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

March 20, 1988|NANCY WRIDE | Times Staff Writer

Never having had a real family, Rothenberg said, compelled him to shower his only child with love and left him devastated when his wife left him.

By all accounts, Rothenberg was a doting and nurturing father. "He was always a good provider, a good father," Marie Rothenberg now says. "I never doubted he loved Davey."

Charles bought most or all of the boy's clothes and offered what child support money he could afford from his wages as a cab driver or waiter. He walked his son to and from school almost every day, sometimes carrying him in his arms. Fellow cabbies remembered how he talked about the boy incessantly and sported a lapel button that said, "I Love David." He wore a pager so that David could reach him 24 hours a day.

But there was a troubling side to Charles Rothenberg.

He had a criminal record before he was 18. The most serious of his crimes was an attempted armed robbery, for which he was arrested and jailed. Marie, who married Rothenberg in February, 1975, at the age of 25, divorced him in 1978 while he was serving a prison sentence for check forgery.

She never brought David to see his father during that 2-year period, theorizing that the boy was too young to understand and could be told when he was older. But Rothenberg would never forgive her for that.

Police theorized that that may explain, in part, why Rothenberg--who was charged in a warrant with vandalizing and embezzling money from the Manhattan restaurant for which he worked, and who knew Manhattan detectives were after him--decided to take his son with him when he fled New York late that February of 1983.

In the days and weeks before they left, Rothenberg displayed behavior toward his son that seemed out of character. One girlfriend told police that they were dining at a coffee shop when Rothenberg knocked David to his knees and called him a "(obscenity) brat" who would be sent home to his mother if he didn't shape up.

Weeklong Stay Planned

Rothenberg had picked up his son for what was to have been a weeklong stay, first at his home down the street from Marie's and later in the Catskills.

After several days, Marie Rothenberg, unable to reach her son by phone, learned from one of his classmates that David had not been in school all week. She frantically arrived at Rothenberg's brownstone and convinced his landlords to let her in. Once virtually wallpapered with pictures of David or those that he had drawn, the apartment was now empty--other than a photograph of the boy found torn up in a trash can.

Toward the end of that week, Rothenberg telephoned Marie from Buena Park. He said that they were at a farm in Upstate New York, assured her that David was fine but said that he needed to spend more time with the boy.

Marie, who suspected they were in California because Rothenberg slipped and referred to the time difference, angrily told him that he had no right to keep their son longer than planned and that he would never see his son once they returned to Brooklyn. That pivotal conversation, both parents agree, was to be the trigger for the tragedy.

Bought the Kerosene

That same day, father and son went together to a hardware store, where Rothenberg paid $8.47 for a plastic bottle of kerosene.

The following day, they checked out of a Holiday Inn on Beach Boulevard, where the clerk remembered Rothenberg telling her his son had a terminal disease, "and that he didn't have long to live." It was the morning of March 2.

Before noon, they checked into Room 139 of the nearby Travelodge, where a desk clerk recalled what a striking pair the darkly handsome man and his look-alike son were--and so obviously devoted to each other. David had even been allowed to choose the room that had the waterbed he wanted.

Around midnight, with the help of a pill from his father, David Rothenberg lay sleeping in his underwear and a T-shirt.

The kerosene had been poured around the bedspread and a match was lit within three feet of the door, which was then closed. A motel guest told police that from her second-floor room she saw a man stoop down as though picking up something, and then he shut the motel room door, climbed into his white car and sped off.

Blast Follows

When he was halfway to the boulevard, there was an explosion. Room 139's window blew out, and motel guests remember hearing screams and sobs coming from behind the wall of flames.

Rothenberg to this day maintains that he intended to kill himself in the fire but panicked and fled. But witnesses told police that parked directly outside Room 139 was a white car that had been backed into its stall, its engine idling, the driver's door open.

In the moments after David was pulled from the fiery room, just after midnight on March 3, 1983, Rothenberg could see the flames from a phone booth. He was calling police and hospitals. He would stay that night in another motel less than a block away.

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