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Man Who Set Son on Fire Held in Shooting

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Charles Rothenberg, who set his son on fire 13 years ago as the boy slept in a Buena Park motel room, was charged in Oakland on Thursday with shooting and wounding a man in the head.

Rothenberg, 55, was the most closely guarded parolee in California after he was released from prison in 1990.

He was arrested Tuesday night in connection with the Jan. 12 shooting of a 47-year-old man at an Oakland Travelodge, and was charged Thursday with attempted murder and committing a felony with a firearm. Rothenberg has denied involvement in the shooting.

If convicted, Rothenberg would be eligible for sentencing under California’s “three strikes” law, which carries mandatory terms of 25 years to life in prison.

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“This guy is certainly a three-striker,” Alameda County Deputy Dist. Atty. Bob Platte said.

Rothenberg pleaded guilty to two previous felonies--attempted murder and arson--in 1983 for pouring kerosene around the bed of his sleeping 6-year-old son at a Buena Park Travelodge and then setting the bed on fire.

At the time, he said he planned to kill his son, David, and himself because he feared they would be permanently separated by his former wife. At the last minute, Rothenberg ran from the blazing motel room, leaving his young son to perish. David was rescued but received third-degree burns over 90% of his body and has undergone a series of reconstructive surgeries over the years.

Buena Park Police Chief Richard M. Tefank, whose department investigated the 1983 crime, reacted strongly Thursday to news of Rothenberg’s arrest in the Bay Area.

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“He obviously is an appropriate candidate [for the ‘three strikes’ law],” Tefank said. “It’s unfortunate that his first sentence wasn’t life without the possibility of parole for the heinous crime he committed.”

Oakland police said the victim of the Jan. 12 shooting identified Rothenberg as the gunman. The man, whose name was not released, told police Rothenberg chased him down a motel hallway and shot him once in the head.

“There was some kind of altercation that occurred in the hallway,” Oakland Police Lt. Doug Anderson said. “We don’t yet know the context of the argument.”

The victim said he knew Rothenberg as a waiter at JJ’s Diner, an Oakland eatery that the man frequented, police said. He remains in an Oakland hospital and is expected to recover from the wound.

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No motive has been determined for the shooting, detectives said, and police have not recovered the small-caliber pistol that was used.

Police described Rothenberg as “very cooperative” when they arrived at his Oakland apartment Tuesday to arrest him.

“He said he knew the officers were just doing their jobs, and he told him it wasn’t him responsible for the shooting,” Anderson said.

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Rothenberg has been living under the name Charles Bocca in Oakland since his release from prison in 1990 and had recently married, police said. Anderson said it appeared that Bocca was Rothenberg’s true name and that at some point in his life he changed it to Rothenberg.

According to a co-worker at JJ’s Diner, Rothenberg’s criminal history was well-known among employees. For the past year and a half, Rothenberg worked as a waiter on the late shift.

“He worked from 6 [p.m.] to 2 [a.m.],” said the employee who declined to give his name. “I, personally, didn’t have any problems with him.”

Rothenberg had been sentenced to 13 years in prison for the attack on his son, but was freed in 1990 after serving half the term.

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The case drew national media attention and became the subject of a television movie in 1988.

Upon his release, Rothenberg was required to wear an electronic monitoring bracelet and remained under 24-hour watch by a state parole agent. During his parole, he was barred from returning to Orange County or contacting his son, now 18.

Rothenberg was sent back to prison for eight months after his 1990 release when he ditched parole officials at an Oakland doughnut shop. He was released again in May 1991.

Rothenberg completed his parole on Sept. 20, 1993, leaving him free to travel wherever he wished. However, a restraining order issued in Orange County Superior Court 10 days prior to his release forbade him from coming from within 100 yards of his son, his former wife, Marie Hafdahl; or her husband, retired Buena Park Police Lt. Thomas R. Hafdahl.

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Rothenberg also is banned from making any kind of contact with the three, either by telephone or mail, and from coming within 100 yards of their homes. The family has moved out of state, according to Buena Park police.

Because of public revulsion over the burning of the young boy, Rothenberg had become somewhat of a pariah both inside and outside prison. As a result, state officials guarded against disclosing his whereabouts for fear of stirring community protests. Some municipal leaders around the state, particularly in Northern California, insisted they did not want him in their area.

Rothenberg told The Times in 1993 that people would sometimes stop him on the street and ask how he could have done such a thing to his son.

In the same interview, he promised to stay away from his son who said in court papers that he was “terrified” of his father. Still, Rothenberg said he longed for the day when he could see or talk to him again.

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In a recent letter to a Times reporter, written last month, Rothenberg reiterated that desire.

“I want to see him so much, it hurts,” he wrote. “Yet, I realize it’s so remote. Life is so empty for me without seeing David again. And, I know it will help me cope with it all. But, I also know it will be painful for me and him, just seeing each other again.”

Rothenberg also wrote that he had recently gotten married and was working two restaurant jobs near his Oakland home. Rothenberg said his wife of three months was aware of his past.

Although he had expressed a desire to keep his son out of the media spotlight, Rothenberg appeared on “Larry King Live” and “The Maury Povich Show” shortly after being released from parole.

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Times staff writer Tina Nguyen contributed to this report.


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