Biracial woman, 18, in Wisconsin says white men called her N-word, set her on fire

Althea Bernstein told investigators she was stopped at a traffic light when the men doused her with lighter fluid and threw a flaming lighter. A hate crime probe is underway.
Image: Althea Bernstein
Althea Bernstein.WMTV

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By Minyvonne Burke

Police in Madison, Wisconsin, launched a hate crime investigation after a biracial African American woman said a group of white men doused her with lighter fluid and set her on fire.

Althea Bernstein, 18, told investigators she was stopped at a traffic light in the city at around 1 a.m. Wednesday when she heard someone yell a racial slur through her rolled-down window, according to a police department incident report.

"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," the report states.

Bernstein was able to pat out the flames and then drove home. Her mother told her to go to the hospital, where she was told that the liquid was believed to be lighter fluid.

A photo obtained by NBC affiliate WMTV in Madison shows injuries to Bernstein's neck and the side of her face.

Burn marks on Althea Bernstein's face after she was allegedly sprayed with lighter fluid and set on fire.WMTV

Family spokesman Michael Johnson, CEO of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Dane County, said Bernstein was driving to a friend's house when the men started yelling the N-word and then attacked her while she was at a red light.

Bernstein suffered second-and-third degree burns and will require further medical treatment, he told NBC News in a phone interview Friday.

“She’s experiencing trauma right now but, for what happened to her, she’s doing better," he said, calling her a strong young woman.

The family is focusing on Bernstein's health and recovery. In a statement released through Johnson, they said that they are “saddened by what happened to Althea and the unprovoked attack on her body."

Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway said she spoke with Bernstein's family and called the alleged attack "horrifying and absolutely unacceptable."

"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," she wrote in a statement.

"Everybody in Madison deserves to feel safe, and it is up to every single one of us to make that true. We must show kindness and compassion for each other, and we must care about the safety and well-being of those around us."

Joel DeSpain, a police spokesman, said Friday that detectives are reviewing surveillance cameras to see if they captured the incident. So far, no arrests have been made.

Johnson said Bernstein does not know the men and despite what she's endured, she has forgiven them.

"She was telling me that she actually forgives the people who have done this to her and hopes that they get their lives together," he said.