Restaurant manager gets 10 years in prison for enslavement of black employee with disability

A white South Carolina man has been sentenced to 10 years in prison for forcing a black man with intellectual disabilities to work at his restaurant without pay for years, authorities said Wednesday.

Bobby Paul Edwards, 54, pleaded guilty to one count of forced labor for forcing Christopher Smith to work “for more than 100 hours a week for no pay," at the J&J Cafeteria he managed in Conway, a Justice Department statement said.

Edwards was also ordered to pay nearly $273,000 in restitution to Smith.

“It is almost inconceivable that instances of forced labor endure in this country to this day – a century and a half after the Emancipation Proclamation,” said Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband of the DOJ Civil Rights Division.

Federal prosecutors said Edwards abused Smith physically and emotionally and intimidated him for several years while working at the eatery. He beat him with belts, fists, pots and pans when Smith made a mistake or didn't work fast enough, they said.

Bobby Paul Edwards.

Bobby Paul Edwards. (Horry County Sheriff’s Department)

“On one occasion, he dipped metal tongs into hot grease and burned the victim’s neck. The defendant further yelled at the victim and used racial slurs to belittle and demean him,” the DOJ statement said.

In a 2017 interview with WPDE-TV, Smith said he wanted to leave the toxic environment, but had nowhere to turn.

"I couldn't go anywhere. I couldn't see none of my family so that was that," he said. "That's the main basic thing I wanted to see was my mom come see me. I couldn't see my mom ... and I couldn't talk to nobody."

The Justice Department said a concerned resident reported Edwards to authorities, prompting Smith to be removed from the restaurant in October 2014. He was initially charged with misdemeanor assault, but a local NAACP chapter pushed for more serious charges to reflect the severity of the offense.

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Smith had worked at the restaurant since he was 12 years old, first as a dishwasher, WMBF-TV reported. The news station said the restaurant is owned by Edwards's brother.

Sherri A. Lydon, the U.S. Attorney for South Carolina, said her office will not tolerate forced or explosive labor.

“For stealing his victim’s freedom and wages, Mr. Edwards has earned every day of his sentence,” she said.