The United States Attorney’s Office has 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, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
“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.
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.
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.”
Here’s what you need to know:
Madison Police Released a Video Timeline of the Investigation & Also Said They Could Not Corroborate Bernstein’s Claims
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).”
Police, who called Bernstein cooperative, also released a statement from Bernstein’s family, who wrote, “Althea Bernstein and her family appreciate the detailed investigative efforts by all involved in this case. Althea’s injuries are healing and the support of our community has been invaluable in that regard. We continue to maintain our family privacy and will not be granting interviews at this time.”
The US Attorney’s Civil Rights Division and the FBI were all involved in the probe. State and local law enforcement was involved too.
In a statement when the incident was reported, Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway called it “a horrifying and absolutely unacceptable crime that I will not tolerate in Madison. While we are still learning more about the details, current information suggests this may have been a premeditated crime targeted toward people of color, which makes the incident even more disturbing.”
Althea Bernstein is an 18-year-old bi-racial woman from Madison.
“The victim believes she was driving on W. Gorham St. when she stopped for a red light at State St.,” Madison police wrote in their initial 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 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.
Police Initially Said They Were Investigating What Happened to Bernstein as a Hate Crime
According to a police news release when the incident was first reported, the Madison Police Department said it was “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.”
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.”
According to the police news release, investigators “were 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.
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 deleted. “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.
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.