Bobby Paul Edwards, a white South Carolinian restaurant manager, pleaded guilty Monday to abusing and enslaving a mentally challenged employee, federal prosecutors said.
Edwards, 53, pleaded guilty to one count of forced labor, admitting he used violence, threats, isolation and intimidation against a black man with an intellectual disability and forced him to work more than 100 hours per week without payment, acting assistant Attorney General John Gore of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division and U.S. Attorney Sherri A. Lydon of the South Carolina district said.
Edwards was the manager of J&J Cafeteria in Conway, South Carolina -- just outside of Myrtle Beach -- from 2009 to 2014, according to court documents. The victim, John Christopher Smith, started working at the restaurant when he was just 12 years old.
Over time, Edwards increased Smith’s responsibilities and stopped paying him. He used abusive language, threats, racial epithets and acts of violence, including beating him with a belt, punching him, hitting him with pots and pans and burning his back with hot tongs whenever Smith made mistakes or he wanted him to move faster, according to the Justice Department.
Smith told WMBF-TV in 2015 he used to like his job, which began as just washing dishes after school. He said he never reported the abuse because he was afraid.
“I want him to go to prison, and I want to be there when he go,” Smith told the news station.
Smith's advocate Geneane Caines, whose daughter-in-law reportedly works as a waitress at the restaurant, said some of J&J Cafeteria's customers began to get suspicious of the treatment of Smith, but the waitresses wouldn’t divulge any information because they were afraid of Edwards. Caines eventually contacted the authorities and took Smith to a local NAACP to seek help, WMBF reported.
According to a police report, Conway law enforcement officials escorted Smith from the restaurant in 2014. Edwards was arrested a month later, according to WMBF.
Edwards faces a maximum sentence of 20 years in a prison and a $250,000 maximum fine. He is also required to pay restitution to the victim, which will be determined at his sentencing hearing. A date has not yet been set.
“Human trafficking through forced labor can happen on farms, in homes, and as today’s case shows -- in public places, such as restaurants,” Gore said in a statement, adding that combating forced labor human trafficking “is one of the highest priorities of this Justice Department.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.