeles. He denied ever living with his nephew, the son of his sister. But he did confirm that Charles Rothenberg had been born out of wedlock and had lived in an orphanage, which he thought was affiliated with a church. He said Charles lasted one week at his drugstore, and each day cash was stolen from the register.

Another relative, who asked not to be identified, denied that Charles Rothenberg’s mother, Clara, was a prostitute. The relative said Clara Rothenberg was a small-time cabaret entertainer who was killed by a cab on Halloween when her son was about 20.

Most of what is known about Rothenberg’s past by co-workers, friends, even Marie and a Catholic priest who befriended him when he was a youth--is almost exclusively based on what he told them. Father Ronald Connor, in particular, who is now in the Dominican Republic, stressed to police that Rothenberg was a habitual liar.

Never having had a real family, Rothenberg said, compelled him to shower his only child with love and left him devastated when his wife left him.

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By all accounts, Rothenberg was a doting and nurturing father. “He was always a good provider, a good father,” Marie Rothenberg now says. “I never doubted he loved Davey.”

Charles bought most or all of the boy’s clothes and offered what child support money he could afford from his wages as a cab driver or waiter. He walked his son to and from school almost every day, sometimes carrying him in his arms. Fellow cabbies remembered how he talked about the boy incessantly and sported a lapel button that said, “I Love David.” He wore a pager so that David could reach him 24 hours a day.

But there was a troubling side to Charles Rothenberg.

He had a criminal record before he was 18. The most serious of his crimes was an attempted armed robbery, for which he was arrested and jailed. Marie, who married Rothenberg in February, 1975, at the age of 25, divorced him in 1978 while he was serving a prison sentence for check forgery.

She never brought David to see his father during that 2-year period, theorizing that the boy was too young to understand and could be told when he was older. But Rothenberg would never forgive her for that.

Police theorized that that may explain, in part, why Rothenberg--who was charged in a warrant with vandalizing and embezzling money from the Manhattan restaurant for which he worked, and who knew Manhattan detectives were after him--decided to take his son with him when he fled New York late that February of 1983.

In the days and weeks before they left, Rothenberg displayed behavior toward his son that seemed out of character. One girlfriend told police that they were dining at a coffee shop when Rothenberg knocked David to his knees and called him a "(obscenity) brat” who would be sent home to his mother if he didn’t shape up.

Weeklong Stay Planned

Rothenberg had picked up his son for what was to have been a weeklong stay, first at his home down the street from Marie’s and later in the Catskills.

After several days, Marie Rothenberg, unable to reach her son by phone, learned from one of his classmates that David had not been in school all week. She frantically arrived at Rothenberg’s brownstone and convinced his landlords to let her in. Once virtually wallpapered with pictures of David or those that he had drawn, the apartment was now empty--other than a photograph of the boy found torn up in a trash can.

Toward the end of that week, Rothenberg telephoned Marie from Buena Park. He said that they were at a farm in Upstate New York, assured her that David was fine but said that he needed to spend more time with the boy.

Marie, who suspected they were in California because Rothenberg slipped and referred to the time difference, angrily told him that he had no right to keep their son longer than planned and that he would never see his son once they returned to Brooklyn. That pivotal conversation, both parents agree, was to be the trigger for the tragedy.

Bought the Kerosene

That same day, father and son went together to a hardware store, where Rothenberg paid $8.47 for a plastic bottle of kerosene.

The following day, they checked out of a Holiday Inn on Beach Boulevard, where the clerk remembered Rothenberg telling her his son had a terminal disease, “and that he didn’t have long to live.” It was the morning of March 2.

Before noon, they checked into Room 139 of the nearby Travelodge, where a desk clerk recalled what a striking pair the darkly handsome man and his look-alike son were--and so obviously devoted to each other. David had even been allowed to choose the room that had the waterbed he wanted.

Around midnight, with the help of a pill from his father, David Rothenberg lay sleeping in his underwear and a T-shirt.

The kerosene had been poured around the bedspread and a match was lit within three feet of the door, which was then closed. A motel guest told police that from her second-floor room she saw a man stoop down as though picking up something, and then he shut the motel room door, climbed into his white car and sped off.

