- A South Carolina restaurant owner was sentenced to 10 years in prison Thursday for abusing a mentally disabled employee and forcing him to work with no pay for years, prosecutors say.
- Bobby Paul Edwards, who owned J&J Cafeteria in Conway, South Carolina, pleaded guilty to one count of forced labor for "coercing an African-American man with an intellectual disability to work extensive hours at a restaurant for no pay," the Department of Justice said in a release.
- Chris Smith, who has a cognitive disability, said Edwards would abuse him and coerce him into doing over 100 hours of labor per week without pay.
- The Department of Justice described the abuse, including being beaten with a belt, fists, pots and pans. In one incident, Smith said Edwards dipped metal tongs into hot grease and burned his neck.
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A South Carolina restaurant owner was sentenced to 10 years in prison Thursday for abusing a mentally disabled employee and forcing him to work with no pay for years.
Bobby Paul Edwards, who owned J&J Cafeteria in Conway, South Carolina, pleaded guilty to one count of forced labor for "coercing an African-American man with an intellectual disability to work extensive hours at a restaurant for no pay," according to a press release from the Justice Department.
"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," Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband said in a statement. "The Department of Justice will continue to investigate, prosecute, and convict human traffickers involved in forced labor, seeking justice on behalf of their victims."
Chris Smith, who has a mild cognitive disability, said Edwards would coerce him into doing over 100 hours of labor per week without pay. The abuse included Edwards beating him with a belt, fists, and pots and pans, according to the Justice Department press release.
In one incident, Smith said Edwards dipped metal tongs into hot grease and burned his neck.
"This abusive enslavement of a vulnerable person is shocking," FBI special agent Jody Norris said in a statement. "The FBI is always vigilantly searching for these offenses and stands ready to bring perpetrators to justice and help victims reclaim their lives."
Smith said Edwards would also use racial slurs to belittle and demean him. Edwards would not allow Smith to see his family and forced him to stay in the kitchen or in a unit behind the restaurant when they would visit, local news station WPDE reported.
"I couldn't go anywhere," Smith told WPDE. "I couldn't see none of my family so that was that. 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."
Smith said he worked at the restaurant for 23 years, starting out as a 12-year-old dishwasher, according to WPDE.
"I wanted to get out of there a long time ago. But I didn't have nobody I could go to," he told WPDE.
Edwards pleaded guilty to the charge — fully titled as an "attempt to establish peonage, slavery, involuntary servitude or human trafficking" in June 2018. He initially pleading not guilty in 2017, The Washington Post reported.
The charge carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison, $250,000 in fines, and monetary restitution to the victim, according to The Post. Edwards was ultimately sentenced to 10 years in prison and ordered to pay $272,952.96 in restitution to Smith.
"For stealing his victim's freedom and wages, Mr. Edwards has earned every day of his sentence," South Carolina Attorney Sherri Lydon said in a statement. "The US 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."
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