Police find no evidence woman was set on fire by white men

A young bi-racial woman who claimed she had been set on fire by a group of white men will not be charged despite an exhaustive police investigation finding no evidence the alleged “hate crime” ever occurred.

Althea Bernstein received an outpouring of support, including a personal phone call from Meghan Markle and Prince Harry, after her harrowing story made international headlines earlier this year.

The 18-year-old told police she had been sitting in her car at traffic lights in Madison, Wisconsin at about 1am on June 24 when she was set upon by four white “frat boys”, who yelled a racial slur at her before dousing her with lighter fluid through the rolled-down window and setting her on fire.

Ms Bernstein was treated at hospital for burns to her face and neck. The alleged attack occurred close to the Wisconsin State Capitol where Black Lives Matter protesters were rioting that night, tearing down statues, smashing windows and setting fires.

“Here’s a young lady that was minding her own business and somebody decided to set her on fire, and it’s unacceptable,” family spokesman Michael Johnson told the local ABC affiliate at the time.

“I think her mum and her dad are worried about her mental wellbeing and the scars that are going to be on her.”

State and federal authorities launched a major investigation into the alleged hate crime, combing surveillance footage to track down the perpetrators and offering a $US5000 ($A7000) reward for information, which was later doubled to $US10,000 ($A14,000).

The following week, Mr Johnson recounted on Facebook how the Duchess of Sussex reached out to offer Ms Bernstein support after hearing of her story. Mr Johnson said he, Ms Markle and Ms Bernstein had a three-way, 40-minute phone call, with Prince Harry also jumping on the line for 10 minutes.

Ms Bernstein and Ms Markle talked about faith, being bi-racial and the “importance of self care and allowing herself to heal”, while Prince Harry “shared that young (people’s) voices matter and that Madison have our thoughts, prayers and wishes”, Mr Johnson told local news outlet Channel 3000.

On Friday, the Madison Police Department announced it was closing the case, saying that “after an exhaustive probe, detectives were unable to corroborate or locate evidence consistent with what was reported”.

“The Madison Police Department dedicated significant resources to this case,” acting police chief Victor Wahl said in the statement. “Detectives conducted numerous interviews, reviewed extensive video, and analysed physical/digital evidence during the course of the investigation.”

Mr Wahl said Ms Bernstein was “treated with dignity and respect at all times” during the investigation and that she and her family were “cooperative with investigators”. “The Madison Police Department is committed to thoroughly investigating alleged hate crimes and holding offenders accountable,” he added.

The US Department of Justice released a similar statement, saying the federal investigation “found insufficient evidence to pursue federal criminal civil rights charges for an alleged hate crime”.

It added that “after reviewing all available evidence, authorities could not establish that the attack, as alleged by the complainant, had occurred”. “Accordingly, the federal investigation into this incident has been closed based on the lack of evidence,” the statement said.

“The Justice Department is committed to investigations of allegations of bias-motivated violence and will continue to devote the resources required to ensure that allegations of civil rights violations are fully and completely investigated.”

The Madison Police Department released nearly 160 pages of case documents, which included screenshots of surveillance footage showing Ms Bernstein’s car was the only one stopped at the lights and there was no one around her.

Forensic reports showed investigators had found no evidence of any burning or charring in her car, and no traces of the lighter or match she said had been used to start the fire.

The case documents also include a record of a conversation between Madison Police Department Detective Justine Harris and Andrea Sumpter, Ms Bernstein’s lawyer, informing her of the decision to close the investigation.

“I explained to Attorney Sumpter that our department and the FBI had been in contact with both the District Attorney’s Office and the US Attorney’s Office,” she wrote. “I informed her that neither agency had any plan to prosecute Bernstein for any crime.”

Det Harris said investigators had reviewed Ms Bernstein’s phone contents and her Snapchat records and had “found no evidence that Bernstein 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”.

“I also explained to Attorney Sumpter that the evidence supported Bernstein being where she had told investigators she was, before, during and after when she said the attack occurred,” she said. “There was no evidence Bernstein was involved in the violent and destructive actions that had occurred in downtown Madison that same evening.”

Det Harris added that investigators “had no indication that there was a malicious intent or an effort to defraud the department or the community”.

Mr Wahl told the Wisconsin State Journal police were not recommending charges against Ms Bernstein, and that he doubted federal prosecutors would pursue charges either. “We were unable to corroborate (the allegations), but we are not speculating on what did and did not happen,” he told the newspaper.

Police issued also released a statement on behalf of the family.

“Althea Bernstein and her family appreciate the detailed investigative efforts by all involved in this case,” it said. “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.”


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