Burn Victim Dreads Day His Father Gets Paroled
David Rothenberg has dreaded this day since kindergarten.
The father who doused him with kerosene and set him afire seven years ago is getting out of prison Wednesday. And although Charles Rothenberg has vowed never again to hurt his son, David doesn’t buy it.
He has practiced self-defense and all the best ways to flee his Orange County home. He knows the fastest routes on his bicycle from his junior high school. He has learned to use the BB gun he got for Christmas, sometimes sleeping with it propped beside his bed.
“I’d shoot his eye out if he ever came over. I’d blind him,” David said, his voice rising, his brown eyes widening. “He will be out there, free. He probably has people out there right now looking for me. I will have to live the rest of my life on the line. . . . always looking behind me.”
Despite repeated efforts by state corrections officials to keep Rothenberg imprisoned longer, he will be paroled Wednesday from the California Men’s Colony in San Luis Obispo, having served his time.
Rothenberg, 49, was convicted of attempted murder, arson and other crimes connected to the March 3, 1983, fire at a Buena Park Travelodge that left his son burned beyond recognition. He received a 13-year sentence, the maximum penalty allowed by state sentencing laws that have since been toughened. Were he to have been sentenced today, Rothenberg could have been sent to prison for life.
Because he was largely a model prisoner, state law allowed him a day off his sentence for every day he worked behind bars. So his clerical job in the Soledad state prison and his maintenance work at the Men’s Colony reduced his sentence to 6 1/2 years. A few more weeks were tacked onto his term after Rothenberg violated prison rules last year by having letters hand-delivered instead of mailed.
Public outrage over Rothenberg’s release has prompted a shroud of secrecy about his parole destination, which was not decided until Friday, said Tipton C. Kindel, spokesman for the California Department of Corrections. A desert community in Riverside County last year rejected his request to be paroled there; a family that offered two years ago to help Rothenberg upon his release claim that they have received death threats. Rothenberg himself was attacked Jan. 10 by another inmate enraged over what Rothenberg had done to his son.
So parole officials anticipating trouble if news leaks of Rothenberg’s whereabouts are working with three possible locations to send the arsonist. Rothenberg will be among the last to know where he is going.
“I hope it’s, like, really far away,” David Rothenberg said. “Otherwise I’ll have to move to another state or something!”
Although Rothenberg has been in the medium security prison since September, the corrections department decided Friday to place him under the toughest restrictions of any parolee in California to date, Kindel said. An electronic transmitter the size of a cigarette package will be attached to him to alert officials if he leaves the area to which he will be paroled. He will be under 24-hour “physical surveillance,” and a parole agent will live with him, Kindel added.
Parole officials also have assured David, his mother and stepfather, Marie and Richard Hafdahl, that Rothenberg will not be paroled to Orange County and cannot go there. Rothenberg will be forbidden to contact the family until his parole expires in three years.
This, however, has done little to assuage David’s fear, an invisible but oppressive tension he bears daily.
Now, halfway through eighth grade, he periodically has suffered nightmares about his father “coming back to get me.” They have vanished lately but he worries that “they could come back, after Wednesday.”
He also worries about his mother, who was Rothenberg’s real target that March 3.
Rothenberg, fleeing a warrant charging him with vandalizing a New York restaurant where he worked, took his son for what would be a week’s vacation in the Catskills. Or so he told his ex-wife. Instead, they went to Buena Park and planned to visit Disneyland and Knott’s Berry Farm.
After a week of rain, Rothenberg telephoned his ex-wife to ask for more time with his son. When he accidentally revealed that he was in another state, David’s mother got angry. She told Rothenberg he would never see his son again once they returned to New York.
That regrettable phone call, both David’s parents concede, triggered the tragic fire. In the minutes after midnight, Rothenberg emptied a gallon jug of kerosene around the bed where David lay sleeping, then struck a match and fled. A nationwide manhunt led to his arrest a week later in San Francisco. He confessed to trying to kill his son in a twisted quest to hurt the wife who had divorced him, saying, “If I couldn’t have him, nobody else could.”
He claims in letters to The Times that he will not bother his son or ex-wife. But the fact that Rothenberg has said his “only reason for living” is to see David “and ask for his forgiveness” troubles his son and ex-wife.
“I will be wondering where he is all the time,” said David’s mother, a secretary at an aerospace firm now married to the Buena Park police lieutenant who led the 1983 fire investigation.
David now displays all the signs of a surprisingly well-adjusted teen-ager, given the trauma he has survived.
He loves Nintendo. He hates history. He plays basketball--guard or center--and idolizes Chicago Bulls star Michael Jordan. He monopolizes the bathroom with his morning grooming, which includes Perry Ellis cologne and gel for his newly transplanted hair. He cringes at questions about girls, although he looks forward to his school’s sweetheart dance.
He has developed the vanity that comes with growing up. Where he used to be unconcerned about being photographed, he now insists on being pictured wearing a cap on his partially bald head. At times he seems older than 13--opening car doors for women, talking in detail about the latest of more than 100 skin graft operations to repair burn scars on 90% of his body.
Like many teen-agers, he acquires and abandons hobbies frequently. Two months ago, he was consumed with skateboarding. Now he is crazy about sports and art, his latest project being a collage of a tiger and new logos for the California Angels and Los Angeles Raiders.
Thankfully, said his mother, pleased and proud, “he is disgustingly normal. He has never had problems in school with being liked. He wants to wear a tux and ride a limo to the school dance. I’m dealing with hair gel and limos,” she added with a laugh. “I mean, please.”
He has inherited a charming sense of humor from his mother, and it has blossomed with adolescence. He entertains friends and family with his imitations of Eddie Murphy doing Buckwheat. He recites all the lines from “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure.”
During the drive to one of his favorite video arcades, he turns to the photographer beside him: “Burn rubber, will ya!”
He is “sick of” the media attention that has come with being the most famous burn victim in America, but he tolerates it with grace--occasionally with wile. A television crew recently tried to interview him when he wasn’t in the mood. He weaseled $10 and a video game from them, stating: “I should get something out of this, too.”
At the video arcade, his favorite hang-out, as he plays video wrestling and pinball, the change attendant marvels at David’s popularity: “They love him! Three girls have pictures of themselves with him in their wallets. He’s a great kid. I know how hard it is--even when I was in school--to be making friends like that. That’s impressive.”
Later, at a Chinese restaurant, David wonders aloud about whether his family can keep their whereabouts a secret after the release of his father, whom he refers to as Charles.
“I don’t call him Dad,” David explains. “When you call someone Dad that means you love him. But I hate him.”
Over dinner, the waitress fumes about Rothenberg’s pending release, telling David, “If I ever see him I’ll string him up by his private parts!” David grins.
But the conversation eventually turns emotional, as the boy scarred for life tells his mother he doesn’t think anyone can protect him after Wednesday.
“Don’t you trust me? Don’t you believe I would never let anyone hurt you again?” his mother asks him. His response is brutally honest, and it sums up the hidden toll his father has taken on him.
“I trust you,” he said, “but I don’t think you can protect me. Nobody can. And you have to let me live my life anyway.”