Blast Follows

When he was halfway to the boulevard, there was an explosion. Room 139’s window blew out, and motel guests remember hearing screams and sobs coming from behind the wall of flames.

Rothenberg to this day maintains that he intended to kill himself in the fire but panicked and fled. But witnesses told police that parked directly outside Room 139 was a white car that had been backed into its stall, its engine idling, the driver’s door open.

In the moments after David was pulled from the fiery room, just after midnight on March 3, 1983, Rothenberg could see the flames from a phone booth. He was calling police and hospitals. He would stay that night in another motel less than a block away.

As he fled north, he sent a telegram to Marie Rothenberg in Brooklyn that said the boy had been injured and could be found at UC Irvine Medical Center in Orange. He continued to phone police, asking, “How is my boy?” A nationwide manhunt was launched.

Rothenberg was arrested at a San Francisco YMCA a week after the fire. He confessed to police and reporters that he tried to kill his son because he’d decided, “If I can’t have him, nobody can.” He steadfastly refused to consider the possibility of an insanity plea and was given the maximum sentence at the time, 13 years, by a judge who later wept in his chambers.

Rothenberg is now in Soledad State Prison, surrounded by the Gablan Mountains in the Salinas Valley, right off U.S. 101.

There are 5,500 inmates there, about 200 of them, like Rothenberg, housed in protective custody. That is where inmates who have committed particularly heinous crimes are kept for their own safety, because criminals have their own code of what is right and wrong.

So the father who set his son afire lives in the same cellblock as Sirhan B. Sirhan, the man who killed Robert F. Kennedy, and mass murderer Juan Corona.

On a bright and windy morning, Rothenberg met for more than four hours with a reporter and photographer, accompanied by Mary Hunter-Shorter, administrative assistant to the prison superintendent.

He said he agreed to the interview in hopes that he will receive “help in reaching my son” in a reunion that “could ultimately help David.”

He admitted, however, that nothing really prevents him from corresponding with his boy, other than the difficulty in finding words for his guilt and regret. Nonetheless, he has written letters to an array of people in his quest to see his son, from Barbara Walters to Ted Kennedy and Reggie Jackson, the baseball slugger who was idolized by David and who befriended the boy after the fire.

Rothenberg, without hesitation, calls the fire “the act,” “the tragedy” or “this situation” or “what happened.” He says he will never forgive himself and expects that most others won’t either. In fact, he realizes that David and his mother “are probably very angry at me. I mean, look what I’ve done.”

Dressed in blue jeans, a chambray shirt and hard-soled shoes, without shackles but sitting in a chair bolted to the floor of a prison conference room, Rothenberg looks much as he did in 1983.

Gained Some Weight

He has grown a slight paunch and is graying at the temples. He seemed almost timid when he shook hands with his visitors. Throughout the interview, he spoke without gesture, his shoulders tipped forward, his hands at his sides, his soft New York accent dropping into a whisper when the questions were particularly painful.

Nonetheless, Rothenberg answered almost every question except the one that mattered most, the one that won’t go away, the question that even his fellow inmates ask him: Why?

He described what he was thinking in the hours before the fire, but he did not explain why a man afraid of losing the most important person in his life would try to kill him. Each time he was asked, he brought up his former wife.

“It’s hard, it’s . . . it’s difficult, you know? God, I don’t know . . .,” Rothenberg said. “It had a lot to do with that phone call with Marie . . . the way I was treated. I was an angry person. I wasn’t angry with my son. . . . My problem was, I’m sorry I took it out on my own kid. . . . Marie, I’m not trying to justify my act, but . . . I was mad at Marie and took it out on the wrong person.”

His greatest wish: “I want to see my boy.”

So why doesn’t he at least write to him?

“Well, No. 1, I’m not sure if he gets his letters, if I was to write him a letter. That’s No. 1. I don’t know what his mother does (with them),” Rothenberg said. It was pointed out that he himself said his friends deliver his mail.

“No, I . . . I guess I can write to him freely but it’s . . . it’s a very sensitive situation because I . . . I don’t really want to impose on the people who befriended me. And, uh, these other people have problems of their own. I don’t, I wish, I mean I’d like to reach my son. It’s just, it’s just difficult. I . . . I did write him last year with his Christmas card. And I don’t know, I’ve never received anything from David or Marie.”

