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Rothenberg's Parole Over in Son's Burning

September 22, 1993|GREG HERNANDEZ and ERIC LICHTBLAU | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Charles Rothenberg, the former New York City waiter who set his 6-year-old son on fire as the boy slept in a Buena Park motel room a decade ago, completed his sentence Tuesday and ended his stint as the most closely guarded parolee in the state system.

Since his release from state prison 28 months ago, Rothenberg has worn an electronic monitoring bracelet, remained under 24-hour watch by state parole agents, and was barred from returning to Orange County or contacting his teen-age son, who lives in the county.

But all that ended at 12:01 a.m. Tuesday.

"He's free to travel anywhere he wishes to. He's no longer under any restrictions from the Department of Corrections," said department spokesman Tipton C. Kindel.

"He has served his sentence in the eyes of the law," Kindel said.

But a state parole administrator said that Rothenberg, 53, is still banned from entering Orange County under a restraining order obtained by David's family last month.

State officials would not say Tuesday where Rothenberg was at the time of his release from parole. Rothenberg admitted in court that he set his son on fire in 1983 because he "did not want to lose (him)."

Rothenberg, in a telephone interview Tuesday, said: "I have no intention of going back to Orange County on or off parole. If my son ever decides he wants to see me, which I know is remote, it will be up to him."

The Rothenberg case drew nationwide media attention and became the subject of a 1988 television movie, and state corrections officials say that public revulsion over the burning of the young boy has made Rothenberg something of a pariah in the system.

As a result, state officials have guarded against disclosing Rothenberg's whereabouts for fear of stirring community protests, even as some municipal leaders around the state--particularly in Northern California--warned that they didn't want him in their area.

Rothenberg said he now lives in San Francisco.

Seeking to distance himself as much as possible from his father, the victim has changed his name to David Jordan Robinson in honor of the two basketball heroes who befriended him. Since Rothenberg's initial release on parole in 1990, David and his family have said that they felt relatively calm and secure in knowing that Rothenberg was under close watch.

But the family did not want to talk Tuesday about Rothenberg's release from parole or what it might mean for their lives.

"We have no comment on his release," said David's stepfather, Richard Hafdahl, a Buena Park police lieutenant who supervised the 1983 fire investigation and later married the boy's mother. "We just have nothing to say."

Rothenberg pleaded guilty to charges of attempted murder and arson in 1983 and was given the maximum possible sentence of 13 years in prison because of an attack on his son that was described as a twisted plot to get back at his ex-wife.

The attack came during what was supposed to have been a weeklong visit between father and son in the Catskills in New York, but instead Rothenberg took the boy to Orange County and spent the week hanging out at amusement parks and video game parlors.

When he asked his former wife for more time with the boy, Rothenberg let slip that he was in California. She then threatened to withhold visitation rights once the pair returned to Brooklyn.

That same night, Rothenberg gave David a sleeping pill, poured kerosene around the bed where he was sleeping at the Beach Boulevard Travelodge in Buena Park and then lit the bedspread.

"If I can't have him, nobody can," Rothenberg told a Times reporter after he was arrested in San Francisco one week after the tragedy.

The boy suffered third-degree burns over 90 percent of his body and clung to life for weeks before undergoing years of recuperation, skin grafts and other surgery.

Rothenberg served about half of a 13-year prison term and was released in 1990. But he was back in prison some eight months later after officials said he managed to slip out the back of an Oakland doughnut shop--despite extraordinary round-the-clock supervision that was described as the toughest in the state system's history. He was released again in May, 1991.

"His attitude while under supervision has been very positive," said Ronald Chun, who has overseen the case as regional parole administrator in the San Francisco area. "Except for that one time that he walked off for four hours, we had no problems with him. He has adhered to all the rules and regulations, and he's been working and supporting himself."

Although Rothenberg no longer faces any restrictions from the state corrections system, Chun said David's family obtained a restraining order on Aug. 23 in Orange County Superior Court that bans Rothenberg from entering Orange, Los Angeles or Riverside counties.

Even so, news of Rothenberg's parole release drew only scant attention among Orange County law enforcement.

* A PROMISE AND A HOPE: Father vows to stay away but longs to hear from son. A21

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