Updated 01/26/12 – 9:30 p.m.

CHICAGO (CBS)  — An African-American teenager says he was attacked, strangled with a noose and racially taunted by three white youths because of his relationship with a suspect’s family member.

“I couldn’t breathe.  At one point, I was on the floor while they were choking me,” 17-year-old Joshua Merritt tells CBS 2’s Pamela Jones.

Merritt says the attack by three teens occurred at a December party because he a crush on the cousin of a boy who lives here.

“I was talking to a white girl,” he says.

The victim says the alleged ringleader of the attack, 18-year-old Matthew Herrmann, used to be his best friend.

victim Teen Charged With Hate Crime In Attack On Classmate

Joshua Merritt describes what he calls a racially motivated attack by three youths. (CBS)

Merritt says everyone at the party was just “hanging out” when Herrmann gave the order for the noose.

Police say the attack is being investigated as a hate crime. The report describes racially degrading taunting, including the use of the N-word, and the noose.

“I knew everything was serious and that I needed to get out of the house,” Merritt says.

Herrmann has been charged with a hate crime, unlawful restraint and misdemeanor battery. His alleged accomplices, who are younger, have been charged as juveniles, police said.

Near 100th place and Prospect where the crimes allegedly happened, neighbors say they feel racial tension. But they never thought they’d hear of anything like this where they live.

In another twist to the story, authorities say the hate crime happened in the Beverly home of a Cook County State’s Attorney’s employee.

To avoid a conflict of interest, the Illinois attorney general’s office has been asked to handle the case.

Watch & Listen LIVE