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Father Set Him Afire : Burned Boy Copes With Anger, Age

March 20, 1988|NANCY WRIDE | Times Staff Writer

David Rothenberg is bound for the Pipeline, an acre of concrete craters in Upland where hordes of teen-age boys flock every day to ride, "tube" and "shred" the walls on skateboards. The most famous burn victim in America and his driver are temporarily lost on a freeway cutting through the Inland Empire.

"Uh, I think we passed it," David mutters in that aren't-adults-dumb-sometimes tone that 11-year-olds have.

During a detour for directions at a convenience store, the sixth-grader creates a stir of double-takes as he buys a soda, a scene that, by now, he shrugs off. The only skateboard park in California, however, is another matter.

New Kid on Block

It's like being the new kid on the block all over again at this mecca of male bonding and competition. With his scarred arms, legs and face and special leather protective gear, he stands out from the bare-chested, sweating boys hot-dogging on the face of the cement walls.

He nevertheless tackles a couple of beginner bowls as other kids gawk and whisper, wondering what has happened to this boy. Though tentative, David holds his own and earns some appreciative gazes for, as one boy curiously remarked, "going for it."

The gloss, after five years, has worn off the celebrity status bestowed upon the little New York boy, set afire by his father March 3, 1983, and scarred beyond recognition--the comeback kid heralded in front-page headlines, the 6-year-old who battled back from near-fatal burns and captured America's heart with his determination to live.

After months of surgeries to graft skin on the third-degree burns that ravaged 90% of his body--first at UC Irvine Medical Center and later at the Shriners Burn Institute in Boston--David triumphantly returned home to his mother's Brooklyn brownstone, where he was greeted by more than 1,000 people who had filled the streets waving streamers and banners.

Back to School

He went back to grade school. He was the campus champ, the boy to befriend, even after he and his mother, Marie Rothenberg, began a new life in Fullerton with a friendlier climate and closer proximity to his plastic surgeon.

But the boy whose triumphs have inspired burn victims nationally is now on the verge of adolescence. And sometimes, he says with a sigh, just growing up is "hard."

A new chapter in this story of a jealousy-consumed father who used his most powerful weapon to hurt the wife who divorced him has thrown an undertow of terror into their otherwise stable routines.

The man who forever changed their lives with a 2 1/2-gallon jug of kerosene and a match, Charles David Rothenberg, is scheduled to be paroled less than two years from now. He has announced in an interview with The Times that he intends to move to Whittier, 20 minutes away from them.

It doesn't seem fair, Marie Rothenberg says, her eyes filling with tears, that impending adulthood will impose its own brand of sentencing on David while his father will be free on Dec. 11, 1989.

"Write this down," David says. "I don't want him getting out, because I'm afraid he'll hurt me. . . . I never want to see him again."

While the fire propelled the family into the public's attention, the tragedy probably began a generation ago. Neither parent had "Father Knows Best" upbringings, and their son would not either.

Marie Siderowicz grew up in Pennsylvania with eight brothers and sisters. Their mother was an alcoholic. The parents divorced. The mother abused her children, so they were taken from her and given to their father. They had a stepmother who "invented the word wicked ," Marie said. Of her family life, she said, "It was hard."

Rothenberg claims to have been born to a prostitute who deposited him at an orphanage in the Bronx, where she periodically visited him. This was more painful than not having a mother at all, he said, because it left no question for the other children and himself that he was unwanted.

He said he left the children's home at the age of 15 and lived briefly in Massachusetts with an uncle, working as a soda jerk at his drug store.

Uncle's Comments

That uncle, Saul Rothenberg, now lives in Los Angeles. He denied ever living with his nephew, the son of his sister. But he did confirm that Charles Rothenberg had been born out of wedlock and had lived in an orphanage, which he thought was affiliated with a church. He said Charles lasted one week at his drugstore, and each day cash was stolen from the register.

Another relative, who asked not to be identified, denied that Charles Rothenberg's mother, Clara, was a prostitute. The relative said Clara Rothenberg was a small-time cabaret entertainer who was killed by a cab on Halloween when her son was about 20.

Most of what is known about Rothenberg's past by co-workers, friends, even Marie and a Catholic priest who befriended him when he was a youth--is almost exclusively based on what he told them. Father Ronald Connor, in particular, who is now in the Dominican Republic, stressed to police that Rothenberg was a habitual liar.

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