Althea Bernstein is an 18-year-old bi-racial woman from Madison, Wisconsin, who says a white man threw liquid and a flaming lighter at her while she was sitting in a car at a local intersection, burning her face.
The United States Attorney’s Office has now closed the hate crime investigation into the burning of a biracial Madison, Wisconsin, area teenager, saying they “could not establish that the attack…had occurred.” Althea Bernstein alleged that four white men poured a flammable liquid on her and set her face on fire at a downtown Madison intersection last June, sparking national news coverage and outrage throughout the country.
Now, though, authorities – both federal and local – say they closed the case “based on the lack of evidence.” The case file, which was released by Madison police, shows a painstaking effort by detectives to piece together Bernstein’s car on surveillance video.
“After a thorough investigation into the events of June 24, 2020, including extensive interviews, exhaustive review of traffic and surveillance video, and expert review of digital and forensic evidence, federal investigators determined that there is insufficient evidence to prove that a violation of any federal criminal statute occurred,” an October 2 press release from the U.S. Attorney said. You can read the press release here.
“Further, after reviewing all available evidence, authorities could not establish that the attack, as alleged by the complainant, had occurred. Accordingly, the federal investigation into this incident has been closed based on the lack of evidence,” the federal release says.
Here’s what you need to know:
1. Madison Police Also Said They Could Not Corroborate Bernstein’s Claims
The federal press release says that Bernstein reported that, on June 24, 2020, “she was attacked while stopped at a stoplight by four men who sprayed her with a flammable liquid, threw a lit object to ignite the fluid, and thereby inflicted burns to her face and neck. Federal and local agents met with the complainant and her representatives to inform them of the findings of the investigation and the decision to close the federal inquiry.”
Madison PD’s Acting Chief Victor Wahl issued a similar statement, announcing that his department was also closing the Bernstein investigation “after an exhaustive probe. Detectives were unable to corroborate or locate evidence consistent with what was reported. The Madison Police Department dedicated significant resources to this case. The investigation was led by the MPD Violent Crime Unit, with support from the Forensic Services Unit and Central District. Detectives conducted numerous interviews, reviewed extensive video, and analyzed physical/digital evidence during the course of the investigation. MPD was assisted in these efforts by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Wisconsin Division of Criminal Investigation (DCI).”
“The victim believes she was driving on W. Gorham St. when she stopped for a red light at State St.,” Madison police wrote in a news release. “Her driver’s side window was down and she heard someone yell out a racial epithet. She looked and saw four men, all white. She says one used a spray bottle to deploy a liquid on her face and neck, and then threw a flaming lighter at her, causing the liquid to ignite.”
The incident occurred during a night and early morning of unrest in Madison that also led to the fire bombing at a government building around the same time and a state senator being beaten. The unrest sparked after police arrested a man who walked into a restaurant with a bullhorn and bat and started accusing people inside of being racist.
According to a police news release, the Madison Police Department “is investigating an assault on an 18-year-old bi-racial woman as a hate crime after she was burned with lighter fluid early Wednesday morning.”
The release continued: “She drove forward, patted out the flames, and eventually drove home. Her mother encouraged her to go to a hospital. Hospital staff believed the liquid was lighter fluid. She was treated for burns, and will need to make follow-up visits to access additional medical care.”
That release was issued on June 25, 2020 by the police public information officer. The FBI has now joined the investigation.
Michael Johnson, president of the Boys and Girls Clubs of Dane County, released a statement from Bernstein’s family that said they were “saddened at what happened to Althea and the unprovoked attack on her body. At this time, our family is asking everyone to respect our privacy as Althea is recovering from the burns on her face and neck.”
2. Police Scoured Surveillance Video
Questions were raised because authorities never released video surveillance images of any suspects, Bernstein initially described them as a group of people but later compared them to frat boys and said they were white males, she took 17 hours to report the attack, and a fire bombing of a city-county building was occurring around the same time nearby as protests grew disorderly. As the months passed, the police remained tight-lipped providing no updates on an incendiary case that propelled the young woman onto Good Morning America. However, behind the scenes, they were compiling an exhaustive trove of video evidence to try to find any sign the attack occurred. Now they said they could not establish that.
According to the police news release, investigators “are looking at surveillance images to see if any of the assault was captured on camera.”
They asked “anyone with information on this crime…to contact Madison Area Crime Stoppers at (608) 266-6014 or by computer at P3Tips.com.” The police news release refers to an “injured person” and says the incident occurred at 1 a.m. on June 24, 2020 in the 300 block of State Street.
There is a Change.org petition seeking justice for Bernstein.
3. Bernstein Is an EMT Who Is Studying to Be a Firefighter & Who Once Volunteered at a Nature Center
“She was minding her own business and sitting in a car and someone decided to pour fluid on her face and light her on fire,” Johnson told the Cap Times. “That’s a hate crime. They targeted her for the color of her skin.”
