Posted on October 2, 2020

Police, Federal Law Enforcement Find No Evidence Biracial Madison Woman Was Attacked

Chris Rickert, Wisconsin State Journal, October 2, 2020

Madison police announced Friday that they were not able to corroborate allegations made by a Monona 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, 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 was closing the case because “after an exhaustive probe, detectives were unable to corroborate or locate evidence consistent with what was reported.”

The case was also investigated by the FBI and the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice, and in its own statement Friday morning, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Wisconsin said that “after reviewing all available evidence, authorities could not establish that the attack, as alleged by the complainant, had occurred.”


Bernstein’s allegation 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.

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.

Despite the investigation’s findings, Wahl said his 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.

Wahl 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.


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. {snip}

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.

An exhaustive search of video from city- and privately owned surveillance cameras, however, turned up no evidence of the attack, and the investigation identified a number inconsistencies in Bernstein’s story. {snip}

A surveillance camera at Gorham and State captured images of the 2007 Hyundai Elantra Bernstein was driving vehicle at 12:44 a.m., according to the city’s timeline, but nothing to substantiate the alleged attack. Police also did not find any fire damage in the 2007 Hyundai Elantra she had been driving, according to police reports, and a dog trained to sniff out accelerants did not find evidence of them of in the car.


At the time the report was made, Madison and Dane County officials condemned the alleged attack, with Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway calling it “a horrifying and absolutely unacceptable crime that …. may have been a premeditated crime targeted toward people of color.”