Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Charles Rothenberg and the burning of his son David

David Rothenberg

On the evening of March 3, 1983, six-year-old David Rothenberg slept peacefully in a California motel room. David’s father, Charles Rothenberg, 42, was divorced from David’s mother, Marie Rothenberg, but frequently took the boy on trips. A few days before, he had picked the boy up from his New York home to take him on what Charles said would be a weeklong trip.

As David slept, Charles poured kerosene around the room, lit a match, ran from the room, and sped away in a white car. Later Charles claimed he intended to stay in that room because he wanted David and he to die together but panicked.

Seeing the fire, someone called police. By the time the ambulance arrived at the motel, Charles had driven back to its parking lot. Charles watched emergency personnel carry David into the ambulance.

Charles followed the ambulance to the University of California Irvine Medical Center. Doctors in the burn unit did not expect David, who had severe burns over 90% of his body, to survive.

In the lobby, Charles wired this message to Marie: “By the time you get this telegram, I will have terminated my existence. David has been in a very bad accident.” Western Union gave Marie this ominous message on March 4, 1983.

Police called Marie’s boss and told him David had been badly injured in a fire. The boss informed Marie that David was hospitalized in California.

Marie flew to California. She was horrified when she saw David, recalling, “He was bandaged from head to toe and smeared all over with creams. His eyes were so badly burned they popped out of his head. His fingers were black and bloody and his lips were gone.”

Doctors were pleasantly surprised when it became evident David would survive. However, survival would necessitate terrible continuing pain. Marie wrote in an article published in People,“To take the burned tissue off, the doctors put David in a whirlpool containing a bleach solution and brushed off the bad skin. In the beginning they used pigskin and cadaver skin to cover him temporarily by stapling it to him. When he was surgically ready for real skin, the doctors took the top layer of skin from part of his body not burned and laid it on him in mesh graphs. Later that would grow together.”

As physicians treated David, Charles was the target of a nationwide manhunt. Police arrested Charles, who was wearing a pin stating “Kids Are Special,” in San Francisco on March 9, 1983.

Charles confessed trying to kill David. Charles said Marie threatened to prevent Charles from seeing David again when she discovered Charles had taken him to California. Marie says she was angered to learn where they were but does not recall making that threat although she admits that she might have. Charles told police, “If I couldn’t have him, nobody could.”

Convicted of attempted murder and assault with a deadly weapon, Charles was sentenced to thirteen years imprisonment.

Although the relationship between Charles and Marie had been troubled, no one could have predicted it would reach its nadir in this hideous atrocity.

Marie recalled being drawn to Charles because, like her, he lacked a happy family background. She remembered, “I thought we’d both work hard to build what we had never had in our early years.”

A child of divorce, Marie spent her childhood shuttling between an abusive mother and an abusive stepmother. Marie quit high school and went to work in a factory so she could live on her own.

Charles was born to a single mother. He spent his childhood shuffling between Mom and orphanages.

As a young adult, he usually worked as a waiter. He also racked up a lengthy arrest record for thefts and bad checks.

In a manuscript about his life, Charles described his feelings when David was born: “What a joy! God, I was so happy!” However, he also said that when he touched the baby, “David was like paper.” Psychologist Andrew Savicky observed that this statement indicates Charles perceived his son as “thing.” Charles also said, “Children are the greatest commodity we have in life,” reinforcing the probability that Charles could not see David as a person.

Marie recalled, “Charles was a proud, possessive, and overindulgent father. . . . He regularly took David shopping and bought him fifty or sixty dollars’ worth of toys, until our apartment was cluttered with enough games, puzzles, and toys to stock a store.”

Once when David cried, Charles blamed Marie and beat her. This and similar incidents led Marie to divorce Charles in 1978. Charles continued to visit David regularly.

In early 1983, Charles was fired from a restaurant for suspected stealing. The business was later vandalized and a warrant was issued for his arrest. That probably motivated him to want to leave New York.

In late February 1983, Charles told Marie he was taking David for a week’s vacation in the Catskills. Instead, Charles took David to California, planning to visit Knott’s Berry Farm and Disneyland. Rain prevented those visits so Charles called Marie and requested more time with David. Charles let it slip that they were in California that may have led Marie to threaten to block Charles from visiting David when she got him back.

While David was still hospitalized, he asked Marie, “Mommy, did my Daddy do this to me?”

Marie sadly replied that he had.

David then asked, “Why did Daddy do this to me?”