When she was in 10th grade, Bernstein wrote an essay that was still available on The Aldo Leopold Foundation website at the time of writing but has since been removed. “My dad has shown me that it is important to take care of our land. My dad is not the president, a celebrity, or in the NFL, but I believe he is just as important. This shows that anyone can be and should be involved in taking care of our land. Without our land, we would have nothing. Everything we have has come from materials our land has provided for us. Anyone can take care of the land, no matter who you are. I hope people like my dad will inspire others to include the land in their community,” it said in part.
That essay says she was home-schooled, lived in the Madison area her entire life, liked to travel, and worked at a veterinarian clinic. “In addition to volunteering at Aldo Leopold Nature Center, Althea works at a veterinary clinic, tends her own growing family of pets, and sings and dances,” it explains. A website she made in the past shows her with family, friends, and enjoying the outdoors.
4. Bernstein Has Spoken to the News Media, Calling the Attackers ‘Classic Wisconsin Frat Boys’
An assault on an 18-year-old biracial woman in Wisconsin is being investigated as a hate crime after she was set on fire in her car, according to the Madison Police Department. https://t.co/fk0TrRUX5Z
— Good Morning America (@GMA) June 26, 2020
Bernstein said in an interview with WKOW-TV, “I never thought something like this would happen.” That station reported that she suffered “second and third-degree burns on the side of her face.”
She told the station, “I think the most important thing is to vote and make sure you are voting for people that are supporting what you want,” adding, “People have been coming from all over and everywhere, to take care of me and to take care of my family. People have been dropping off flowers and there’s some nice chalk in front of our house.”
To Madison365.com, she gave additional details, saying:
I was listening to some music at a stoplight and then all of a sudden I heard someone yell the n-word really loud. I turned my head to look and somebody’s throwing lighter fluid on me. And then they threw a lighter at me, and my neck caught on fire and I tried to put it out, but I brushed it up onto my face. I got it out and then I just blasted through the red light … I just felt like I needed to get away. So I drove through the red light and just kept driving until I got to my brother and Middleton.
To that publication, she described the attackers as “classic Wisconsin frat boys,” two wearing all black, two in jeans, and all apparently drunk. She also said that her mother told her to call for medical help. She ended up at the hospital, where her skin was decontaminated. She also told the publication that she was advised not to call the police at first “because I was high as a kite” on pain medication, so she called them later in the day that Wednesday. “She said she was told they wouldn’t be able to take a statement because they were too busy preparing for protests, but that they would investigate,” Madison365.com reported.
5. It Was a Night & Early Morning of Unrest in Madison
The unrest in downtown Madison on June 24 grew so serious that the governor called in the National Guard the next day. Bernstein told Madison365 she wasn’t participating in the protests, which were “winding down” around 1 a.m.
In one incident on June 24, police released photos of “a man believed to be responsible for the fire-bombing at a downtown Madison government building early this morning.”
“Around 1 a.m., an individual threw an incendiary device into the City County Building, located at 211 South Carrol Street, which houses the 911 communications office, Madison Police Department and other city and county government services. Video and photos captured of the event show the individual who threw the device,” police wrote.
On July 1, 2020, police announced they had made an arrest in that case, writing:
A person of interest in the recent arson attack on the City County Building was arrested by the MPD last night following a traffic stop near Verona Rd. Marquon M. Clark, age 26, Madison, was taken into custody on a probation hold.
While officers were trying to stop Clark’s car, the driver of a pickup truck – which was following behind Clark’s car – intentionally swerved at a marked Madison Police squad car. The squad would have been rammed had the officer not taken evasive maneuvers.
The truck’s driver, Conner M. Fleck, age 25, Pardeeville, WI, was arrested for second degree recklessly endangering safety.
In another incident, a Democratic state Senator named Tim Carpenter was assaulted. Police wrote about that incident:
The politician said he was walking to the State Capitol around midnight when he saw a group of demonstrators in the street. He decided to use his phone to capture what was happening. As he did, three people rushed toward him, saying something about his phone. One knocked it out of his hand. He said he was then sucker punched. He fell to the ground and was battered by several people.
A media member, who witnessed the assault, told police approximately ten people punched and kicked the politician while he was on the ground and as the politician tried to explain that he is an ally.
In another unrelated incident at 10:30 p.m. on June 23, police said a man was attacked, writing:
A 28-year-old Sun Prairie man was beaten and robbed by protesters after he inadvertently turned into their path as he drove from Williamson St. onto John Nolen Dr. last night.
The victim was on the way to a hospital to pick up his girlfriend at the time he was attacked.
He said it began when a member of the protest group threw a bicycle at his car, causing damage. The victim got out to ask the man why he had done this, and was quickly surrounded by an estimated 50 people.
He was punched by several, and ended up in a fetal position on the ground, trying to protect himself from blows and kicks. While this was happening someone took his wallet.
When the protesters moved on, he returned to his car to find the windows smashed out and his cell phone gone.