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A South Carolina cafeteria manager was sentenced to 10 years in prison for forcing a mentally handicapped black man to work backbreaking — and unpaid — 18-hour shifts for roughly half a decade.
Bobby Paul Edwards, 54, pleaded guilty in June to one count of forced labor for coercing John Christopher Smith, an African-American employee with cognitive disabilities, to work approximately 120 hours a week without pay, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.
Edwards, the manager of J & J Cafeteria in Conway, about 15 miles northwest of Myrtle Beach, was also ordered to pay $272,952 in restitution to Smith.
Between 2009 and 2014, Smith endured a litany of beatings and psychological abuse while working backbreaking 18-hour shifts at the South Carolina cafeteria that he wasn’t paid for, authorities said.
“For stealing his victim’s freedom and wages, Mr. Edwards has earned every day of his sentence,” U.S. Attorney for the District of South Carolina Sherri A. Lydon said in a statement. “The U.S. Attorney’s Office will not tolerate forced or exploitative labor in South Carolina, and we are grateful to the watchful citizen and our partners in law enforcement who put a stop to this particularly cruel violence.”
The disabled man, who had worked at the restaurant for 23 years, was clobbered by Edwards with butcher knives, frying pans, spatulas and belt buckles. In one instance, he also had scalding grease applied to his neck, according to a criminal complaint obtained by Oxygen.com. Edwards also subjected Smith to racist tirades, frequently calling the man the “‘N’ word.”
“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 Civil Rights Division.
Social services were called to J & J Cafeteria on Oct. 10, 2014, after a concerned person reported Smith’s abuse. Authorities learned Smith had worked at the cafeteria for more than two decades. The abuse supposedly began five years prior, when Edwards took over as manager of the place.
Police said Smith worked from the time the cafeteria opened at 6 a.m every day, until it closed and cleaning was completed, usually anytime between 12:30 and 1:30 a.m.
“[Smith] worked these grueling hours at least six days each week,” the criminal complaint stated.
On Sundays, Smith typically put in 11 hours at the cafeteria. He was not given any breaks or days off, nor was he extended any health care or retirement benefits, police said. He wasn’t afforded sick days either, despite requiring to be “carried home” and “physically fed” some nights he worked.
Smith routinely feared for his life each time he arrived at work. Edwards, who pummeled Smith with his fists and common kitchen utensils, once threatened to “stomp” Smith’s throat. Another time, Edwards told Smith he would “beat” the “brains out of his head” to the point that “people would not recognize him.”
The attacks, he told detectives, would occur out of sight of other restaurant staff, typically in the freezer, cold locker, or restaurant’s back office. Afterwards, the man would be forced to return to work.
Edwards even once tortured Smith with boiling grease, scarring his neck.
“[Edwards] burned [Smith] by putting tongs into hot frying grease and then touching those hot tongs to [Smith’s] neck and exposed skin,” according to the criminal complaint.
The violent encounters were often accompanied by racial slurs. Edwards, investigators said, “repeatedly and habitually” called Smith the “‘N’ word.”
The owner’s brother, Ernest Edwards, was supposedly aware of the abuse and didn’t do anything to stop it, according to law enforcement.
But even during the few hours he had away from the hellish cafeteria, Smith was still a prisoner to his boss, who also managed the filthy, cockroach-infested apartment building Smith lived in — directly behind the restaurant.
“[Smith] lived in what can best be described as squalor,” the criminal complaint against Edwards stated.
Investigators described the apartment’s living conditions as “deplorable” and “subhuman.”
Apart from maintaining an iron grip on Smith’s work and personal life, Edwards also worked to distance the disabled man from his family through “lies and deceit.”
Authorities learned that Edwards told Smith he had opened a separate bank account in his name, where $30,000 in earnings had been deposited. Smith told investigators he was never given access to the alleged account.
"We were very relieved to see Mr. Edwards finally having to answer for his atrocious acts,” David Aylor, Smith’s lawyer, told Oxygen.com. “Justice was served this week and we appreciate all those that dedicated time and efforts to put him away for a substantial amount of time. His behavior and treatment of our client over an extended amount of time was inexcusable and inhumane.”
In state where slavery once flourished, the case’s optics were unnerving.
“Mr. Edward’s horrible behavior goes beyond the location as well as the race of our client,” he added. "What he did is scary and would inexcusable anywhere to anyone within the United States.”
Aylor said his client is still recovering from the trauma of working at Edwards’ cafeteria.
“Our client is doing well and moving on with his life day by day in an attempt to put the tragedies that occurred to him for so long behind him,” Aylor said.
A manager at J & J Cafeteria, which is still open in Conway, declined to comment.
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