‘There’s some answers we just don’t have’: Citing lack of evidence, Madison police close Bernstein hate crime investigation

Police say 'thorough and comprehensive' investigation doesn't back Bernstein's report

MADISON, Wis. — Madison police are closing their investigation into an alleged hate crime against an 18-year-old woman, saying detectives weren’t able to find any evidence that the attack took place as described.

The victim of the alleged attack, Althea Bernstein, reported to police that she was stopped at a stoplight in the early morning hours of June 24 when a group of men threw lighter fluid on her and lit her on fire near State St.

Local law enforcement officials released a video timeline breaking down the evidence that investigators reviewed during their investigation. They used cell phone location data and cameras to track Bernstein’s movement in her car, which went from a friend’s house downtown through the State St. area, to Middleton for a planned car switch. Reports indicate Bernstein then drove home to Monona before heading to the hospital.

Federal investigators with the United States Attorney’s Office, in conjunction with the Civil Rights Division of the US Department of Justice said investigators conducted extensive interviews, reviewed traffic and surveillance video, and performed an expert review of digital and forensic evidence. Based on their findings, authorities said they could not establish that the attack, as it was described by Bernstein, happened.

“This has had multiple layers of review and oversight over the course of this investigation,” Madison Interim Police Chief Vic Wahl said. “I feel we’ve done a very thorough and comprehensive job.”

“Althea Bernstein and her family appreciate the detailed investigative efforts by all involved in this case,” Bernstein’s family said in a statement. “Althea’s injuries are healing and the support of our community has been invaluable in that regard.”

Audio of the 911 call revealed more details about the alleged attack over the summer. An audio file of the call was provided to News 3 Now through an open records request.

MPD officials released multiple reports detailing the investigation on Friday. They are all available on the department’s website.

In the reports, investigators concluded there was no evidence of the attack or the attackers as Bernstein described them after a review of numerous public and private cameras. They said surveillance showed Bernstein was driving in the right lane, not left as described, and her side window appeared to be rolled up as she came through downtown. There’s also no indication the car stopped in the State St. area at all.

Lab results found flammable liquid on her clothes but nothing in her car. Medical records confirm Bernstein was treated for burns, but Wahl can’t say what led to them.

“There’s some answers we just don’t have and we’re unable to find, but I’m not going to speculate on what those might or might not be,” Wahl said.

Wahl said he was confident officers didn’t miss anything while reviewing the footage.

In August, the records show Bernstein told police that her memories were fading and she doesn’t remember the attack, but still believes it happened.

In the case reports, police wrote that there was no evidence Bernstein had “colluded with anyone to make a false report or that there was any mal-intent or pre-planning that occurred in regards to Bernstein’s statement to police.” Wahl said charging Bernstein is not appropriate.

The reports also indicated Bernstein had not been involved in any violent actions that had taken place in downtown Madison that night.

City officials said the investigation was conducted by the Madison Police Department’s Violent Crime Unit with support from the Forensic Services Unit and Central District. The Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Wisconsin Division of Criminal Investigation were also called in to help with the investigation.

Boys & Girls Club of Dane County President and CEO Michael Johnson said that Wahl and Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway briefed him and other community leaders about the investigation Friday morning.

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