A white restaurant manager in South Carolina has been charged with enslaving a black buffet cook for five years, according to a federal indictment unsealed this week.
The cook, Christopher Smith, 39, alleges that he was forced to work up to seven days a week, often for 18 hours a day without breaks, brutally beaten and threatened repeatedly, according to a separate civil suit filed in the matter.
Bobby Paul Edwards, 52, is accused in the indictment of using “force, threats of force, physical restraint and coercion” to enslave Smith at J&J Cafeteria in Conway, S.C. Conway is just inland from Myrtle Beach.
Edwards surrendered to the FBI on Wednesday, waived a bond hearing for now and was jailed. He faces up to 20 years in prison if found guilty of the federal felony of “forced labor.”
“We deny any allegations of slavery and abuse,” Edwards’ attorney, Scott Bellamy, told the AJC Thursday. “We don’t believe there was any slavery involved. That word — in the climate we’re in in this country, quite frankly — makes it even more of a story.”
He noted that neither the indictment nor the federal charge contains the word “slavery.”
The indictment, which identifies Smith only by his initials, JCB, says Edwards is charged under the U.S. Code section on “slavery, peonage and trafficking in persons.”
It says Edwards used force, threats and intimidation to “cause JCS to believe that, if he did not perform such labor and services, he would suffer serious harm and physical restraint.”
The indictment is brief and does not contain details of the Smith’s alleged treatment by Edwards.
Allegations of a brutal enslavement first emerged about two years ago in a civil suit filed against the restaurant. The suit, which names Edwards’ brother, J&J’s owner, as a defendant, is pending.
The 2015 complaint alleged that Bobby Paul Edwards beat Smith with a frying pan, burned him with tongs that Edwards had dipped into a grease fryer, beat him with his belt buckle and fists and routinely used racial slurs in speaking to him, according to the Post and Courier in Charleston.
On one occasion, when Smith was too slow about restocking the buffet, Edwards took Smith into the back of the restaurant and beat him with his belt buckle, according to the Washington Post’s account of the lawsuit.
“Plaintiff was heard crying like a child and yelling, ‘No, Bobby, please!’ After this beating, Defendant Bobby forced Plaintiff to get back to work,” the complaint read, according to the Post.
The Post and Courier said that Smith was forced to live in a roach-infested apartment near the restaurant and at times was so exhausted from working that someone had to feed him.
Attorney Bellmany said Thursday that his client, although he is the subject of numerous allegations in the lawsuit, is not named as a defendant in the action.
J&J Cafeteria appeared to be open Thursday. A woman answering the phone at noon said no one at J&J was available to comment on the matter. “This was news to all of us yesterday, after he was arrested,” she said. She added that there would be no comment and hung up.
Bellamy, who has practiced law in Conway for nearly three decades, said he will ask the court for a bond hearing within the week. He noted that Edwards has been facing state assault charges for nearly three years. He said that case, in which Smith was the alleged victim, prompted the federal government to begin investigating. The state case is still pending.
Smith told WMBF in Myrtle Beach in 2015 that he began washing dishes after school at J&J when he was 12 years old. He worked there for more than 20 years when the alleged abuse began in 2009. He says it continued through 2014.
In the interview with WMBF, Smith said, "I want him to go to prison, and I want to be there when he go.”
Smith’s lawsuit says he never told anyone of the enslavement because he was afraid Edwards would kill him. The allegations came to light after a waitress told her mother-in-law of the abuse, and the woman went to state social workers.
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