The FBI is actively investigating a potential hate crime against an Oregon Area Fire/EMS District employee.
Althea Bernstein, 18, sustained second- and third-degree burns after allegedly being attacked with lighter fluid sparking flames in Madison Wednesday, June 24, according to a June 25 Madison Police Department incident report.
Madison police are checking to see if any of the assault was captured on surveillance images, the report states. Police told the Wisconsin State Journal the FBI was joining them Friday, June 27.
Bernstein, a Black woman who works as an emergency medical technician, said before she was attacked, she heard four white men allegedly yelling racial slurs, according to a Thursday, June 25, Madison 365 story.
A representative for her family declined to discuss the incident with the Observer, citing privacy while she heals from the burns to her face and neck.
Bernstein told MPD she had been driving on West Gorham Street and listening to music when she stopped for a red light on State Street and heard the slur.
“I turned my head to look and somebody’s throwing lighter fluid on me,” she told Madison365.
Bernstein told police she saw four men, all white, and she told Madison365 they “looked like classic Wisconsin frat boys,” with two dressed all in black and two others in jeans and floral shirts.
The way they walked made her think they were intoxicated, Bernstein added.
One used a spray bottle to disperse a liquid onto her face and neck, and then threw a flaming lighter at her, causing the fluid to ignite, according to the report.
“I tried to put it out, but it brushed up onto my face,” Bernstein told Madison365. “I got it out and just blasted through the red light.”
After she drove home, her mother encouraged her to go to a hospital, where she was eventually treated for the second- and third-degree burns, Bernstein told police.
After driving to a hospital, a decontamination routine got the lighter fluid off her skin and a staff member washed her hair and scrubbed her back, she told Madison365.
“They had to pretty much scrub the (burnt) skin off,” she said. “Burn pain is something I can’t really describe.”
She has to have appointments every few days to repeat the procedure, she said.
Bernstein told Madison 365 she at first couldn’t believe what happened. She said she was “just driving her car and minding her own business” in the place where she grew up and had happy memories.
Since the Madison365 story came out, Bernstein’s family has asked the Boys and Girls Club of Dane County and its CEO Michael Johnson to publicly represent them as she heals from her trauma and injuries. She has asked people to support Black Lives Matter and other movements rather than receive financial support for her medical expenses, she told Madison365.