“A federal investigation found insufficient evidence to pursue federal criminal civil rights charges for an alleged hate crime reported to have occurred on June 24, 2020, in Madison,” the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Wisconsin said in a joint Oct. 2 statement with the FBI and the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division.
The Madison Police Department, which said it dedicated “significant resources to this case,” also said a lengthy investigation turned up little or no evidence to support the claims.
“After an exhaustive probe, detectives were unable to corroborate or locate evidence consistent with what was reported,” acting Police Chief Victor Wahl said in a statement.
Althea Bernstein, 18, claimed in June that she was attacked by four white men. She said they poured lighter fluid on her and set her on fire.
The story was reported by local and national media outlets and received attention from a variety of groups and organizations, including the National Football League and the Boys and Girls Club.
Bernstein, who described herself as bi-racial, told detectives that she was in her car at a stoplight when she heard someone use a racial slur.
One man sprayed her with lighter fluid and another threw a flaming lighter at her, causing the liquid to ignite on her face and neck, according to a case report summary.
Bernstein described the alleged assailants as “frat boys” in their early 20s. Hospital staff later determined the liquid on Bernstein’s face was lighter fluid.
Bernstein said she patted her face as she drove away and made it to her brother’s house.
According to a case report summary, detectives obtained Bernstein’s cellphone as evidence, along with surveillance footage from the area where the crime allegedly happened.
A detective wrote that she viewed surveillance footage but “was unable to find anything consistent with the incident that Bernstein described.”
“I did not find any groups of four males consistent with Bernstein’s description. I did not see any individuals or groups of males wearing Hawaiian style shirts. I tried to observe any items that were being held in the hands of a male when he was part of a group. I did not observe anything consistent with a lighter fluid bottle,” she said.
Phone records showed Bernstein texted her mother throughout the night of the incident and the next morning. Her mother asked if she could post a picture of her daughter’s injuries on Facebook and asked her to summarize twice what happened.
Bernstein sent her mother an article from a local blog the morning after the alleged attack.
Portions of the case summary detailing the conversations were redacted.
The detective said on Sept. 29 that there was no indication that there was “malicious intent or an effort to defraud the department or the community.”
In a statement, the Bernstein family said, “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,” they said. “We continue to maintain our family privacy and will not be granting interviews at this time.”