Probe finds no evidence biracial woman attacked


Police, federal law enforcement find no evidence biracial Madison woman was attacked

Althea Bernstein

Madison police announced Friday morning that they were not able to corroborate allegations made by a Madison woman that she was burned by four white men in Downtown Madison in June in what was initially reported as a hate crime.

Althea Bernstein, 18, of Monona, told police she had a lighter fluid sprayed on her and was set on fire in the early morning hours of June 24 by four white men after one of them yelled a racial epithet.

But in a statement Friday morning, Madison police said it is “closing the investigation into this case. After an exhaustive probe, detectives were unable to corroborate or locate evidence consistent with what was reported.”

The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Wisconsin and the U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division came to the same conclusion, according to the statement.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office went further in its own statement, however, saying that “after reviewing all available evidence, authorities could not establish that the attack, as alleged by the complainant, had occurred.”

Bernstein’s family said in a statement that it appreciated “the detailed investigative efforts by all involved in this case,” asked for privacy and said it would not be granting interviews.

“Althea’s injuries are healing and the support of our community has been invaluable in that regard,” they said.

Bernstein’s report garnered national and even international attention. She was interviewed on “Good Morning America” two days after she reported it and Meghan Markle and Prince Harry of the British royal family reached out her her as well.

At the time the report was made, Madison and Dane County officials condemned the alleged attack, and Madison Area Crime Stoppers and the Mizel Family Foundation and Center for Combating Antisemitism offered a combined $10,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the perpetrators.

But there had been questions about the veracity of the woman’s report because, unlike in other crimes that occur Downtown, police never released video stills of the incident or possible suspects in attempt to find the perpetrators.

Very little of the public parts of Downtown are hidden from dozens of city-owned cameras and other private surveillance cameras police have access to.

Madison acting police chief Vic Wahl said the department is not recommending Bernstein be charged with obstructing an officer, which can apply in cases in which a person makes a false police report. The U.S. Attorney’s office was not immediately available for comment, but Wahl said he doubted it would pursue charges against Bernstein either.

“We were unable to corroborate (Bernstein’s story), but we are not speculating on what did and did not happen,” he said.

He said there is a difference between actively trying to deceive law enforcement and law enforcement not being able to corroborate a report of a crime, and he said Bernstein and her family have cooperated with investigators throughout the investigation.

“She has not offered any alternative explanation” of what happened to her, said Wahl, and he confirmed that the injuries she suffered are consistent with burns.

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Bernstein said the attack happened at around 1 a.m., or about 20 minutes after a group of people threw a Molotov cocktail through a window of the City-County Building in the Downtown, starting a small fire.

The firebombing was part of a larger Black Lives Matter protest in which protesters tore down two statues on the Capitol Square, including one of a Union Civil War soldier and abolitionist. The protest had started in response to the arrest hours before of a local Black Lives Matter activist now facing state and federal charges for allegedly trying to extort money from at least one Downtown business. 

The timeline released by police includes surveillance video images of Bernstein’s vehicle within a few blocks of the CCB in the minutes after it was set on fire, but Wahl said it was “pretty clear” from the investigation that Bernstein was not a perpetrator or a victim in the CCB attack.

Michael Johnson, president and CEO of the Boys and Girls Club of Dane County, had acted as the family’s spokesman in the days after the alleged incident. He said Friday that acting police chief Vic Wahl and Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway briefed him and other “community leaders” about the closing of the Bernstein case Friday morning.

“I appreciate the time federal authorities and local law enforcement officials put into this case. In the meantime, we will continue to provide support to Althea and hope and pray for her healing and well-being,” he said in a statement.

Bernstein had told police she was stopped at a stoplight, possibly on West Gorham Street at State Street, at around 1 a.m. June 24 when she was approached by four white men, one of whom yelled a racial epithet.

One of the men sprayed her with lighter fluid through her open driver’s-side window and then threw a lit lighter or match at her, she said, setting her face and neck on fire before she patted out the flames. Her family later released photos of her showing burns to her face.

She described the men as looking like “frat boys” — two of whom were wearing “floral shirts” and blue jeans and two of whom were in all black and wearing masks. The man who allegedly sprayed her was wearing a “salmon-colored” floral shirt, she told police.

A surveillance camera at Gorham and State captured images of her vehicle at 12:44 a.m., according to the city’s timeline, but nothing to substantiate the alleged attack.

The timeline released by police tracks Bernstein’s movements and her vehicle for about two and a half hours beginning around 12:15 a.m., ending with what appears to be a redacted photo of Bernstein in a hospital gown around 3 a.m. at the UW Hospital emergency room on the Near West Side.

According to the timeline and electronic messages reviewed by police, Bernstein first mentions the alleged attack while at home in Monona at 1:24 a.m. 

“Some (expletive) up (expletive) just happened,” she tells a person named “Nick.” “Someone on state street tried to set me on fire … yelled the n word and threw beer and a lighter at me … its still burning my skin … it was a group of white guys.”

A little more than a half hour later, surveillance images and her phone place her at UW Hospital.

This story will be updated.

Surveillance images of Althea Bernstein’s car in the early morning hours of June 24

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Police and a representative of Althea Bernstein’s family said the investigation is still ongoing.

Two Madison men were arrested after a “hot” car was spotted on the North Side on Tuesday night, Madison police reported.

Two men have been arrested in a violent robbery and attack on the Near East Side in June, and a third man with a handgun stolen in the attack, Madison police reported.

A Southwest Side man can blame COVID-19 for his car being stolen, though he also has to accept blame.