‘It happened really fast’: Audio of call to dispatch details woman’s report of being set on fire

MADISON, Wis. — A woman who reported a group of men tried to set her on fire last month in Madison said the incident “happened really fast,” according to the call she made to report the crime.

An audio file of the call was provided to News 3 Now through an open records request. Details from the call are consistent with those from an incident reported by Monona resident Althea Bernstein.  However, Dane County Public Safety Communications staff removed personal identifiable information, such as the woman’s name and address, from the call. These edits are marked by several spots of silence in the audio file provided to News 3 Now.

In the call, the woman tells police she is not able to remember the exact location where the attack happened, but said she was trying to get to University Avenue and was headed to Middleton. She reported being on a cross street near State Street and believes a Mexican restaurant was nearby.

“I heard a group of people yell the N-word and I turned my head. And they threw lighter fluid at me and then threw like a match or lighter at me,” the woman said on the call.

The woman told dispatchers she spent the night at the emergency room at UW Hospital and was directed to call police.

The call was made at 5:45 p.m. on June 24 as a non-emergency call. It ended at 5:49 p.m., with the dispatcher telling the woman that a Madison police officer or detective would be in touch. The dispatcher also informed the woman that Madison police were on “priority calls” that evening because they were “prepping to handle some hefty stuff.”  Madison police responded to a number of violent demonstrations throughout the city during this week.

You can listen to the entirety of the file provided to News 3 below.

Madison Police Investigation

The Madison Police Department has an open hate crime investigation into the alleged assault of a biracial African American woman who told officers she was lit on fire.

Bernstein, who has given News 3 Now her permission to be identified, told police the incident happened while she was stopped at a red light in downtown Madison around 1 a.m. on June 24.

Bernstein, 18, of Monona, told police she had her driver’s side window down when a group of white men yelled a racial epithet and sprayed a liquid on her face and neck. She said the men threw a lighter at her which caused the liquid to ignite.

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 believed the liquid was lighter fluid and treated her for burns.

Althea Bernstein Combo1280

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

During an interview last month, Madison’s interim police Chief Vic Wahl called the case a “high priority” for the department. The Federal Bureau of Investigation has also joined the investigation.

“Madison police continue to work the case with the assistance of the FBI,” MPD spokesman Joel DeSpain said on Thursday.

News 3 Now reached out for an update on the investigation from the FBI. A spokesperson said the agency is not able to provide any additional information at this time since this is a “pending matter.”


Emergency Response

Wahl said when Bernstein called the 911 dispatch center, the person she talked to informed her police were responding to a number of emergency and priority calls at the time and that an officer would need to return her call.

Boys & Girls Club of Dane County CEO Michael Johnson initially served as a spokesperson for the Bernstein family. He has previously said that the Berstein family was satisfied with the way police handled the situation. We have reached out to the current family spokesperson and are waiting for a call back.

Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway was also 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 released shortly after the attack.

“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.”

Community Support

Bernstein’s family has asked for privacy as Bernstein heals.

They are requesting donations be made in the teen’s 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.

Meghan Markle also reached out to Johnson to connect with Bernstein.

On the phone with Prince Harry and Meghan Markle the Duchess of Sussex. Prince Harry shared that young people voices…

Posted by Michael Johnson on Saturday, June 27, 2020

A $10,000 reward is being offered to anyone who can provide information that leads to the arrest and conviction

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