Black woman says men threw lighter fluid on her, lit her on fire; MPD investigating incident as hate crime

Althea Bernstein Combo1280
Althea Bernstein; photos courtesy family and Madison365

MADISON, Wis. — The Madison Police Department is investigating the alleged assault of a Black 18-year-old woman as a hate crime after she told police she was lit on fire early Wednesday morning.

The woman was stopped at about 1 a.m. at a red light on West Gorham Street near State Street, according to a release by the Madison Police Department.

The attack was first reported by Madison365.com.

The family of the woman, Althea Bernstein, has asked Boys & Girls Club of Dane County CEO Michael Johnson to speak on their behalf. Johnson told News 3 Now that Bernstein and her family are asking for privacy as she recovers.

“Our family is saddened at what happened to Althea and the unprovoked attack on her body,” the family statement said. “At this time, our family is asking everyone to respect our privacy as Althea is recovering from the burns on her face and neck. Our family have asked the Boys & Girls Clubs CEO to serve as the contact for our family. The story on Madison 365 accurately depicts her experience and we feel it’s in the best interest of Althea to heal and to seek treatment.”

Bernstein told police her driver’s side window was down and she heard someone yell a racial epithet. She noticed four white men outside, the release said. The woman told police one of the men used a spray bottle to spray liquid on her face and neck. The woman said a flaming lighter was then thrown at her. The lighter caused the liquid to ignite, police said.

“It’s sad some of the things we are seeing in our own community and in this country right now,” Johnson said. “It’s unacceptable. Where the respect for humanity? I hope the police apprehend these individuals. We live in a time in America that we should be showing empathy and love.”

Bernstein told police she patted out the flames and drove home where her mother encouraged her to go to the hospital, according to the release.

Hospital staff believe the liquid was lighter fluid. The woman was treated for burns and will need to return for follow up care, the release said.

Investigators are looking at surveillance images to see if the assault was captured on camera, according to the incident report.

In an interview, interim police Chief Vic Wahl said, “Obviously it’s a high priority for the department and we are going to put a lot of resources into doing a thorough investigation and trying to identify the people involved so we can take appropriate action.”

Wahl said Bernstein called the 911 dispatch center where the person who answered her call took down her information and said someone would get back to her regarding her case but that it might take a while because police were responding to a number of emergency and priority calls and had limited resources at the time.

Johnson said after speaking with the Bernstein family, they were satisfied with the way police handled the situation.

Johnson asked Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway to publicly respond to the incident. She released a statement that said:

“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. I immediately reached out to the police when I learned of the incident, asking them to use all available resources to pursue the perpetrators as quickly as possible. I spoke this morning with the victim’s family, expressing my deep sympathies for the harm this incident has caused, my wishes for her healing, and my commitment to do all I can to bring justice.”

UW-Madison also tweeted a response to the incident which said, “We condemn the reported hate crime early today that targeted a young woman of color and first responder and fully support efforts to bring the perpetrators to justice.”

Johnson also posted on Facebook Thursday that any GoFundMe account claiming to be raising money for Bernstein’s family is fake.

Anyone with information on the crime is asked to contact Madison Area Crime Stoppers at 608-266-6014 or online at P3Tips.com.

The Madison Police Department incident report identified Bernstein as bi-racial, but News 3 Now confirmed with her family that she identifies as Black.

News 3 Now does not identify victims of a crime but has done so in this case because the woman gave her permission.