Dave Dave, an artist disfigured since childhood after his father set him afire at a Buena Park motel, has died at age 42.
The Clark County coroner’s office said Dave passed away the morning of July 15 at Sunrise Hospital and Medical Center in Las Vegas. The cause of death is pending and could take another month to be disclosed.
At 6 years old, David Rothenberg’s name was flung around the world as the boy at the center of a custody battle whose father slipped him a sleeping pill, poured kerosene on the bed, lit a match and fled the scene.
The 1983 attack pulled Dave into the spotlight and caught the attention of celebrities, including Michael Jackson, who helped pay for his dozens of surgeries and skin grafts. The two became close friends, bonding over unique childhoods that played out in the public.
Having suffered third-degree burns, Dave sometimes had difficulty relating to peers after the novelty of his fame began to wane. A school assignment once posed the question: If you could change anything in the world, what would it be? “I would change the way people feel about me,” he wrote.
By then, Dave and his mother, Marie, had moved from Brooklyn and settled in Orange County to be closer to his plastic surgeon. A book about him written by his mother and the Rev. Mel White became the basis of a television movie.
At one point, Dave visited the prison where his father, Charles, ended up serving seven years for the crime. Dave would describe the meeting as cathartic, but also took care to distance himself from the man who had left him severely scarred.
The name change was “to liberate myself from the confines of my father’s criminality,” he said in a 2009 interview with Larry King. “He is a criminal and he caused all this. To free myself of his name and his legacy, I decided to become my own person.”
He told the Las Vegas Review-Journal in 2016: “There is a lot that happens in people’s lives, but that doesn’t define them as a human being, it makes them stronger.”
A conceptual artist who fondly recalled the graffiti he saw as a child while riding the subway in New York, he showed at several galleries in the Vegas area.
His pop-inspired series “Lifted” was prompted “by a conscious desire to inspire others to be greater than themselves.”
Although he was protective of his past and at times felt exploited, Dave was known to friends as kind, compassionate and eager to show support.
“For someone who had suffered that kind of violence and betrayal by a father, he had no reason to trust anyone,” said Mike Watkiss, a friend of the family. “But he was so completely and utterly open and generous and empathetic. He wasn’t defined by the most famous event of his life.”
Inquisitive and sharp, Dave’s knack for witty banter was matched by his fierce pride in being an artist.
His work, according to his website, was meant to represent “hope in an urban environment, where oftentimes the struggles of life can be surpassed by the experience of living.”
Charles Rothenberg spent less than seven years of a 13-year sentence in prison for attempted murder. He went on to amass a criminal record for robbery and other crimes, eventually being sentenced in 2007 to 25 years to life in prison in California.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.