The assault took place early Wednesday morning when the woman was driving and stopped at a red light and “heard someone shout a racial epithet,” according to a police report of the incident.
The woman is not mentioned in the report, but a family spokesperson identified her as Althea Bernstein, a college student and a voluntary EMT.
“He looked and saw four men, all white. He says one used a spray bottle to spread a liquid on his face and neck, and then threw a burning lighter at him, causing the liquid to catch fire,” the report said, it was filed over the phone.
Bernstein then “put out the flames and eventually drove home,” the report said. “Her mother encouraged her to go to a hospital.”
Later Wednesday, Bernstein called 911 to report the incident, according to Michael Johnson, family spokesman and president and CEO of the Dane County Boys and Girls Club.
“Once it happened, I don’t even remember anything, but your brain still has that fight-or-flight response that takes care of you,” Bernstein told ABC’s “Good Morning America,” adding that he went to the emergency room. .
Bernstein has burn marks on his face and neck pain from the incident, Johnson said.
Police are working to obtain permission to access Bernstein’s hospital records, according to Madison Police spokesman Joel DeSpain. Investigators are also looking at surveillance footage to see if the incident was captured by the camera.
“Our department believes in the victims, and we took their statement and then we thoroughly investigated what they said happened to them,” DeSpain told CNN on Friday. “We believe this victim, and we are going to work with her and review all the video we can find.”
Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway released a statement saying the incident was “a horrible and absolutely unacceptable crime that I will not tolerate in Madison.”
“While we are still learning more about the details, current information suggests that this may have been a premeditated crime directed at people of color, making the incident even more disturbing,” Rhodes-Conway said. “I immediately contacted the police when I found out about the incident, asking them to use all available resources to pursue the perpetrators as quickly as possible.”
CNN’s Raja Razek and Jaide Timm-Garcia contributed to this report.