CONWAY, S.C. – A South Carolina restaurant owner was sentenced Wednesday to 10 years in prison for enslaving and torturing a black man with intellectual disabilities.
Bobby Paul Edwards, 54, pleaded guilty in June 2018 to one count of forced labor for coercing Chris Smith into working extensive hours at his restaurant for no pay, the Department of Justice said in a press release. In addition to prison time, Edwards was ordered to pay Smith more than $272,000 in restitution.
Smith told WPDE that he started working at J&J Cafeteria as a dishwasher when he was 12 years old. He said the abuse started when Edwards took over as manager and lasted for 17 years.
According to court documents, Edwards would beat Smith using a belt, fists, and pots and pans. On one occasion, Edwards allegedly dipped metal tongs in hot grease and burned Smith’s neck. Additionally, Edwards would hurl racial slurs at Smith to demean him, the documents said.
According to a federal lawsuit filed on Smith’s behalf, customers sometimes heard Smith being beaten and screaming for his life.
Smith said he was forced to live in a “cockroach-infested” room behind the restaurant and made to work 18-hour shifts without payment. Edwards’s family, who also ran the restaurant, reportedly did nothing to stop the abuse.
The lawsuit further claims that Smith was denied breaks, was given no days off, and was denied health insurance or other benefits. Edwards allegedly told Smith that he was putting money into an account for him, but no such account ever existed.
“I wanted to get out of there a long time ago. But I didn’t have nobody I could go to,” Smith told reporters in 2017.
In 2014, a on-and-off employee and frequent customer of the restaurant noticed scars on Smith’s body and called for help.
“Chris came out of the kitchen and put some food down on the bar," Geneane Caines told WPDE. “He leaned one way over and, when he did, I could see [a scar] on his neck.”
Caines contacted Abdullah Mustafa, President of the Conway chapter of the NAACP. They were able to provide help for Smith, and Caines allowed him to stay in her home for two months.
“For stealing his victim’s freedom and wages, Mr. Edwards has earned every day of his sentence,” said U.S. Attorney Sherri A. Lydon for the District of South Carolina. “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.”