Wisconsin police close hate crime investigation for lack of evidence
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Federal investigators and Wisconsin police said Friday an investigation into an alleged race-based attack on a biracial woman last June hasn’t produced sufficient evidence and the case has been closed.
Althea Bernstein, 18, told Madison police four white men had shouted a racial slur at her while she was stopped at a red light around 1 a.m. June 24 and threw lighter fluid at her through her car window and set her on fire.
Madison Acting Police Chief Vic Wahl issued a statement, saying, “after an exhaustive probe, detectives were unable to corroborate or locate evidence consistent with what was reported.”
Madison police on Friday released more than 150 pages of reports detailing the investigation. Traffic and surveillance camera footage shows Bernstein's vehicle stopped only once and that no one was around the car. The footage also shows that her window was closed throughout and that she was traveling in the right lane, not the left as she told investigators.
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Investigators found footage indicating Bernstein wasn't downtown at the time she said she was attacked, according to investigative reports. Footage does show her in Middleton, a suburb about 15 minutes from downtown Madison, just before 1 a.m. GPS data from her phone corroborates that as her location, the reports said.
Also, no traces of lighter fluid were found in her car, which appeared to have no damage. She did have a substance like lighter fluid on her shirt, according to the Milwaukee Sentinel Journal.
The FBI, the United States Attorney’s Office and the Civil Rights Division of the United States Department of Justice had conducted extensive interviews, reviewed the available video and analyzed forensic evidence and concluded: “Authorities could not establish that the attack, as alleged by the complainant, had occurred.”
The alleged attack happened the same night protesters tore down statues in Madison and attacked a state senator heading to the capitol.
Bernstein said two of her attackers were wearing floral shirts, which is associated with the far-right Boogaloo.
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Bernstein told officers that staff at the hospital where she was treated for burns had thrown away a sweater with lighter fluid on it but the hospital said it had no record of that, police said, according to the Sentinel Journal.
When interviewed by Detective Justine Harris in August, Bernstein said she didn't understand why there wasn't any evidence of the attack. She said she was worried about what might happen when the reports were made public, saying she had been threatened on social media and that investigators were treating her like a suspect.
“Althea Bernstein and her family appreciate the detailed investigative efforts by all involved in this case,” her family said in a statement, according to FOX 47 in Madison. “Althea’s injuries are healing and the support of our community has been invaluable in that regard.”
Wahl said he isn’t recommending charges against Bernstein for filing a false police report, the Wisconsin State Journal reported.
Harris told Bernstein's attorney, Andrea Sumpter, that Bernstein had clearly suffered injuries to her face and that detectives were interested in whether someone else had hurt her in a different way than she had alleged.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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