Rothenberg Didn't Try to Contact Son, Officials Say


Charles David Rothenberg, who was sent back to prison Monday for ducking out on his parole agents for four hours and lying about his whereabouts, did not try to leave Oakland or attempt to contact the son he nearly burned to death seven years ago, authorities said Tuesday.

State prison officials said it appears that Rothenberg, 50, was "playing some sort of weird mind game with his parole agents" by losing them, then agreeing to meet them at certain locations and failing to show up.

When Rothenberg was recaptured at an 11:30 a.m. Oakland job interview Monday, "he seemed surprised that he was going back to prison," said Tipton C. Kindel, spokesman for the state Department of Corrections, which oversees California's prison system.

"He had not expected that was going to happen," Kindel added.

Rothenberg, in a twisted plot to hurt the wife who divorced him, set their son afire March 3, 1983, in a Buena Park motel room. David Rothenberg, then 6, suffered third-degree burns over 90% of his body and was left disfigured. David has said he wishes never to see his father again and calls him "Charles."

On Tuesday Rothenberg remained in the state prison at San Quentin, where he was taken Monday afternoon and housed in a one-man concrete cell. Kindel said prison officials are trying to determine whether Rothenberg would be safe among the general inmate population or whether he needs to be isolated.

He awaits a hearing within the next 60 days by the state Board of Prisons on parole violation charges. Kindel said Rothenberg can request an attorney, represent himself or plead guilty to the violation. He may be held a maximum of six months for violating his parole, Kindel said.

At the time of his Jan. 24 parole, Rothenberg was placed under the tightest security measures of any parolee in California. Parole agents were assigned to watch him around the clock, and he wore an electronic anklet that activates a signal when tampered with or when taken out of his parole radius.

Previously, parolees had worn the anklets or been under close scrutiny but never both. These security measures cost about $18,000 a month.

Kindel said Tuesday that Rothenberg left his Oakland apartment at 6 a.m. Monday for what he told parole agents was a job interview he personally arranged the day before. He told one agent that the other had given him permission to leave the apartment early.

For some time he had tried to find a job on his own, as a clerical worker, or a dishwasher, at an employment agency, Kindel said. Rothenberg's notoriety had caused him no problems finding work, he said, but "most of the jobs he wanted were well above his skill level."

In fact, he had been hired for a job that Kindel could not readily describe other than some form of menial work. But the employer broke his leg and couldn't provide the job.

So Rothenberg boarded a transit bus Monday morning, headed for another job interview, and the parole agent followed in a car. This, Kindel said, had become routine. But when Rothenberg arrived at the business, it was closed. So Rothenberg was permitted to wait until it opened, passing the time at a nearby doughnut shop.

At 7:20 a.m., Rothenberg appeared briefly at the shop entrance, then went back inside. That was the last the parole agent saw him.

"Ten or 20 minutes later," Kindel said, the agent discovered that Rothenberg had slipped out a side or back entrance to the shop.

Eighty minutes later, Rothenberg telephoned a second parole agent, reporting that he was at another job interview. Kindel said the agent told Rothenberg, "Look, you're not supposed to do this and you know it, now tell me where you are; I'm coming to get you." But Rothenberg was not there 10 minutes later, and a security guard at the location told investigators that the business was closed and that no one had been there all morning.

At this point, Kindel said, Rothenberg was considered "out of contact," and agents began staking out "several places he was known to frequent." This largely consisted of locations he had been or wanted to go in search of a job.

At 11:20 a.m., he called the parole office and said he was at an employment agency where he wanted a job. Agents were already outside the building, and Rothenberg was instructed to exit and surrender. He did so without resistance, Kindel said.

While no one seems to know exactly where Rothenberg spent his four hours, there was "no indication he tried to leave Oakland, the anklet didn't go off," and there was no indication he tried to reach his son, his ex-wife, Marie Hafdahl, or her husband, the Buena Park police lieutenant who oversaw the 1983 fire investigation.

While Rothenberg almost never left the apartment in the first weeks after his prison release--because, in part, parole officers convinced him that he could be harmed by those disgusted with his crimes against his son--he came to tire of the restrictiveness.

In a March 29 interview with The Times, Rothenberg said his apartment is "in a crummy neighborhood" infested with drugs and the sounds of gunshots ringing into the night. He said he moves about freely at restaurants and public places and goes unrecognized.

But while he liked his parole agents, he said he wanted out from under their supervision and "to live like a normal person."

Kindel said Rothenberg's cooperation had earned him the "confidence" of his parole agents, who were beginning to grant him small rations of additional freedom, such as having coffee alone in the shop Monday morning.

While Rothenberg was able to go on the lam for several hours as a result, Kindel said none of the security measures will be changed once Rothenberg is again paroled from prison.

"This was not a case of us saying, 'Oh gee, if we would have only stayed with him joined at the hip he wouldn't have stepped out,' " Kindel said.

"This is something he has to take responsibility for," Kindel said, adding that parole agents had no authority to restrict his movement within the city of Oakland but did keep him under constant watch.

Seven years ago the former waiter from Brooklyn had arranged to have his son, David, with him for a week's vacation in Upstate New York. However, he instead brought the boy to Buena Park for visits to amusement parks. It rained all week, and Rothenberg called his ex-wife asking for more time with the boy. Angry that he had lied and taken their son out of state without permission, his former wife threatened to withhold visitation rights if he was not returned.

That night Rothenberg doused the boy's motel room bedspread with kerosene, set it on fire and fled to San Francisco, where he was captured a week later. He pleaded guilty to attempted murder and other charges linked to the fire, and was sentenced to a 13-year determinant sentence, the maximum allowed under law. Those laws have since been changed to allow lengthier prison terms.

Electronic Tracking System Electronic tracking consists of a computer-controlled system that uses voice identification to verify that the person being monitored is at the required location. When a person is registered, certain key words are recorded and put into a voice verification unit. This unit is connected to the telephone line at his or her place of confinement. RADIO-FREQUENCY TRANSMITTER Anklet Transmitter A transmitter is attached to a person's ankle or wrist. It sends a continuous signal to the voice verification unit from anywhere inside an assigned radius. Any interruption in the signal prompts the unit to run a voice test to assure the person is in the designated area. Assigned Radius CENTRAL MONITORING STATION If the voice patterns match, all is well. If the patterns fail to match, the unit calls a computer in a central monitoring station, and an alert sounds to notify personnel of a problem. The manufacturer claims that a computer voice signal is as accurate an identification as a fingerprint.

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