Madison police are investigating a possible hate crime after a woman reported being doused in lighter fluid and set on fire while at a stop light early Wednesday.
Althea Bernstein, an 18-year-old biracial woman, told police she stopped her vehicle at the intersection of West Gorham Street and State Street at about 1 a.m. when she was approached by four white men, one of whom yelled a racial epithet.
At the time, Madison police were in a standoff in another part of Downtown with protesters after some of them tore down two statues, assaulted a state senator and threw an explosive device into the City-County Building.
Bernstein told police one of the men used a spray bottle to douse her in lighter fluid and threw a flaming lighter on her, causing the liquid to ignite on her face and neck, police spokesman Joel DeSpain said.
Bernstein said she was able to extinguish the flames and drive home. Her mother encouraged her to go to a hospital, where she said she was treated for burns and will need to make follow-up visits.
Bernstein told police that hospital staff said the burns were caused by lighter fluid. Investigators are looking at surveillance images to see if any of the assault was captured on camera, DeSpain said.
“Our family is saddened by what happened to Althea and the unprovoked attack on her body,” Carly Schleif of the Dane County Boys & Girls Club said in a statement. “At this time, our family is asking everyone to respect our privacy as Althea is recovering from the burns on her face and neck.”
“The story on Madison 365 (which first reported the incident) accurately depicts her experience,” Althea’s family said. “We feel it’s in the best interest of Althea to heal and to seek treatment.”
Schleif said Boys & Girls Club CEO Michael Johnson is acting as a representative for Althea and her family.
Johnson said he spoke with Bernstein Thursday through FaceTime. Though she’s in pain and recovering from the incident, she is heartened by the outpouring of love and support from the community, he said.
He said he is worried that Black people and people of color in Madison are at risk of racist attacks.
The way the events played out “tells me (the assailants) have no regard for life, that’s pretty scary,” he said. “(Bernstein is) a young innocent woman minding her own business and someone does that to her.”
Acting Madison Police Chief Vic Wahl assured Johnson that the department will fully investigate the incident.
Johnson also said that a GoFundMe page that had been set up for Bernstein was not done with her permission and that she is asking people not to raise money on her behalf.
Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway said in a statement Thursday afternoon, “This is a horrifying and absolutely unacceptable crime that I will not tolerate in Madison. While we are still learning more about the details, current information suggests this may have been a premeditated crime targeted toward people of color, which makes the incident even more disturbing.”
Rhodes-Conway said she immediately reached out to Madison police when she learned of the incident, and asked them to use all available resources to pursue the perpetrators as quickly as possible.
Anyone with information on this crime is asked to contact Madison Area Crime Stoppers at (608) 266-6014 or by computer at P3Tips.com.
Photos: See damage from Tuesday protests near the Capitol
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