Since the fire Rothenberg says he has seen his son on television, and seen photographs of him in People magazine as well as the latest paperback printing of Marie Rothenberg’s book, “David.” He keeps pictures of the boy in a book, hidden from other inmates. He watched David on the “Donahue” television show, on which his son discussed with other burn victims what it was like “to be ugly.”

His last face-to-face visit with David, however, was in Room 139 of the Travelodge. Rothenberg said he needs to go back to the room, “even if it’s just to sit and think.”

Since he arrived at Soledad in September, 1983, Rothenberg has undergone only three months of counseling--from March to June of the following year--in what he called a “stress program.” He occasionally visits the prison chaplain--he is Catholic--but says he feels no need to see a psychiatrist, because “I’ve learned how to control my emotions. In that (protective housing) unit, they stress me out. It’s a helluva stress program.”

“Maybe I didn’t get the right guidance,” he said of his youth. “I’ve never been a violent person until this. I took my anger out on the wrong person.”

Kissed Him Goodby

He remembers kissing his son goodby before torching him, and said: “I wish I would have died with him. Actually, I feel like a coward; I feel like I should’ve died.”

Once he is released, he said, he is not sure what he will do beyond getting a job, and he doesn’t know what that would be.

“I have no idea,” he said, running his hands through his hair.

Does he think he can resist the urge to see his son, the single purpose he said he has for living, especially if he lives nearby?

“I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s up to Marie and my boy” whether there will be a father-son reunion, Rothenberg said. “It must be devastating for her (as a parent) like it is for myself . . . because people are very, very cruel out there.

“But I don’t plan--and make it clear--I don’t plan to hurt anybody. God no!”

Whether Rothenberg was ever clinically considered an arsonist is difficult to say, given the lack of any psychological records on him during his prosecution and sentencing.

Ramon P. Ortiz, the Orange County assistant public defender who represented Rothenberg, said he can find no record of any psychological testing, not even a personality profile or brief family sketch, in his case file, although he suspects that at least a preliminary examination was made. He concluded quite soon after meeting Rothenberg, however, that an insanity plea could be ruled out, Ortiz said recently.

“You have to understand,” Ortiz explained, “that someone may be troubled emotionally but not fall into the legal definition of criminally insane. It happens a lot. It happened with Charles.

“There’s no question in my mind that at the time of the incident he was a very emotionally disturbed person . . . but I’m fairly confident he was not disturbed by legal criteria, and it was an accumulation of circumstances that had occurred at that time, and I don’t think--there’s no doubt in my mind that sequence of events would (not) be repeated.”

Doesn’t Expect Trouble

Ortiz said he is “always very concerned” when dangerous clients are released back into society. “In this particular case I would not foresee any problems in which he would be a danger to Marie or the boy.”

Calling the case one of a kind, Ortiz said he is still asked about the Rothenbergs.

“I think it had something that hit all parents real hard. The senseless hurting of a child. . . . I think it touched us all. And I think that parents that have been through a bitter divorce are understanding how this thing can happen--without condoning it--they can understand how it can get to that point.”

Psychologists and experts in child murder and abuse say it is difficult to find common denominators among parents who harm or kill their offspring, although it is not as unusual as one might think. Frequently, the specialists say, the parent has low self-esteem, was himself socially isolated, neglected or abused as a child, and feels a lack of control about his or her life. But there are also parents who have been tortured terribly by their own families who never hurt anyone.

“Children are the one easy target for the person who feels helpless, in order to achieve a sense of control, so it is not uncommon for a child to be hurt as a result of a marital dispute or a lover’s dispute,” explained Deanne Tilton, director of the Inter-Agency Council on Child Abuse and Neglect in Los Angeles. “Another thing to remember,” she said, “some people are just evil. And I don’t know what causes that. And you can wear yourself out trying to analyze that, and there is no answer.”

