FBI joins investigation into Madison hate crime case; Woman says men threw lighter fluid, lit her on fire

MADISON, Wis. — The Federal Bureau of Investigation has joined the investigation into a possible hate crime carried out against a biracial African American 18-year-old woman from Monona, according to the Madison Police Department.

The woman said she was lit on fire early Wednesday morning while stopped at a red light in downtown Madison, according to a release by MPD,

Althea Bernstein, who has given News 3 Now her permission to be identified, told police the incident happened around 1 a.m. at a light on West Gorham Street, near State Street.

Bernstein said she had the driver’s side window down and heard someone yell a racial epithet. She said four men were in the area and one of them used a spray bottle to squirt liquid on her face and neck. According to the release, Bernstein told police a lighter was then thrown at her causing the liquid to ignite.

“FBI Milwaukee is aware of the current matter, but cannot confirm the existence of an investigation at this time.”

Bernstein’s family asked Boys & Girls Club of Dane County CEO Michael Johnson to speak on their behalf Thursday. Johnson told News 3 Now that Bernstein and her family are asking for privacy as she recovers.

“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.

Burn Photos

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

Madison’s interim police Chief Vic Wahl said this case is a high priority for the department and is assigning a lot of resources to the investigation.

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.


Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway was asked by Johnson to publicly respond to the incident.

“This is a horrifying and absolutely unacceptable crime that I will not tolerate in Madison,” Rhodes-Conway said in a statement. “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.”

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.”

Bernstein’s family is requesting donations be made in her honor to the Boys & Girls Club of Dane County or a GoFundMe set up Paws & Reflect Farm, Johnson said. You can donate to the Boys & Girls Club at this link and to the farm at this link.

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

The attack was first reported by Madison365.com.