Editors Note: This article was originally published on June 26, 2018. It was updated on November 16, 2020, after authorities announced they had closed the case.
The Madison police department has closed its investigation into the alleged attack of 18-year-old Athena Berenstein, stating that detectives were unable to corroborate her story, and we’re not able to locate any evidence that was consistent with what she had said happened the night of the accident. Bernstein had repeatedly claimed that she had been crossing State Street inside her car on our way to University Avenue back on June 24th, when for white men in the pickup truck pulled up next to her and sprayed lighter fluid on her face, setting her own fire.
The Madison police department stated that it “dedicated significant resources to the investigation” and detectives were conducting several interviews, reviewing the video, and analyzing physical and digital evidence. Acting Madison PD Chief Vic Wahl spoke about the incident, stating, “I think when you look at the materials and sort of the summary timeline that we provided, that really speaks for itself, but we weren’t obviously able to determine what did happen so there certainly were questions that we weren’t able to answer during this investigation.”
A statement from MPD noted that Bernstein “was treated with dignity and respect at all times during the course of the investigation.” In regards to Bernstein’s family, a statement did attribute to her family thanking the police department for their efforts. The statement read, “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 U.S. Attorney’s Office has also decided to close its investigation into the case.
Madison Police Department Close Bernstein’s Case
Below is information that was published before the new updated information was included.
18-year-old Althea Bernstein suffered third-degree burns after four white men threw lighter fluid and a lighter at her face while she was in her car waiting at a red light. According to authorities, Bernstein, who is an EMT, stated the assailants yelled a racial slur at her before the attack. She stated, “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 told the outlet. “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.”
Bernstein’s mother quickly drove her to the hospital later that day, where the hospital staff was able to identify the liquid on her face and neck’s lighter fluid. A police incident report noted the men used a spray bottle to spray the lighter fluid on the girl’s face. According to the Wisconsin State Journal, police are now investigating the incident as a potential hate crime.
The biracial woman described the men as “classic Wisconsin frat boys” who appeared to be drunk. She stated two of them were wearing all black and the other had a floral shirt with jeans. Michael Johnson, president of the Boys and Girls Clubs of Dane County, released a statement on behalf of her family, stating they were “saddened at what happened to Althea and the unprovoked attack on her body. At this time, our family is asking everyone to respect our privacy as Althea is recovering from the burns on her face and neck.”
Joel DeSpain, Madison police spokesman, said investigators are looking at surveillance images of the street to see if the attack was captured on camera. In regards to her injuries, Bernstein will reportedly need to continue medical treatment for her burns. The 18-year-old is not asking for financial support but is asking people to “sign the petition. Support the movement. Support Black lives.” Through a statement she stated,
“At first I didn’t even believe what had happened. I grew up in Madison, on the Eastside, 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.”
If you have any information about the attack or know Bernstein’s assailants you are asked to call Madison Area Crime Stoppers at (608) 266-6014 or at P3Tips.com.