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Audio of call to dispatch details report of woman being set on fire

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MADISON, Wis. — A woman who reported a group of men tried to set her on fire last month in Madison said the incident “happened really fast,” according to the call she made to report the crime.

An audio file of the call was provided to Fox 47 through an open records request. Details from the call are consistent with those from an incident reported by Monona resident Althea Bernstein. However, Dane County Public Safety Communications staff removed personal identifiable information, such as the woman’s name and address, from the call. These edits are marked by several spots of silence in the audio file provided to Fox 47.

In the call, the woman tells police she is not able to remember the exact location where the attack happened, but said she was trying to get to University Avenue and was headed to Middleton. She reported being on a cross street near State Street and believes a Mexican restaurant was nearby.

“I heard a group of people yell the N-word and I turned my head. And they threw lighter fluid at me and then threw like a match or lighter at me,” the woman said on the call.

The woman told dispatchers she spent the night at the emergency room at UW Hospital and was directed to call police.

The call was made at 5:45 p.m. on June 24 as a non-emergency call. It ended at 5:49 p.m., with the dispatcher telling the woman that a Madison police officer or detective would be in touch. The dispatcher also informed the woman that Madison police were on “priority calls” that evening because they were “prepping to handle some hefty stuff.” Madison police responded to a number of violent demonstrations throughout the city during this week.

The Madison Police Department has an open hate crime investigation into the alleged assault of a biracial African American woman who told officers she was lit on fire.

Bernstein, who has given Fox 47 her permission to be identified, told police the incident happened while she was stopped at a red light in downtown Madison around 1 a.m. on June 24.

Bernstein, 18, of Monona, told police she had her driver’s side window down when a group of white men yelled a racial epithet and sprayed a liquid on her face and neck. She said the men threw a lighter at her which caused the liquid to ignite.

Bernstein told police she patted out the flames and drove home where her mother encouraged her to go to the hospital, according to the release. Hospital staff believed the liquid was lighter fluid and treated her for burns.

Investigators are looking at surveillance images to see if the assault was captured on camera.

During an interview last month, Madison’s interim police Chief Vic Wahl called the case a “high priority” for the department. The Federal Bureau of Investigation has also joined the investigation.

“Madison police continue to work the case with the assistance of the FBI,” MPD spokesman Joel DeSpain said on Thursday.


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