The alleged attack happened in June in Madison, Wisconsin. An 18-year-old biracial woman named Althea Bernstein claimed she had been attacked by four white men who looked like frat boys. Here’s how Bernstein described the attack in an interview with Madison 365:
“I was listening to some music at a stoplight and then all of a sudden I heard someone yell the N-word really loud,” she said in an interview Wednesday. “I turned my head to look and somebody’s throwing lighter fluid on me. And then they threw a lighter at me, and my neck caught on fire and I tried to put it out, but I brushed it up onto my face. I got it out and then I just blasted through the red light … I just felt like I needed to get away. So I drove through the red light and just kept driving until I got to my brother and Middleton.”…
She said she’s reasonably certain it was four white men who “looked like classic Wisconsin frat boys … Two of them were wearing all black, and then the other two were wearing jeans and a floral shirt,” she said. She said the way they walked made her think they were intoxicated…
“At first I didn’t even believe what had happened,” she said. I grew up in Madison, on the East side, and my dad would take me to the Farmer’s Market every weekend, on those same streets. It just felt so weird to have these really happy memories there, and then now to have this memory that sort of ruined all of the childhood memories. I never really knew someone could hate you just by looking at you. They didn’t know me. I didn’t know them. I was just driving my car and minding my own business.”
The floral shirt detail was significant because it was a possible reference to so-called Boogaloo boys, a group of right-wing extremists who had shown up at some protests dressed in Hawaiian shirts.
Bernstein went home then drove herself to the hospital where she was treated for burns to her face. Then she filed a police report which led to an investigation by both the Madison police and the FBI. Two days after the alleged incident she was featured on Good Morning America (see below). Bernstein’s case got more attention after she received a phone call from Meghan Markle. Rep. Joe Kennedy spoke about it on the House floor. Many news outlets wrote about it including The Forward. Their story got picked up by Rep. Ilhan Omar:
This is horrific.
Althea Bernstein: Say her name.
She was attacked with lighter fluid and fire.
These injustices must end.
— Rep. Ilhan Omar (@Ilhan) July 4, 2020
In short, this got a fair amount of media attention as a suspected hate crime, though not nearly as much as the Jussie Smollett hoax did. And then for the next few months we heard nothing.
Today, Madison police announced the investigation was being closed because they could not confirm any details of Bernstein’s report to the police. In fact, there’s evidence that nothing like what she described happened:
An exhaustive search of video from city- and privately owned surveillance cameras, however, turned up no evidence of the attack, and the investigation identified a number inconsistencies in Bernstein’s story…
A review of 17 city cameras in the Downtown area from 12:15 a.m. to 1:15 a.m. found no groups of white males matching Bernstein’s descriptions.
Police also did not find any fire damage in the Elantra, according to police reports, and a dog trained to sniff out accelerants did not find evidence of them of in the car.
A forensic analysis of the shirt she reported wearing at the time of the attack did turn up evidence of a “medium petroleum distillate,” such as charcoal lighter, some paint thinners or an organic solvent, according to the police investigation. But no such evidence was found on the shorts she was reportedly wearing at the time, nor on swabs taken of the vehicle.
The police investigation also found evidence that Bernstein had her window rolled up at the time of the alleged attack and hadn’t stopped at stoplights where it might have occurred. It also determined she had been driving in a different lane than she told police and was uncertain about where exactly the incident occurred.
Police were able to put together a detailed timeline of Bernstein’s travels that night showing nearly every intersection she passed through. The timeline they assembled notes that her first mention of an attack happened at 1:24 am while she was at home. A little more than an hour later she went to the hospital and was treated for burns on her face and neck.
I read through some of the case file and I found a document dated 8/18/2020 describing a call Bernstein made to the police looking to get information on her case. She apologized for not being more communicative and said she wanted an update. The officer then laid out all the facts they had uncovered, i.e. there were multiple images showing her car that night and no evidence anyone every approached her car. Also there was no evidence of a group of four men anything like what she had described walking the streets that night. Bernstein’s response to all of this was “I don’t remember the attack.” She claimed her brain seemed to be erasing her memory of the attack as time passed. Later in the same call she insisted she was “100% confident” of what had happened and said she couldn’t understand why there was no evidence to support her claims.
It seems very clear that police and the FBI don’t believe this happened and yet police are not planning to charge Bernstein with filing a false report. It’s not clear why except perhaps that, unlike the Smollett case, they don’t have any proof she did this to herself (only a complete lack of proof that anyone else did it to her as she claimed.)
Her family released a brief statement basically saying they don’t want to talk to anyone:
“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.”
The alleged attack happened on June 24, the same night there were riots in Madison prompted by the arrest of a 28-year-old activist after he walked into a restaurant with a bullhorn and a baseball bat with “Black Lives Matter” written on it.
Here’s the GMA interview with Bernstein: