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Police: Biracial woman set on fire while waiting at Madison stoplight

The teen, Althea Bernstein, told investigators the attack occurred around 1 a.m. and she believes it happened when she stopped at the State Street intersection while heading down W. Gorham St.
Published: Jun. 25, 2020 at 10:16 AM CDT
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MADISON, Wis. (WMTV/AP) - The Madison Police Dept. launched a hate crime investigation after an 18-year-old reported being doused with lighter fluid and set alight while driving downtown Wednesday.

The teen, Althea Bernstein, wants her attackers to know they hurt her but she hopes they will improve themselves. Bernstein told ABC’s “Good Morning America” that she’s hopeful her attackers realize that she will be traumatized but she hopes they “choose to improve themselves.”

Bernstein told investigators the attack occurred around 1 a.m. and she believes it happened when she stopped at the State Street intersection while heading down West Gorham Street. The victim said she heard some yell a racial epithet through her rolled-down driver’s side window.

When Bernstein, who is biracial, looked over, she says she saw four white men, one of whom used a spray bottle to shoot liquid onto her face and neck. Someone then allegedly threw a flaming lighter at her setting the fluid ablaze.

Bernstein told police she drove off, batting down the flames as she went. After getting home, her mother reportedly encouraged her to go to the hospital where she was treated for burns. An MPD spokesperson noted she will require follow treatment for the injuries.

In a statement released following the attack, Bernstein’s family said they were “saddened by what happened to Althea and the unprovoked attack on her body.” They went on to ask for privacy as she recovers from the burns on her face and neck.

Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway said in a statement Thursday afternoon that “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,” according to the mayor. Rhodes-Conway added that she directed police to make the investigation into the hate crime a priority.

Meanwhile, Madison Police Chief Vic Wahl told NBC15 News that no arrests have been made so far.

“We have detectives assigned to the case, and are following up on it,” the chief said. “We have been in contact with the victim and we are going to do a thorough investigation and do everything we can to identify whoever was involved, and take the appropriate action when that time comes.”

NBC15 News talked to two Madison residents about the incident.

“I would say heartbreaking to see that. It could be anyone. My sister, my friend my mom,” says Madison resident Dontae Vacklin.

“We have to stop and think twice, like is someone going to attack me today?” said resident Daneia Gaddis.

“You never know who’s next, That’s the scary part. We’re in America where they say everyone is equal but clearly we’re not treated as equal,” Gaddis said.

Investigators have started reviewing surveillance cameras to see if the incident was captured on tape. Anyone with information about it is asked to contact Madison Area Crime Stoppers at 608-266-6014.

The Associated Press contributed to this report

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