CONWAY, S.C. - A white restaurant manager in South Carolina has been charged with enslaving a black buffet cook for at least five years, according to a federal indictment unsealed this week.
The cook, Christopher Smith, 39, alleges that he was forced to work up to seven days a week, often for 18 hours a day without breaks, brutally beaten and threatened repeatedly.
Bobby Paul Edwards, 52, is accused in the indictment of using “force, threats of force, physical restraint and coercion” to enslave Smith at J&J Cafeteria in Conway, S.C. Conway is just inland from Myrtle Beach.
Edwards was formally charged with “attempt to establish peonage, slavery, involuntary servitude or human trafficking.” He faces up to 20 years in prison if found guilty of the federal felony of “forced labor,” according to the U.S. attorney general’s Civil Rights Division. He also would have to pay up to a $250,000 fine and full restitution to Smith.
The attorney general notes that the indictment is “merely an accusation” and that Edwards is presumed innocent until proven otherwise.
Allegations of a brutal enslavement first emerged about two years ago in a civil suit filed on behalf of the cook. The suit, which also names Edwards’s brother, the restaurant’s owner, as a defendant, is pending.
The 2015 complaint alleged that Edwards beat Smith with a frying pan, burned him with tongs that Edwards had dipped into a grease fryer, beat him with his belt buckle and fists and routinely used racial slurs in speaking to him, according to The Post and Courier. Smith, who was paid a salary of less than $3,000, has an intellectual disability, the Post reported.
On one occasion, when Smith was too slow about restocking the buffet, Edwards took Smith into the back of the restaurant and beat him with his belt buckle, according to the Washington Post’s account of the lawsuit.
“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, according to the Post.
The Post and Courier said that Smith was forced to live in a roach-infested apartment near the restaurant and at times was so exhausted from working that someone had to feed him.
Smith told WMBF in Myrtle Beach in 2015 that he began washing dishes after school at J&J when he was 12 years old. He worked there for more than 20 years before Bobby Edwards became the manager in 2010.
Smith’s lawsuit says he never told anyone of the enslavement because he was afraid Edwards would kill him. The allegations came to light after a waitress told her mother-in-law of the abuse, and the woman went to state social workers.
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