FBI Joins Probe After Black Madison Woman Set on Fire in Racist Attack
Althea Bernstein, 18, suffered burns to her face and neck early Wednesday morning in an alleged hate crime committed by four white men. The FBI is investigating. (Photo provided)

Family spokesman tells UpNorthNews she’s “resilient, smart, and forgiving young lady” who is “doing better.”

The Madison woman who suffered burns to her face and neck after four white men allegedly sprayed lighter fuel on her and then threw a lighter through her open car window early Wednesday morning said she “hasn’t really slept or had an appetite” since the violent attack.

“I don’t want anyone to ever feel like this,” said Althea Bernstein, an 18-year-old Black woman, in an exclusive interview Friday with Good Morning America.

The attack is being treated as a hate crime by the Madison Police Department. Spokesman Joel DeSPain told Madison365 that the Federal Bureau of Investigation has joined the investigation due to the “egregious” nature of the assault and the national attention the case is receiving. 

Bernstein is an EMT who is studying to be a paramedic at Madison College. In the television interview, she said she does not remember much about what happened but “your brain still has that fight or flight response that takes care of you,” she said. She drove to her house, called her mom, and then drove herself to the emergency room.

“It is definitely a learning opportunity. I am very hopeful that these men see all the responses and they know that they hurt me and that this is something that will affect me for a while,” Bernstein said. “I really hope they choose to improve themselves.”

Althea Bernstein says she was approached by four white men while in her car at a stoplight in downtown Madison early Wednesday morning. They shouted a racial epithet at her, sprayed her with lighter fluid and then threw a lighter in the car, she said.

Bernstein was attacked while in her car, stopped at a red light in downtown Madison. 

“This is a horrifying and absolutely unacceptable crime that I will not tolerate in Madison,” Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway said in a statement Thursday. “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.”

Around the same time she was attacked, officers were responding to nearby incidents of protesters removing two statues from the Capitol grounds and breaking windows at the Capitol, a fire that started at the City-County Building after a molotov cocktail was thrown through a window, and an assault against Sen. Tim Carpenter, D-Milwaukee, who was violently attacked trying to reach his car parked outside the Capitol.

Michael Johnson, president and chief executive officer of the Boys and Girls Club of Dane County, has been asked to be the spokesman for Bernstein and her family. Johnson said she has requested privacy and time to heal.

On Friday morning, Johnson told UpNorthNews that Bernstein is “doing better” and described her as a “resilient, smart, and forgiving young lady.”

Johnson said as soon as he was contacted by her family he reached out to the mayor and Madison police chief. He said the mayor responded within 10 minutes and the police chief called immediately afterwards. 

“I am confident they will be responsive. They reached out to the family right away,” Johnson said Friday. “I am confident they are on top of things.”

When asked if he was surprised by what happened to Bernstein, Johnson said that “unfortunately, I’m not.”

Althea Bernstein talks with Michael Johnson and others on a recent zoom call. Johnson described her as a “resilient, smart, and forgiving.” (Photo provided)

“Our country is so divided right now. There are so many people on the left and the right that are fanning the flames of hate,” he said. “Our country, our city and our state need collective leadership. So I’m not surprised.”

He said racism is a difficult issue to discuss but more people, specifically white men, need to start speaking out when incidents like this occur. 

“There are a lot of people that are quiet right now, and I don’t know why. I think some of them feel if they speak out it will put them in an uncomfortable position,” Johnson said. “I think it is messy and uncomfortable to talk about race issues, but I would like more white men, white business men, and more faith leaders to start speaking up.”

Anyone with leads about the incident is being asked to contact Madison Area Crime Stoppers at 608-266-6014.

The Bernstein family has requested that donations be made in her name to the Boys and Girls Club or to the Paws & Reflect Farm.