Under determinant sentencing laws, 13 years was the maximum penalty Orange County Superior Court Judge James R. Franks could give Rothenberg for one count of attempted murder and two counts of arson that included great bodily injury. Public outrage over cases in which victims have been disfigured but survived attempted murders, as in the cases of Rothenberg and Lawrence Singleton, who hacked off the forearms of a teen-age girl in Northern California, have resulted in increases by state lawmakers in prison time for virtually all serious felonies.

The work incentive law allows prisoners one day off for every day they work or participate in an education program, up to half their sentence. That means that if Rothenberg continues to be a model prisoner, he will have been imprisoned 6 1/2 years for his crimes.

If Rothenberg were sentenced today, he could receive life imprisonment with eligibility for parole after seven years, and the seven years is not subject to reduction by “good time credits” for work and model behavior, according to Brian Taugher, special assistant to the state attorney general and one of the principal drafters of the new sentencing law.

“We argued,” Taugher said, “that sometimes the difference between murder and attempted murder is only an inch. . . .”

Troubling Case

Since the 1983 trial, Franks said, he has been tormented by the outcome of the case.

“Thirteen years is not enough for what you did,” Franks remembers telling Rothenberg after stepping down from the bench. “It’s just not enough.”

Franks recalls the sentencing hearing with the detail of a man who has relived the day over and over again. When he examined photographs of David that had been taken a day or two after the fire, “I was just overwhelmed, it took me apart,” he said.

“It’s a case that you don’t forget. I mean, I thought to myself at the time (of sentencing), he’s going to be out in less than seven years! I mean, why can’t I even offer protection to this boy and the security of knowing his father could never hurt him again?”

Had there been no restrictions on sentencing, what would Franks have given Rothenberg? “If you’re asking me would I give him life in prison, you bet I would’ve. You bet I would’ve. He would have died in prison if I had anything to say about it. No question. No question.”

Yvonne Willis, 40, and her husband, Vern, 47, are probably the closest people to Charles Rothenberg. After he admitted his culpability in the horrible fire and was awaiting sentencing, the couple read stories about Rothenberg and visited him in the Orange County Jail. Along with their sons, Brian, 17, and Kevin, 10, the couple believed then, as they do today, that as Christians, “Who are we to withhold forgiveness?” Yvonne Willis said.

The family keeps in touch with David, delivering Christmas and birthday cards from his father, knowing as they do it that they won’t be opened. They write Rothenberg regularly and visit him when they can.

“It’s been a learning experience, to be nearly stripped and checked for weapons (at the prison), learning how the other side lives,” she said.

And when Rothenberg is released from prison, they hope that he can live with the family at their Whittier home--for at least as long as it takes him to get on his feet.

Yvonne Willis is no fool, she said. She likes to know “what I’m dealing with,” she said.

Rothenberg is a “pathological liar,” she said, and “He can lie about his age, he’s a good liar” who “lives in a fantasy land.” She sees that Rothenberg has “a lot of problems, he really does. . . . I think it has a lot to do with his childhood, growing up in an orphanage.”

Has he been healed of whatever drove him to commit about the worst crime any parent could attempt against a child?

“My gut level is I would have to say no. That’s why I’m saying, when he gets out, he’d have to want to go get some help. Now, as far as him doing harm to David, I would almost say no,” Willis said.

Asked whether she felt Rothenberg would try to harm his ex-wife, Willis allowed an uncomfortable silence before answering. “I would pray not,” she said.

Like most 11-year-old boys, there is not a lot of elaboration about emotions at an age when hugging your mother in public is considered “gross.” Occasionally he shares a glimpse. In a school paper on the subject--"If You Could Change Anything in the World, What Would It Be?"--David wrote: “I would change the way people feel about me.”

His nose and mouth were sutured and bandaged at Christmas in his most recent of more than 50 plastic surgeries to make him as comfortable and normal-looking as is surgically conceivable, but he no longer has to endure this more than once every 18 months. There are no more daily physical therapy sessions; riding his bike and skateboards and running around the playground keep him nimble.

At first the kids at school treated him with awe--at times reverence--sidling up to him as if he were a celebrity. He still has plenty of friends, and after that difficult first month of every school year, during which the principal and teachers explain David’s odyssey to his fellow students, life gets back to routine.

