Assault on 18-year-old biracial woman in Wisconsin being investigated as hate crime

Hospital staff said she was burned with lighter fluid.

June 26, 2020, 7:02 AM

An assault on an 18-year-old biracial woman in Wisconsin is being investigated as a hate crime after she was set on fire in her car, according to the Madison Police Department.

The victim, Althea Bernstein, told authorities she was stopped at a red light Wednesday with her driver's side window down when she heard someone yell a racial slur. It was at that point that four white men allegedly sprayed a liquid on her face and neck and then threw a flaming lighter at her, which caused the liquid to ignite, according to the incident report.

Scared, Bernstein began to drive and patted out the flames, the report stated. She drove home, where her mother told her to go to the hospital.

PHOTO: Althea Bernstein appeared on "Good Morning America," June 26, 2020.
Althea Bernstein appeared on "Good Morning America," June 26, 2020.
ABC News

At the hospital, she was treated for burns and will need to make follow-up visits for additional medical care, authorities said. Hospital staff, according to police, believe the liquid was lighter fluid.

Bernstein told "Good Morning America" Friday she "never thought something like this would happen."

Bernstein said she was on her way to her brother's house when the incident occurred.

She said she went through "textbook shock" and hasn't been able to sleep properly.

PHOTO: Althea Bernstein is seen here in this undated file photo.
Althea Bernstein is seen here in this undated file photo.
Courtesy Althea Bernstein

"Once it happened I don't even remember anything, but your brain still has that fight or flight response that takes care of you. So I made it home, I called my mom, I drove myself to the ER," Bernstein said.

She said she wishes she could remember more of what happened, but hopes Madison police will figure it out.

"I'm very very hopeful these men sort of see all the responses and they know that they hurt me," Bernstein said. "This is something that's going to affect me for a while and I really hope that they choose to improve themselves."

Police are treating this as a hate crime and are reviewing surveillance images to see if the alleged assault was captured on camera. Anyone with information on this crime is asked to contact Madison Area Crime Stoppers at (608) 266-6014 or by computer at P3Tips.com.

PHOTO: Althea Bernstein, 18, was set on fire while sitting in her car in Wisconsin on June 24, 2020. Her assault is being treated as a hate crime, according to the Madison Police Department.
Althea Bernstein, 18, was set on fire while sitting in her car in Wisconsin on June 24, 2020. Her assault is being treated as a hate crime, according to the Madison Police Department.
Courtesy Althea Bernstein

Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway issued a statement, saying, "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 Thursday.

"This hate crime is one of multiple recent downtown incidents where people’s safety and lives have been at risk," Rhodes-Conway said in a statement. "It is completely unacceptable and should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. Everybody in Madison deserves to feel safe, and it is up to every single one of us to make that true."

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