Charles Rothenberg/Man Who Set Son on Fire Faces New Charges



Man Who Set Son on Fire Faces New Charges
By JUSTIN M. NORTON


SAN FRANCISCO (AP) - A man convicted of attempted murder and arson after
setting his 6-year-old son on fire in 1983 faces three new felony charges of
threatening a prosecutor, city officials said Sunday.

Charley Charles, formerly known as Charles Rothenberg, said he believes
prosecutors are trying to win a three-strikes conviction against him because
he hurt his son more than two decades ago.

``It's political now,'' Charles said during a rare jailhouse interview
Sunday with The Associated Press.

Debbie Mesloh, a spokeswoman for the district attorney, said she could not
comment about whether Charles could face three-strike prosecution.

``The defendant has committed yet another crime rising to a felony, and we
are prosecuting him for that,'' Mesloh said.

The district attorney's office tried to put Charles behind bars for life
last year under California's Three Strikes Law when he was arrested for
being a felon in possession of a firearm. He said he needed the weapon for
self-defense, but a jury ended up convicting him of another felony.

A judge prevented District Attorney Kamala Harris from seeking a third
strike against Charles, ruling the murder and arson convictions couldn't be
counted as a first and second strike because they stemmed from the same
criminal act.

Harris was criticized for seeking a life term for a nonviolent offense,
something she pledged she wouldn't do before her election. But Mesloh said
the office has a policy to sometimes pursue third strike charges in the
interest of public safety, particularly when felons possess guns.

The latest charges against Charles, 66, involve alleged threats, Mesloh
said. Charles, who is awaiting an October trial for alleged credit card
fraud, is scheduled for arraignment Monday in San Francisco Superior Court.

In 1983, Charles gave his son a sleeping pill before dousing their motel
room with kerosene and lighting the fuel before leaving. He said he was
distraught about losing the boy to his estranged wife in a custody battle.

The boy survived, suffering third-degree burns over 90 percent of his body.

Charles said during the interview that he ``snapped.'' He also said he had
contemplated a murder-suicide by jumping into Niagara Falls with his son.

He served about 6 1/2 years of a 12-year sentence. The relatively light
punishment drew outrage and helped pave the way for stricter sentencing
guidelines.

Charles denied the latest accusations and said he believes prosecutors have
a vendetta against him.

``You can't blame them. A lot of them have children... They are
automatically going to judge and criticize,'' he said, adding that he has no
contact with his son, now 30.

Charles said the alleged phone threats were made against the prosecutor
during last year's weapons-related case. He said phone company records show
he made no phone calls to the district attorney's office. He also said some
of the threats were in Spanish and he isn't bilingual.

``I do not have the DA's number. I have no access to that,'' Charles said.

Mesloh confirmed the charges involve phone threats.

The three-strikes law gets its name because felons can get life sentences on
their third conviction, provided the first two strikes were serious or
violent felonies. Prosecutors have the discretion to decide how to charge a
case.

Charles' public defender, Gabriel Bassan, didn't return a call seeking
comment Sunday.


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