He got a set of drums for Christmas and tried out for the school talent show in January playing a heavy-metal song on a new set of drums, despite fingers that were burned so badly in the fire that they were amputated at the first knuckle.

But he is just beginning to recognize what his mother already knows: The world is not a playground, and the older he gets, the harder it is to protect him.

Do schoolmates give him a hard time? “Yeah,” he answers softly en route to the skateboard park, mostly the boys. What does he say back to them? “Nothin.’ ” There is a long silence. “What can I say?” A pause. “You have a crack in your window,” he says of the windshield, ending the subject.

Though in most respects a typical 11-year-old--he turns 12 in June--David is poised beyond his years, a byproduct of exposure to grown-ups and the media and grappling with a tragedy that adults would struggle with. During the trip to the skateboard park, he manned the tape recorder, moving it from his mouth to the driver’s like a reporter.

His defense on some subjects is yes-no answers, but he thinks questions through and then responds thoughtfully, speaking clearly. When the topic is his father, he frequently spits out the sentences bitterly.

Loved His Father

He loved his dad, he said simply. They had so much fun together. “I was so excited about going to Disneyland with him,” he said. It rained much of that week in March, 1983, but it didn’t spoil their good time. Father and son went to the Magic Kingdom twice, “played video games and pinball and stuff and, um, my dad played a lot of racquetball,” David said.

His father, whom he now calls “crazy,” seemed normal, if a bit nervous.

“But then, that night he was like, really weird. He kept repeating himself.”

Most of the rest of that night has apparently been blocked from his memory. Despite the sleeping pill he said his father told him was aspirin, David woke up as the fire licked at the edges of the bed. “I woke up and the gas got to me, and I just collapsed right at the door,” he said.

David, told that his father has said he still doesn’t know why he burned his son, is very sorry and believes a reunion will help them both, reacts strongly, his voice becoming loud. “I think he’s lying! About being sorry and wanting to see me! I think he’s crazy and, you know,” he said, lifting the tape recorder to his mouth, “I don’t want to see him again!”

Mother to Remarry

David will have the closest thing to a nuclear family that he’s had since he was baby, when his mother this May marries Buena Park Police Lt. Richard Hafdahl, who was in charge of the 1983 fire investigation. “Write that in the newspaper too--that my mom’s getting married to the guy who caught my dad.”

His mother, an administrative assistant for an aerospace firm, is trying to bring a semblance of normal life to the family. She plans to move to a new home before Rothenberg leaves prison, and she intends to obtain a restraining order that would banish Rothenberg from both the house and David’s school campuses.

But she knows she will be unable to shield David from the trials of adulthood.

“As he gets into his teens it will be tougher and tougher. Everyone gets into their appearance and girls,” she said.

Surgeon’s Opinion

Dr. Bruce Achauer, David’s plastic surgeon, agreed.

“He continues to grow and be normal and do great,” said Achauer, whose initial operations were live-saving, but now are largely for cosmetic and comfort purposes.

“He seems to talk to me more freely as he gets older. . . . As he grows, his priorities may change. Right now he’s concerned with how his foot works on his skateboard. There’s no end to the amount of surgeries we could conceivably do. He may be able to see the benefit of the surgeries as he grows older; he also may have more concern for his appearance. Other things will become more important as time goes on.

“I don’t see him with his peers and he’s having some problems in those areas now, I think. Initially he was a celebrity, but now I think that may be wearing off, and he’ll have to go through it on his own terms. He’ll probably be a stronger person because of it.”

On March 3, David went to school but left before class was dismissed. He returned to the Pipeline, where he spent five hours skating the cement bowls with the best of them. A handful of professional skateboarders happened to be at the park for the taping of a video, and they gave David decals for his skateboard and exchanged small talk, animatedly describing their glories. Some even gave him pointers on various skateboarding moves. One or two of the pros asked David where he lived and when--not how and why--he had his “accident.”

In awe, David pointed out that one of them “called me ‘dude.’ ” After staying until the park closed, he said the day had been much better than most of the fire anniversaries.

His dreams are simple. “All I want to do is get out of school--don’t tell my teacher that ‘cause then he’ll get on my case--and I want to be a pro skateboarder when I grow up.”


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