MADISON – Federal investigators and Madison police are closing an investigation into an alleged hate crime against an 18-year-old biracial Madison woman after being unable to prove the attack occurred.
Althea Bernstein, an emergency medical technician in Madison, told police on June 24 she had been attacked by four white men about 1 a.m. while she was stopped at a red light in downtown Madison.
Bernstein said someone yelled a racial epithet at her, threw lighter fluid on her skin through her open car window and ignited it with a lighter, according to police reports. Bernstein eventually went to a hospital for treatment.
Images provided to Madison365.com at the time showed dark marks on Bernstein’s neck, cheek and under one of her eyes.
The United States Attorney’s Office, the Civil Rights Division of the United States Department of Justice and the Federal Bureau of Investigation announced Friday that its three-month investigation into the report found insufficient evidence to pursue federal criminal civil rights charges for an alleged hate crime.
The investigation included “extensive interviews, exhaustive review of traffic and surveillance video, and expert review of digital and forensic evidence,” a news release from U.S. Attorney Scott Blader said.
“Federal investigators determined that there is insufficient evidence to prove that a violation of any federal criminal statute occurred,” the release said. “Further, after reviewing all available evidence, authorities could not establish that the attack, as alleged by the complainant, had occurred.”
Bernstein said she was attacked just hours after rioting protesters smashed windows and tore down two statues at the Wisconsin State Capitol. The same night, Democratic state Sen. Tim Carpenter was assaulted after filming the protesters.
Police at the time did not say whether the attack on Bernstein was linked to the protests or outside agitators, but Bernstein told Madison365 that two of the men involved were wearing “jeans and a floral shirt.”
Members of the far-right movement known as the Boogaloo are known for wearing Hawaiian shirts. This group’s intentions are unclear, with some members seemingly determined to protect protesters and others hoping to provoke violence.
Police records released on Friday show screenshots of security camera feeds of the night Bernstein said she was attacked. The photos show Bernstein’s car traveling through downtown Madison where she said the attack occurred, but cameras did not capture any interactions with pedestrians or other vehicles.
Video footage showed it was unlikely Bernstein was stopped at any red lights as she traveled that night through the isthmus, police said.
The records also show Bernstein told police officers UW Hospital staff took a sweatshirt she was wearing that night that was contaminated by lighter fluid and threw it away. But hospital officials told police they had no such record of the disposal.
A search of the car Bernstein was driving also did not reveal burn marks, unusual smells, or smoke-related damage, according to police.
Police also were unable to find suspects matching the alleged attackers’ description in footage on 17 cameras around the area where Bernstein said the incident took place.
A Madison resident who wanted to remain anonymous also supplied police with surveillance video of what looked like Bernstein’s vehicle traveling through the intersection Bernstein where the attack took place but in the video, Bernstein did not stop and no pedestrians are visible in the video.
Wisconsin Crime Lab results showed a shirt Bernstein was wearing the night of the incident was contaminated with a substance that could be a charcoal lighter fluid or paint thinner, according to the records.
The records also show messages Bernstein sent a male friend, describing the attack.
“Someone on state street just tried to set me on fire,” she wrote to her friend.
Another friend told police she FaceTimed with Bernstein the night of the incident and that Bernstein looked “terrified.”
Snapchat messages also revealed Bernstein was consistent in how she described the incident to friends. She also received treatment for her injuries and follow-up care, according to hospital records obtained by police.
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