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Authorities in Wisconsin, as well as the FBI, have launched an investigation into a possible hate crime after a biracial teen says she was lit on fire by a man who hurled racial slurs at her.
Althea Bernstein, an 18-year-old college student, was driving her car early Wednesday morning in the Madison area when she stopped at a red light; it was then that she allegedly heard someone yell out a "racial epithet," according to an incident report obtained by CNN. When she looked up, she said she saw four white men, one of whom then used a spray bottle to douse her face and neck with an unidentified liquid, and then threw a "flaming lighter" at her, which caused the liquid on her skin to catch fire, the report states.
Bernstein put out the fire and made her way back home, where her mother suggested that she go to the hospital, according to CBS News. Once there, she was treated for burns, and hospital staff speculated that it was likely lighter fluid that she had been doused with, the outlet reports.
The teen called 911 to report the incident later that day.
Speaking to "Good Morning America" on Friday, Bernstein described being deeply affected by the attack.
"I haven't really slept and I don't have an appetite, so it's just — I don't want anyone to ever feel like this," she said. She went on to say that she does not remember much about what happened, just that her "fight or flight" response kicked in after the attack and helped her get home safely.
Authorities are investigating the incident as a hate crime and are working on obtaining surveillance footage and photos in order to ascertain if the assault was caught on camera, a spokesperson for the Madison Police Department told CNN.
"Our department believes victims, and we take their statement and then thoroughly investigate what they said happened to them," Joel DeSpain told the outlet on Friday. "We believe this victim, and we are going to work with her and review all the video we can find."
Madison Area Crime Stoppers announced on Thursday that they are offering a $5,000 reward for any information that leads to an arrest and conviction of those responsible for the attack.
One day after Bernstein was attacked, Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway released a statement calling the assault a "violent racially-motivated hate crime" that is "completely 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," Rhodes-Conway said. She added later, "I will do everything in my power to help support and protect people in Madison and quickly address any criminal activity that threatens our safety."
Bernstein also has the support of Duchess of Sussex Meghan Markle, who, after learning of the attack, called the teen on the phone and spoke with her for 40 minutes, Channel 3000 reports. The two women spoke about the importance of self-care, according to Michael Johnson, the CEO of Boys & Girls Clubs of Dane County, who has been acting as the family's spokesperson, according to the outlet.
Markle also advised Bernstein to avoid social media and the negative comments she may find there, Johnson said. Markle's husband, Prince Harry, also joined in the call for around 10 minutes, according to Johnson.
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