January 26, 2012 11:42AM
Teens accused of hate crime against Brother Rice student
BY CASEY TONER
The noose tightened around Joshua Merritt’s neck. He slipped two fingers under the rope to breathe.
His three alleged white tormentors, ages 16, 17, and 18, surrounded him and called him the N-word in the living room of a Beverly home. The 16-year-old who lived at the house, Merritt says, flashed his butterfly knife at the black Morgan Park resident.
“You’re under my control, now,” Merritt recalled him saying.
Now, 18-year-old Matthew Herrmann is facing felony hate crime charges for his role in the Dec. 23 attack on Merritt, 17, which allegedly took place at the home of a Cook County state’s attorney’s employee. The employee, whose home is in the 1600 block of West 100th Place, works in an administrative role and is the parent of one of the accused teens, state’s attorney’s spokesman Andy Conklin said Thursday.
To avoid any conflict of interest, the Illinois attorney general’s office has been asked to handle the 16-year-old’s prosecution, Conklin said.
Herrmann was charged as an adult with battery, unlawful restraint and hate crime earlier this month and had his bail set at $50,000. The two younger accused boys had yet to be charged.
The Attorney General’s office is reviewing the case against the 16-year-old, spokeswoman Robyn Ziegler said. The state’s attorney’s office is reviewing the case against the 17-year-old. Both would be tried in juvenile court, if charged.
Merritt, a senior at Brother Rice High School, said he was friends with Herrmann since his freshman year at Brother Rice. Herrmann was one class year older, but they were both in the anime and video game clubs and had a “trust with each other.”
Merritt said he knew the 17-year-old attended Brother Rice, but he didn’t know him well. The 16-year-old is a Morgan Park High School student, Merritt said.
He declined to disclose their names.
Brother Rice principal Jim Antos said the accused student from his school was “removed” Thursday following media reports and will not be returning.
The alleged hate crime occurred after Merritt was invited to hang out with Herrmann and his friends at the house in Beverly. He had been at the home last spring and knew the boy who lived there as well as his cousin, a white girl to whom Merritt had sent text and Facebook messages.
After being at the house about 10 minutes, Merritt says, Herrmann told the 16-year-old boy to “go get it,” and he returned with the noose. All three of the attackers helped slip the rope around his neck.
“I’m completely bewildered,” Merritt said. “I’m so confused and scared at this point.”
Merritt claimed he took the noose off and tried to flee through the kitchen door. The teens blocked his path and moved him back in the living room and put the rope back around his neck.
All four teens, including Merritt, left the house after the mother of the 16-year-old called, needing to meet up with him. When Merritt was walking to the bus stop, he said the boy ran up to him with his knife, threatened him, and told him to stop talking to his cousin.
“We are grateful that it didn’t escalate further, and that he made it home,” said William Merritt, Joshua’s father. “We were really upset and afraid for him.”
William Merritt said he was baffled by the attack because of his son’s friendship with Herrmann.
“You never know what’s going on in their minds and the hatred you may not see up front,” he said. “Everyone should have a good gentlemanly love for people instead of this hatred.”
Antos said Brother Rice had not taken action previously because none of the facts had been substantiated.
“The complete story of what happened did not unfold until (Wednesday) night,” Antos said.
Antos said a faculty meeting was held Thursday, and students were told during announcements that “what happened is a challenge to all of us. It was beyond the campus and it happened over the holiday. Some people will try to paint you with a broad brush.”
Antos said a dean was in contact with both the suspect’s family and the Merritts, although he was unsure whether the dean had contacted police directly. He said the school also was still trying to get a copy of the police report.
“We’re certainly shocked,” Antos said. “This doesn’t represent the character of our kids. Behavior like this is not tolerated. It never was. It never will be.”
Merritt, who is thinking about attending the University of Illinois at Chicago next year, said he felt safer now that one of his alleged attackers was kicked out of school. He was worried the boy might retaliate.
Wearing his Brother Rice crusaders jacket, Merritt defended the school and called it his “second home.”
“The people there are so supportive,” he said. “Even with this, it’s just one bad egg in the bunch.”