Charles Rothenberg, who set his son afire at a Buena Park motel nine years ago, fled his round-the-clock parole officer for four hours in the San Francisco area before surrendering Thursday night.
State Department of Corrections officials said police agencies in the San Francisco Bay area had been notified, and a search was started before Rothenberg arranged to turn himself in at 8:18 p.m. at an undisclosed location. Contingency plans were launched to protect his son in Orange County.
It was the second time Rothenberg escaped from what Corrections Department officials claimed was very tight supervision by parole agents who follow him 24 hours a day. He had fled in September, 1990, and after being caught was returned to prison for eight months for parole violation.
Rothenberg said he fled again Thursday because he feared his parole agent was setting him up for a shoplifting accusation, which could return him to prison again.
Before surrendering, Rothenberg telephoned The Times Orange County Edition five times. A reporter urged him to call the Department of Corrections, and Rothenberg agreed. After talking to department officials by phone, Rothenberg arranged to meet them.
"I don't want to be on the run," Rothenberg said.
Rothenberg, 51, was convicted of attempted murder and arson in 1983 and received the maximum sentence at the time, which was 13 years in prison. He was paroled in 1990 but placed under what corrections officials called "the tightest restrictions ever" for a California parolee.
The March 3, 1983, attempted murder of his then-6-year-old son at a Buena Park motel made national news and later became the subject of a 1988 television movie. Young David was left disfigured by third-degree burns that covered 90% of his body. Rothenberg said then that he tried to kill the boy to hurt the woman who divorced him. He has insisted recently that he would never harm his son again.
Rothenberg called The Times at about 5 p.m., about an hour after fleeing from his parole supervisor who follows him everywhere. He said he had fled because he was afraid he was being set up for a shoplifting offense so he could be returned to prison.
"I was being set up, and I panicked, and I bolted," Rothenberg said. "I have a receipt for what I bought. I can prove I'm innocent."
According to both Rothenberg and Department of Corrections officials, the incident that triggered the parolee's flight occurred after Rothenberg had been shopping at a discount department store Thursday afternoon.
Rothenberg said he had bought two small plaques, for $2.97 each, one showing dogs and one showing cats. Rothenberg said that when he left the store, the parole agent asked him about the items, accusing him of not paying for them.
"I invited the guy (parole agent) into my apartment, and I don't have to do that," Rothenberg said. "I put everything I bought on the kitchen table, and I was getting ready to show him the receipt for the plaques, but then he called his supervisor, and I panicked. I was being set up, just like I was the last time, and I panicked and bolted out of there."
Department of Corrections spokesman Tipton Kindel, in a telephone interview from Sacramento on Thursday night, said Rothenberg had fled after the parole agent patted his clothes and a concealed plaque fell to the floor. But Rothenberg, in his calls to The Times, denied Kindel's account.
"That's a lie!" Rothenberg said. "I put the items on the kitchen table. And I have a receipt for those plaques, and I'm sending a Xerox copy to The Times."
Rothenberg said he called the newspaper to document that he had a sales receipt.
In September, 1990, corrections officials had accused Rothenberg of escaping from his parole agent by ducking out of the doughnut shop in Oakland where he was living at the time. He was captured a few hours later and insisted that he had not deliberately fled. Rothenberg said he was en route to a job interview and that is where he was found and arrested.
Rothenberg was returned to prison and served an eight-month sentence for parole violation. He was released on May 7, 1991, from a Northern California prison, and his parole destination was a secret closely guarded by the Department of Corrections.
In his calls to The Times, Rothenberg also declined to say which city he had been living in since his second release from prison. But he said he was making the telephone calls from San Francisco.
Public revulsion over the burning of the 6-year-old boy has made Rothenberg somewhat of a pariah, according to Department of Corrections officials. They said they have guarded against disclosing his whereabouts to prevent community protests that might force a costly move.
There was little fanfare when he was paroled the second time last year.
His son David, now a 15-year-old high school sophomore living in Orange County, has legally changed his name to David Jordan Robinson, dropping his father's name and adding those of his two professional basketball heroes.
David's stepfather, Buena Park Police Lt. Richard Hafdahl, said Thursday night: "We haven't heard from him, but the Corrections Department called us."
Hafdahl said David and his mother, Marie, had handled news of the escape calmly.
"We're OK," Hafdahl said. "Marie and David just went to an appointment, but everything's normal. . . . We're just trying to be a little more alert."
Hafdahl had remained by the telephone Thursday night "so they can tell us when he's been caught." Hafdahl added that he told parole officials to make an emergency break-in on the phone line if it was busy.
"That," he added with a laugh, "could easily happen. About 98% of our phone calls are David's. He's very social."
In one of his phone calls to The Times, Rothenberg said: "No, I don't plan to come to Orange County. I wouldn't come there and try to see David either on or off parole. I want to stay out of his life. You know, don't you, that I gave my permission for him to change his name."
Rothenberg said he had been employed somewhere in the San Francisco area. He did not describe his job other than saying he worked long hours and enjoyed being employed.
"I want to go back to my job tomorrow," Rothenberg said Thursday night.
According to corrections officials, Rothenberg's quick surrender bodes well for him. Kindel said Rothenberg was not taken to jail Thursday night but back to his apartment.
"We'll be talking about all this with him on Friday and see where we go from there," Kindel said. No new charges were immediately filed against Rothenberg.
Nonetheless, Kindel said that Rothenberg technically violated parole by fleeing from his parole agent.
"When he fled, he pushed his parole agent away and ran down six flights of stairs," Kindel said.
Both Kindel and Robert McKee, an assistant to the director of the state Department of Corrections, told The Times that Rothenberg had not been set up. They said the matter could quickly be resolved by seeing Rothenberg's sales receipt, which Rothenberg claims he has.