The manager of a South Carolina restaurant has pleaded guilty to forcing a mentally disabled black buffet cook to work unpaid for more than 100 hours a week, according to federal officials.
Bobby Paul Edwards, a 53-year-old white male, admitted he used violence, threats and intimidation tactics to force John Christopher Smith, who is black, to work more than 100 hours a week without pay at Edwards’ Myrtle Beach buffet restaurant J&J Cafeteria.
The United States Department of Justice on Wednesday announced Edwards pleaded guilty to one federal count of forced labor.
In an interview with CNN affiliate WPDE last year, Smith said he started washing dishes and busing tables at J&J Cafeteria at age 12, but the alleged incidents of abuse began when Edwards became manager in 2009. The abuse continued through 2014. Smith is about 40 years old today.
“I wanted to get out of there a long time ago. But I didn't have nobody I could go to,” Smith told WPDE. “I couldn't go anywhere. I couldn't see none of my family.”
In 2014, a customer noticed scars on Smith’s body and called authorities. Then came a 2015 complaint, in which Smith alleged that Edwards beat him with a frying pan, burned him with grease-fryer-dipped tongs, beat him with his fists and his belt buckle and routinely used racial slurs while speaking to him, the Post and Courier reported.
The newspaper also said Smith was forced to live in a roach-infested apartment close by and was too exhausted to physically feed himself.
In the Justice Department’s statement, John Gore, acting assistant attorney general, said, “Human trafficking through forced labor can happen on farms, in homes, and as today’s case shows — in public places, such as restaurants. Edwards abused an African-American man with intellectual disabilities by coercing him to work long hours in a restaurant without pay.”
“We deny any allegations of slavery and abuse,” Edwards’ attorney, Scott Bellamy, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 2017, one day after Edwards surrendered to the FBI. “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.”
Bellamy pointed out that neither the indictment nor the federal charge contains the word “slavery,” The AJC previously reported.
But the indictment, which identifies Smith by his initials, JCB, said Edwards is charged under the U.S. Code section on “slavery, peonage and trafficking in persons.”
He faces up to 20 years in prison, a $250,000 maximum fine and mandatory restitution to Smith.
Officials at the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in Conway, South Carolina, had urged the court for tougher charges in 2014.
“We are talking about enslavement here,” Abdullah Mustafa, president of the local chapter of the NAACP, said at the time.
“This defendant abused a vulnerable victim, and today's guilty plea holds the defendant responsible for his criminal acts,” Sherri Lydon, the United States attorney for the District of South Carolina, told the New York Times.
Edwards’ sentencing date has not yet been scheduled.