Man Who Set Son Afire Set for Release : Crime: Prison officials keep relocation plans secret from an outraged public. Even Rothenberg admits he doesn't deserve to be set free.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

He is working on a yard crew in San Luis Obispo, picking up trash, maybe doing a bit of prison landscaping. But after nearly seven years behind bars, the man who shocked the country by nearly burning his 6-year-old son to death will be free in nine days.

And not even Charles Rothenberg knows where he is going.

Public outrage over release of the man who permanently disfigured his son in a 1983 Buena Park motel fire has forced officials to keep the location of his future home a secret.

Prison officials concede they fear a repeat of the 1987 Lawrence Singleton debacle--in which the parolee was virtually driven from Northern California communities because he had served time for raping a teen-age girl and axing off her forearms.

So even authorities where Rothenberg is headed will be in the dark until "a day or two" before he arrives from the California Men's Colony.

"It's a fact of life that we have to tell a few public officials," said Tipton C. Kindel, spokesman for the state Department of Corrections. "But obviously, based on the Singleton experience, we're trying to get (Rothenberg) placed without having an entourage of media following him."

Exactly where Rothenberg will be housed and employed remains undecided, although it might be outside California, corrections officials said last week.

Ideally parolees are placed near family or friends who can support the felon's return to civilian life. But Rothenberg's only surviving relatives--Los Angeles residents--severed ties with him years ago and say they want no further contact. Two women have visited him in prison and want to marry Rothenberg, an acquaintance claims, but prison officials said romantic involvements have no bearing on parole decisions.

Among the few people who will be told of the arsonist's whereabouts is his son David, now 13, and David's mother and stepfather, Marie and Richard Hafdahl, who live in Orange County.

Both prison officials and Rothenberg agree his pending release is regrettable.

"The crime was absolutely disgusting to the rest of society, and (corrections officials) are not entirely comfortable with him walking free," Kindel said. "But every effort to keep him in prison was exhausted. We have no choice."

In a letter last month to The Times, Rothenberg added: "Do I deserve to be set free? No! It's an unforgivable act."

Rothenberg, 49, has spent much of his life incarcerated. He had a criminal record before he was 18, although his most serious crime was an attempted armed robbery, for which he was arrested and jailed. He was in prison part of the three years he and David's mother were married, and they were divorced in 1978 while he served time for check forgery.

His adoration of David bordered on obsessive, but Marie Rothenberg Hafdahl never doubted Rothenberg's love for his son: He dutifully paid child support, showered him with gifts and walked his son home from grade school most days.

So when he told his ex-wife, then living in New York, that he wanted to take David on a weeklong vacation to the Catskills, she agreed. Instead, Rothenberg took his son to Orange County, where they planned to visit Disneyland and Knott's Berry Farm.

It rained most of that week, and David was restless, crying about missing his mother. In an ill-fated phone call to Marie, Rothenberg accidentally hinted of their whereabouts in asking for more time with his boy. Marie angrily opposed the idea and told her ex-husband he would never see his son again once they returned to New York.

That same day, holding his son's hand, Rothenberg walked to a hardware store and bought a jug of kerosene. The next day father and son checked into the Beach Boulevard Travelodge.

In the minutes after midnight that March 3, Rothenberg poured kerosene around David's bed, kissed his soon goodby and then struck a match at the door. He closed it and drove across the street, where he watched from a phone booth as flames blew furiously out of the motel. Other guests at the motel dragged David to safety.

When Rothenberg was arrested in San Francisco a week after the fire, he confessed he had tried to kill his son because "if I can't have him, nobody else can."

He was convicted of attempted murder, arson and other charges related to the fire, all of which earned him a 13-year sentence. It was the maximum permitted by determinant sentencing laws, which have since been toughened as a result of attempted murders whose victims survive but are forever disfigured.

A work incentive law allows prisoners a day off their sentence for every day they work or participate in an education program. Rothenberg has largely been a model prisoner although he will have served a total of six years and 10 months behind bars; a few extra weeks were added to his sentence for violating prison rules by having letters personally delivered to David's stepfather instead of mailing them.

So he will walk free Jan. 24.

Wherever Rothenberg goes, officials stress, his actions will be "intensely scrutinized" until his parole ends in three years. "He will be out of prison," said Kindel of the Corrections Department, "but he's not going to be free."

Numerous conditions on Rothenberg's parole include reporting regularly to his parole officer, weekly outpatient visits for psychiatric counseling and dogged supervision, Kindel said.

Mother and son have been promised that Rothenberg will not be paroled to Orange County, where they now live with Hafdahl, the Buena Park police officer who supervised the 1983 fire investigation. Rothenberg will be forbidden from any contact with them and from leaving the jurisdiction to which he will be paroled.

This, however, has been little comfort for the son Rothenberg left scarred from third-degree burns over 90% of his body. Now halfway through eighth grade, David is still troubled by nightmares about his father harming him again.

"He just wants to know when this will all be over," Dick Hafdahl said of his stepson.

Rothenberg insists that he will not "bother" his son, for whom he professes undying love. At the same time, Rothenberg clings to the hope of one day seeing his son.

In his letters, he writes of overwhelming guilt, and of accepting responsibility for nearly killing his son. "I cannot tell you or even find the words to explain the pain that is in my heart. . . . I do not ask forgiveness; I cannot forgive myself. Only through Jesus Christ who died for my sins can I live in this world--and I will."

Harry Gaynor, director of the National Burn Victim Foundation, who participated in an as-yet-unpublished book about Rothenberg, acknowledges his own conflicts about Rothenberg's release.

"Do we stone him? Do we tie him to a tree and burn him? What do we do?" Gaynor asked. "As the book says, my pastor's first reaction was to shoot him. But he is a human being; he's a person. So we watch him like a hawk and let him prove himself, his sincerity to do the right thing."

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