A white restaurant owner admitted to enslaving a black man. He got 10 years in prison

Bobby Paul Edwards of Conway, S.C. (Horry County Sheriff’s Department)

John Christopher Smith initially liked working at J & J Cafeteria in Conway, S.C., where he was hired when he was 12 years old.

For about two decades, Smith washed dishes, bused tables and cooked food at the small-town diner without issue. That all changed around 2009, authorities say, when Bobby Paul Edwards took over as daily manager and enslaved Smith at the restaurant for five years.

By means of physical violence, threats and intimidation, Edwards coerced Smith into working more than 100 hours per week without pay.

The abuse and threats were so severe that Smith, who is black, was too afraid to speak up or go to authorities. He was freed when someone notified police in 2014. In an interview with an NBC affiliate the following year, Smith said he wanted to see Edwards go to prison.

On Thursday, the Justice Department announced that Edwards, 54, had been sentenced to 10 years in prison and ordered to pay Smith nearly $300,000 in restitution in a case federal authorities have likened to “abusive enslavement.”

“The defendant pleaded guilty on June 4, 2018, 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 Justice Department said in a news release.

“For stealing his victim’s freedom and wages, Mr. Edwards has earned every day of his sentence,” Sherri A. Lydon, U.S. attorney for the District of South Carolina, 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.”

Edwards became the daily manager of J & J Cafeteria in 2008, according to court documents. The following year, he stopped paying Smith and moved him into an apartment attached to the restaurant. Between September 2009 and October 2014, Edwards physically abused and threatened Smith when he felt the man was working too slowly or had done something wrong on the job.

In one instance, when Smith failed to bring chicken to the buffet by a certain time, Edwards “dipped metal tongs into hot grease and then placed them against [Smith’s] neck, resulting in a burn that was treated immediately by other employees,” according to records. On other occasions, Edwards whipped him with a belt, punched him and assaulted Smith with pots and pans, leaving him and other employees too terrified to comeforward.

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Categories: US