Social Issues

Police Close Case into Lighter Attack Due to Lack of Evidence

By Will Kenneally

October 2, 2020

FacebookRedditGoogle ClassroomEmail
Althea Bernstein

Althea Berstein was attacked with ignited lighter fluid, which police are investigating as a hate crime. (Courtesy: Madison365)

The investigation into the June incident that left Althea Bernstein, a Madison Black woman, with second- and third-degree burns was closed by investigators who could not corroborate details from Bernstein’s report.

Bernstein filed a police report June 25 that four white men attacked her with lighter fluid as she drove through downtown Madison. The incident occurred the same night as demonstrators toppled two statues on the state Capitol grounds as racial justice demonstrations turned violent.

The incident was looked into by the FBI as well as Madison police as a possible hate crime, and drew broad attention as an act of violence against a Black woman amid the summer’s racial justice protests.

Acting Madison Police Chief Victor Wahl said it is not common for Madison police to see hate crime incidents, but noted police had made a handful of arrests that met the hate crime definition during the months police investigated Bernstein’s attack.

On Friday, Madison police released a 157-page report in which they said they were able to confirm some of the details in Berstein’s police report—evidence of a flammable liquid was found on her clothing.

Through security camera footage near the area and an investigation of Bernstein’s car, police were not able to find evidence of an attack however, and decided to close the investigation unless new information surfaces.

“We were able to see very clearly a recreation of her travels through the downtown area,” Acting Madison Police Chief Victor Wahl said. “As we investigated further and talked to her repeatedly during the course of the investigation, there was no alternative explanation that she provided and no alternative that we were able to determine based on the information available to us.”

Bernstein’s family released a statement through the police department, thanking the department for their efforts:

“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. We continue to maintain our family privacy and will not be granting interviews at this time.”

Wahl said the public nature of the case prompted Madison police to release the report publicly, which has some redactions. He and Madison’s mayor also met with community members Friday morning, but Wahl was unable to name who was on the call. A spokeswoman from the mayor’s office confirmed that “several dozen community leaders” were on the call, but did not specify who.

Statement to the Communities We Serve

There is no place for racism in our society. We must work together as a community to ensure we no longer teach, or tolerate it.  Read the full statement.