Althea Bernstein, 18, was sitting at an intersection when she was lit on fire

By Harriet Sokmensuer
June 26, 2020 04:49 PM
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Althea Bernstein
Bernstein Family

Authorities in Wisconsin are investigating a possible hate crime after an 18-year-old Black woman was set on fire.

On Wednesday morning, Althea Bernstein was driving through downtown Madison when she stopped at a red light. Bernstein was sitting at the intersection with her window down when she heard someone yell a racial slur, she told police, CBS News reports.

Moments later, she told police four white men appeared, with one spraying a liquid on her face and neck and throwing a flaming lighter at her. Bernstein told police she was able to drive away and put out the flames, but when she returned home, her mother encouraged her to go to the hospital, where she was treated for burns.

According to hospital staff, the liquid thrown on Bernstein is believed to be lighter fluid.

The following day, Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway released a statement calling the attack a hate crime.

"The City received a report of a violent racially-motivated hate crime that occurred downtown around 1:00 am on June 24, where a group of pedestrians used a racial slur and then lit a woman on fire through her car window as she stopped at an intersection. This is a horrifying and absolutely unacceptable crime that I will not tolerate in Madison," Rhodes-Conway said.

"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."

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While the suspects have not been found, they face charges of attempted murder and recklessly endangering safety, both of which would be enhanced as hate crimes, which would make them eligible for a more severe sentence.

"We have detectives assigned to the case, and are following up on it," Police Chief Victor Wahl told NBC15. "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."

Anyone with information about it the attack is urged to contact Madison Area Crime Stoppers at 608-266-6014.

To help combat systemic racism, consider learning from or donating to these organizations:

  • Campaign Zero (joincampaignzero.org) which works to end police brutality in America through research-proven strategies.
  • ColorofChange.org works to make the government more responsive to racial disparities.
  • National Cares Mentoring Movement (caresmentoring.org) provides social and academic support to help Black youth succeed in college and beyond.