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Man Who Set Son Afire Is Arrested

Crime: Former Charles Rothenberg is held on burglary, fraud charges. He was paroled after infamous 1983 attack.

June 16, 2001|BETTINA BOXALL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The former Charles Rothenberg, notorious for setting fire to his young son 18 years ago, has been arrested on burglary and fraud charges in San Francisco, where he is also the primary suspect in an arson fire.

He was booked Thursday night on a variety of felony counts and is being held in the San Francisco County Jail in lieu of $2-million bail.

The 61-year-old man, who police say legally changed his name to Charley Charles four years ago, has lived in the Bay Area since he was paroled from prison for the 1983 attempted murder of his son in an Orange County motel room.

The child, then 6 and the subject of a custody dispute between Rothenberg and his wife, was severely burned and disfigured when Rothenberg lighted a ring of kerosene he had poured around the boy's bed.

San Francisco police Inspector Darcy Keller said Charles has not been charged in the June 11 arson fire in his apartment building, but is the primary suspect.

The fire, which was quickly doused by a sprinkler system, started about 5 a.m. when someone ignited a flammable liquid that had been poured around the door of an apartment in which two young women lived. They were inside the unit but were not injured.

Keller said that while investigating the arson, police learned of a burglary and other crimes in the building. When Charles was questioned Thursday night, police said, he admitted a number of illegal acts, including possession of a loaded handgun. As a convicted felon, Charles is barred from owning firearms.

The handgun charge makes Charles eligible for a three-strikes prosecution, Keller said.

Charles also was booked on suspicion of burglary, several counts of forgery and several counts involving the fraudulent use of a credit card. His arraignment is scheduled for Tuesday morning.

The forgery counts accuse Charles of filing police complaints alleging harassment and battery by acquaintances. He would allegedly take copies of the reports, alter them and then give them to the acquaintances. Charles is also accused of falsifying the birth date on his driver's license, trimming two decades off his age.

Last year, the Police Department's special investigations unit questioned--but never arrested--Charles in connection with an anonymous call to police warning that a woman was going to commit hate crimes against gay men.

The woman denied any such plans. Asked who might have made the call to police, she mentioned Charles, a co-worker, according to Lt. Morris Tabak.

Charles, who is employed as a waiter, was paroled from prison in 1990 after serving half of a 13-year sentence for setting his son on fire. The boy, David, was burned over 90% of his body.

The brutality of the attack drew international attention, and David did not see his father for more than a decade after it.

In 1996, when Charles was in jail in Alameda County on charges that he had shot a man in the head, David met with him, separated by a sheet of reinforced glass.

At the time, David said he wanted to confront his father so he could move on with his life.

Charles was acquitted of the shooting charges.

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