Marie said Charles was “sick” and “went crazy.”

David cried. He later said, “I never want to see my Dad again.”

In December 1983, David left the hospital. When David returned to school, classmates welcomed him like a celebrity.

In 1984 Marie and David moved to California to be near plastic surgeon Dr. Bruce Achauer. In all, David had over 100 skin grafts.

David also suffered casual cruelty when people exclaimed, “Did you see that?” or “What an ugly kid!” Marie tried to instill a sense of purpose in her son, telling him he can “show people how to accept each other for what they have on the inside.”

Despite the trauma and physical scars, David appeared psychologically healthy as he grew into adolescence. Nevertheless, Marie had psychiatrists regularly examine him, noting, “You never know what could be brewing inside.”

Charles was paroled in January 1990. Nancy Wride wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “Because he was largely a model prisoner, state law allowed him a day off his sentence for every day he worked behind bars.” He was placed under tough parole restrictions: an electronic monitor, 24-hour surveillance, and even a parole agent living with him.

David, then 13, was fearful and slept with a BB gun nearby. “I’d shoot his eye out if he ever came over,” David said. “I’d blind him.”

Marie affectionately called David a “disgustingly normal” teenager who enjoyed sports and art and “wants to wear a tux and ride a limo to the school dance.”

Charles Rothenberg

In 1993, Charles appeared on Larry King Live. King asked, “Why, Charles, did you decide to come forward and talk about this tonight?”

Charles answered, “My son has been exploited for the last ten years . . .  by many of the press and I’m tired of it. And it also puts me in a position where I’m being exploited.” Later Charles said, “The media, as you know, Larry, they’re only interested in ratings and money. They don’t care about my son. And they don’t care about me; they don’t care about his mother. A lot of talk shows – I want to exclude you, Oprah Winfrey, Koppel, and Barbara Walters – they’re only interested in ratings.”

Columnist Mike Royko wrote that after Charles “turned into a TV critic,” Royko phoned the show to talk to Charles but “couldn’t get through and in a few minutes the show ended.” He intended to tell Charles, “Your ex-wife fears you and your mutilated son fears you. . . . You should do the right thing. . . . get a bucket of kerosene, pour it on your head and light up. Do that and I assure you that many of us in the media will have nothing but kind words for you. Such as: ‘Way to go, Charlie.’” Royko continued, “So maybe Charlie will read this. And if you do, Charlie, you don’t have to bother with the kerosene. A high bridge or rooftop will do.”

In January 1996, police arrested Charles, charging him with shooting and killing another ex-convict.

David decided to confront the man who had caused him so much agony. Charles wrote in a letter to the Los Angeles Times that he wanted to see David and accept responsibility for harming him.

Protective glass blocked them from physical contact during the jailhouse visit. David recalled, “It was something I’ve always dreaded but I knew the time had come for me to confront him and get him out of my life once and for all. I was nervous but the moment I saw him I just ripped him to shreds. . . . I beat him up verbally. He had the nerve to keep telling me he loved me. I screamed at him, ‘Look at me! You don’t love me, you lying son of a bitch!’ In thirty minutes, I got fourteen years of bottled up emotions off my chest. . . . He was shaking as I yelled at him. Was he upset? I damn well hope so. I walked into that jail all stressed out but as I left I realized a great weight had been lifted from my shoulders.” David elaborated, “I’m getting on with my life and I never need to see that bastard father of mine ever again.”

Charles was cleared of the charges connected with the shooting and released.

Since reaching adulthood, David has played the role of a burn victim in the soap opera The Bold and the Beautiful and directed music videos.  Kevin O’Sullivan wrote in a British magazine called The People, “[David] drives a Honda Civic, regularly jogs three miles, and shares his Los Angeles apartment with his pet dog Josephine.” It is difficult for him to tie his shoelaces and button his clothes because his fingers are fused but he does those things. “I am my own man,” David said. “I make my own decisions – I am not an invalid.” He has shed the name Rothenberg and calls himself “Dave Dave.”

In 2005, Charles, having legally changed his name to Charley Charles, was charged with being a felon in possession of a handgun. Under California’s “three strikes” law, he was sentenced to life imprisonment. The sentence allows for the possibility of parole but it seems improbable a parole board will ever release this notorious habitual offender. Rather, it is likely he will end his life as he has spent so much of it: a pariah even among prison inmates, a man despised, lonely, isolated, and incarcerated.

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