Dad's Parole Spells Terror For Burn-Scarred Boy

LOS ANGELES - David Rothenberg is terrified, his mother is frantic and prison officials are uneasy. David's father, who set fire to his son in a bungled 1983 murder-suicide plan, walks out of prison this week.

Six-year-old David survived the flames but was horribly disfigured. The jarring crime was portrayed in ``David,'' a 1988 ABC-TV movie starring Bernadette Peters and John Glover.

If convicted under current laws, Charles Rothenberg would be imprisoned for life. But sentencing laws in place at the time force the state to release Rothenberg after less than seven years behind bars.

David Rothenberg has dreaded this day since kindergarten.

He has practiced self-defense and all the best ways to flee his Orange County, Calif., home. He knows the fastest routes on his bicycle from his junior high school. He has learned to use the BB gun he got for Christmas, sometimes sleeping with it propped beside his bed.

``I'd shoot his eye out if he ever came over. I'd blind him,'' David said, his voice rising, his brown eyes widening. ``He will be out there, free. He probably has people out there right now looking for me. I will have to live the rest of my life on the line . . . always looking behind me.''

``It makes it seem like the Department of Corrections is letting him go, but that isn't so. We have to let him go,'' said department spokesman Tipton Kindel.

Rothenberg, 49, leaves the state prison in San Luis Obispo on Wednesday, but prison officials are

keeping relocation plans secret, conceding they fear a repeat of the 1987 Larry Singleton hysteria.

Singleton, who raped a teen-age girl and left her for dead after hacking off her forearms with an ax, was driven from Northern California communities by an outraged public and eventually served his year on parole in a trailer at San Quentin Prison.

After a telephone argument with his ex-wife, Rothenberg set fire to his son in a Buena Park motel room on March 3, 1983. ``If I can't have him, nobody else can,'' Rothenberg said, telling authorities he was going to kill himself but was too much of a coward.

``Do I deserve to be set free? No! It's an unforgivable act,'' Rothenberg said in a December letter to the Los Angeles Times. Rothenberg said he didn't know where he was going to live during his three-years parole.

A California desert community rejected his parole there last year; a family that offered two years ago to help Rothenberg upon his release said they have received death threats. Rothenberg himself was attacked Jan. 10 by another inmate enraged over what Rothenberg had done.

David, his mother, Marie, and stepfather, Richard Hafdahl, also are not being told where Rothenberg is resettling, except that he won't be within 25 miles of them, Kindel said.

Although Rothenberg has been in a medium-security prison since September, the corrections department decided Friday to place him under the toughest restrictions of any parolee in California to date, Kindel said.

An electronic transmitter the size of a cigarette pack will be attached to him to alert officials if he leaves the area to which he will be paroled. He will be under 24-hour ``physical surveillance,'' and a parole agent will live with him, Kindel added. Rothenberg also must submit to weekly psychiatric counseling sessions.

Hafdahl, a police officer who met David and his mother while supervising the fire investigation, said Marie and her son were upset.

``She doesn't trust him and David is terrified. We've talked about it and we have security measures I won't go into,'' Hafdahl said.

Rothenberg, fleeing a warrant charging him with vandalizing a New York restaurant where he worked, took his son for what would be a week's vacation in the Catskills in 1983. Or so he told his ex-wife. Instead, they went to California and planned to visit Disneyland.

After a week of rain, Rothenberg called asking his ex-wife for more time with his son. When he accidentally said that he was in another state, Marie got angry. She told Rothenberg that he would never see his son again once they returned to New York.

That regrettable phone call, both David's parents concede, triggered the tragic fire.

Rothenberg gave the boy a sleeping pill, poured kerosene on the bed, kissed him goodbye and struck a match in the doorway. He watched from a telephone booth across the street as flames consumed the motel room.

David, dragged from the inferno by motel guests, suffered third-degree burns over 90 percent of his body.

The boy, now 13, will have to endure periodic skin grafts until he is fully grown, Hafdahl said.

Rothenberg was convicted of attempted murder, arson and other charges and got a maximum 13-year prison term that was halved because of good behavior.

He said in letters to the Los Angeles Times that he will not bother his son or ex-wife. But the fact that Rothenberg has said his ``only reason for living'' is to see David ``and ask for his forgiveness'' troubles his son and ex-wife.

``I will be wondering where he is all the time,'' Marie said.