Madison police and the FBI have launched a hate crime investigation after an 18-year-old biracial woman was set on fire.
The assault took place early Wednesday morning when the woman was driving and stopped at a red light and “heard someone yell out a racial epithet,” according to a police incident report.
The woman is not named in the report, but a family spokesperson identified her as Althea Bernstein, a college student and a volunteer EMT.
“She looked and saw four men, all white. She says one used a spray bottle to deploy a liquid on her face and neck, and then threw a flaming lighter at her, causing the liquid to ignite,” read the report, which was filed over the phone.
Bernstein then “patted out the flames, and eventually drove home,” the report said. “Her mother encouraged her to go to a hospital.”
Later on Wednesday, Bernstein called 911 to report the incident, according to Michael Johnson, the family spokesperson and president and CEO of Boys and Girls Club of Dane County.
“Once it happened I don’t even remember anything, but your brain still has that fight or flight response that takes care of you,” Bernstein told ABC’s “Good Morning America,” adding that she drove herself to the emergency room.
Bernstein has burn marks on her face and neck pain from the incident, Johnson said.
Police are working on obtaining permission to access Bernstein’s hospital records, according to Madison police spokesperson Joel DeSpain. Investigators are also looking at surveillance images to see if the incident was captured on camera.
“Our department believes victims, and we take their statement and then thoroughly investigate what they said happened to them,” DeSpain told CNN Friday. “We believe this victim, and we are going to work with her and review all the video we can find.”
Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway released a statement saying the incident was “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. “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.”