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White restaurant manager enslaved black man for years, federal prosecutors say

A white restaurant manager accused of enslaving and abusing a mentally disabled black man has been indicted by a federal grand jury in South Carolina on a charge of forced labor.

Federal prosecutors say Bobby Paul Edwards used “force, threats of force, physical restraint, and coercion” to compel John Christopher Smith to work as a buffet cook at J&J Cafeteria in Conway, S.C., for more than five years.

Edwards, 52, was arrested this week and pleaded not guilty in open court on Wednesday, shortly after prosecutors announced the indictment, records show.

The full title of the charge is “attempt to establish peonage, slavery, involuntary servitude or human trafficking.” It carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison and $250,000 in fines. If convicted, Edwards will have to pay restitution to Smith.

Edwards’s attorney Scott Bellamy didn’t immediately respond to a message seeking comment.

Though the indictment was unsealed, it remained inaccessible to the public as of Thursday morning. But details about Smith’s alleged enslavement were documented in a federal lawsuit civil attorneys filed on his behalf in late 2015.

Smith, a 39-year-old with a mild cognitive disability, had worked for more than two decades without issue at the J&J Cafeteria, washing dishes, busing tables and later cooking food at the folksy small town diner. But when Edwards took over as manager in 2010, Smith said, the job turned into a nightmare.

Edwards would force Smith to work from dawn until late into the night, seven days a week, with little or no pay, no benefits and no vacation time, Smith alleged. Some days he would leave so exhausted and weak he had to be carried home and “physically fed drink and food.”

Smith described Edwards like a slave driver. He said the manager would call him racial slurs, and threaten to “stomp” his throat and beat him “until people would not recognize him.”

Edwards also assaulted him regularly, sometimes taking Smith into the restaurant’s freezer or back office to keep others from noticing, the lawsuit said.

In one instance, Smith said, Edwards dipped a pair of tongs into hot frying grease and scalded the back of his neck. On another occasion, when Smith didn’t bring food out to the buffet fast enough, Edwards took Smith into the back of the restaurant and whipped him with a belt buckle, according to the complaint.

“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.

The combination of threats and actual abuse made Smith so afraid, the lawsuit said, “that he felt coming forward would be fruitless” and bring about “more aggravated abuse or even death.”

All the while, Smith lived in squalor behind the restaurant in a roach-infested apartment owned by Edwards, according to the complaint. Smith’s attorneys described the conditions there as “sub-human,” “deplorable” and “harmful to human health.”

Edwards allegedly told Smith that he had a bank account with more than $30,000 of his earnings, but Smith said he was never paid any of that money or given access to the account. The restaurant reported that Smith earned less than $1,000 per quarter, even though he was regularly working 18-hour days, according to the complaint.

The lawsuit accused Edwards and his brother, Ernest J. Edwards, the owner of the restaurant, of slavery, discrimination and labor violations. Both have denied wrongdoing.

Like Smith, waitresses at the J&J Cafeteria were reluctant to come forward because they feared Bobby Paul Edwards, according to Geneane Caines, an advocate for Smith who said her daughter-in-law worked at the restaurant.

“Customers that were going in there would hear stuff and they didn’t know what was going on, and they would ask the waitresses, and the waitresses were so scared of Bobby they wouldn’t tell them then what it was,” Caines told WMBF last year.

In October 2014, Caines reported the alleged abuse of Smith to authorities. Local police, the South Carolina Department of Social Services and the NAACP got involved soon after. When social workers checked on Smith, they found scars on his back. He was immediately placed in the custody of Adult Protective Services.

Edwards was arrested and charged with second-degree assault. That case is pending in state court.

In February of last year, attorneys for Smith dismissed Edwards from their lawsuit “without prejudice,” indicating that they were considering amending their complaint or seeking remedies in criminal court. Edwards’s brother and the restaurant are still named as defendants, records show.

In Wednesday’s announcement, prosecutors alleged Edwards held Smith captive from September 2009 to October 2014, an even longer period than Smith’s attorneys outlined in their lawsuit.

“Our client is very appreciative of the efforts put forth by the U.S. government in its investigation,” David Aylor, an attorney for Smith, told the Post and Courier Wednesday. “And he believes that ultimately, justice will be served.”

Smith told WMBF he was 12 years old when he started working at J&J Cafeteria, a squat brick building on a sleepy thoroughfare in Conway that serves Southern comfort food and traditional diner fare. He liked the job until Edwards took over, he told the station.

“I want him to go to prison,” he said, “and I want to be there when he go.”

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